by Jennifer Militello
Tupelo Press, 2016
Dense and daring, A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments is the third collection of poems by award-winning author Jennifer Militello. The back cover blurb employs metaphors of weaving and thread. The front cover displays fiber art by Julia Wright: a transparency of fabric on fabric, here thick and there loose, here ruffled, there torn, constellated with holes looking like planets. Made of natural matter, alive, it evokes earthy, antique, sylvan, feral feelings.
In a blog entry for the North American Review—published as an addendum to her poem “A Letter to the Coroner in the Voice of Marian Parker,” Militello explains how the story of a twelve-year-old girl—kidnapped, murdered and maimed in 1927—became the centerpiece of her newly completed manuscript. Rather a point of fugue, where all lines unavoidably converge.
Ten poems, variously inspired by the horrifying episode, constitute the mid-section of the book, which consists of three parts linked by a fragile yet penetrating continuo: prose fragments addressed to ‘Dear B’ (Beloved?), more journal than letters, more Ouija board than missives—a pervasive, disembodied voice that can only belong, we feel, to the deceased. The unnamed author of those unfinished/un-begun communications starts ‘small’, yet ‘one’, soon to dissolve into ‘us’, multitude, chorus, murmur.
If the entire collection is a thorough meditation on life-and-death, approached from a variety of angles, the first section seems rooted into the burgeoning zone of the uncreated, still suspended between the impulse of self-defining and the horror of it. Myths inhabit these poems—mostly female: Diana, the hunting goddess (rites of passage with girls in bearskins come to mind), Eurydice wandering the underworld, Little Red Riding Hood’s Grandma, emerged from the guts of the wolf that has gulped her alive. “A Dictionary of Having Been Prey in the Voice of the Grandmother”—poignant, unexpected, subversive—previews themes of the core section, easing their rawness within the fabulist setting. It unveils the collusion of all characters of the tale, the entwined selves of child and crone, devoured and devouring, hunter and beast. Their limbs have been mismatched, then patched into a new entity loaded with too much wisdom, wary of resurrection, teetering at the edge of existence—not too sure of its full viability. The last poem of this section, “A Gospel of the Human Condition”, solidifies such feeling—as if nature in its whole were spying at the borders of humanity, mapping a cartography of wounds, foreseeing a long Odyssey, noticing unpreparedness. “Some mechanism in our hearts fails.” “The voyages mine through our walking.” “Ourselves at the periphery. Begotten, not made.”
The mid-section consists of three poems in the murdered girl’s persona, others digging into the mind-body of the perpetrator, the sociopath, his imagined lover, others diving into the destructive impulse as if itself a voice. Myth and nature pale out, briefly giving way to a condensed nudity: the impact of aggressor and victim, the point of entanglement, identification, identity. Here existence and non-existence indent, biting deep into each other—briefly, I said, with a striking barrenness, yet non-lasting, because no strict antithesis is stated between life and death. No clear cuts are marked between pre-human, human, post human statuses, only the strain of travelling a labyrinthine path is witnessed, with opposite ends unmeshed. Woven—as for the cover art. As for the recurrent imagery of baskets, maybe standing for our bodies in their inconsistency—fragile, yet holding a complexity aspiring to survival. Maybe evoking ribcages, loosely wrapping hearts.
The last section of the book is about vanishing—circling back to a primitive state of indefinite multiplicity, but with a different consistency. Whereas “before life” was bubbling with cells, thick with wood, plant, skin, stone and strata, “after life” is sandy, watery, aerial. Myths inhabit this zone, mostly male—Icarus and Ulysses, heroes of trespassing and disorientation, sweet if daring figures of loss. Echoes of global decay, and hints of apocalypses are perceptible. As the last poem of the first section peeked—skeptically—at the frontiers of individual, chronological life, the three last poems of the book (Dictionaries of the Dead, of Perishing, of the Afterlife) scan eternity from a living point of view. They betray, of course, puzzlement and caution. Not terror, as those threads of fate have been so well knitted by now, they have shredded their thorns. After all, they have become familiar. Exorcised, purified.–Toti O’Brien