Flinch of Song
by Jennifer Militello
Tupelo Press 2009
Reviewed by Dustin Hellberg
Cut and Paste
One of my teachers from Iowa gave us a good way to beat writer’s block. Take a poem you like and a novel you like. Cut out all the nouns, verbs and adjectives from the poem. Go through the novel and write out all the verbs and nouns and adjectives that strike your fancy. Put them in a hat. Draw them out; insert into appropriate slots and voila, you’ve got a poem.
Too often, Jennifer Militello’s new book, Flinch of Song, reminds me of that exercise. Yes, the modern world is a random cavalcade of images and surfaces, facades and many-faceted gew-gaws. Flinch of Song is so disjunctive and quiet, sometimes, that it’s a sort of white noise on the page. It’s a good distraction for a poem or two, but page by page I hear that same ring, a kind of heavily-worked randomness fenced in by its four sections.
Each of its four sections is titled “Manifestation.” Each section is then sequentially subtitled, “The Museum of Being Born”; “Dark, Godless Reactions”; “Identity Narrative”; and finally “The Burning Room.” Taken in this order, they refer to the life cycle, I’m guessing.
Take a line from the proem “Manifestation”: “The world is the jawbone of where we cannot go.” Taken literally, one gets the sense of earth/heaven and jaw/skull. The earth will eat us, eventually, etc etc. This is a line I might be persuaded to trust were there any more causal relationship in the rest of the poem to further the metaphor. It’s a good line, and seems one that would warrant high praise in a workshop environment.
But therein lies the problem. She goes on in the next line to say, “The snow has the embroider of calm dogs lying,/ has you fallen long like rope among the flowers./ Its briar patch of handmade paper expresses/ the blankness of thousands. Its fire, a hand/ that hungers unlike anything, its bloodstream/ spoken like a torture.” The snow’s hand is fire and it has a bloodstream that speaks like torture. Obviously, one must resist the temptation to read literally, but even a figurative reading clamors for “L’art pour l’art” while lacking the conviction of declaration.
I can hear the workshop class comments about poetry like this: “I like it, but I don’t get it.” “I really liked reading this poem out loud. My cats liked it too.” “This poem has hints of Surrealism and Lorca that careen into mid- to late-twentieth century European poetry via Montale and Bonnefoy, and is sprinkled liberally with Dickinsonian phrasing.” The last of these comments is actually true. The lines feel a little too scoured, and certainly look so. Abstract association and metaphor can lead to fine music; here, the randomness performs a kind of unnatural rigidity – a collage of pefect squares and circles fenced off from one another.
There is much to openly admire in this book. By the third and forth section, you’ll begin to flinch a little; the poems begin to buck, to get more physical; the words become sharper as the tone becomes more insistent. But it only almost constitutes a surreal mapping of what Berryman called “the middle ground between things and the soul.” In the end the culmination of effects and sound and ‘’strange-ing’ doesn’t compute. Should you try to press much past the oft-gentle lilt of the language’s surface, you will not find the depth or breadth of thought that could make this Poetry instead of a collection of poems.