All Things Are Born to Change Their Shapes
by Jennifer Martelli
Harbor Publishing, 2023
Jennifer Martelli knows things: hidden truths she reveals through repeated images and themes in her latest book, All Things Are Born to Change Their Shapes. Many of these motifs have to do with violence perpetrated against women, and the poems reference Greek mythology, witchcraft, folklore, and popular culture to evidence the persistence of this violence and of its dismissal.
The book takes its title from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and, in the title poem, a set of sterling silverware in its velvet box becomes a metaphor for women trapped and punished simply because of their sex: “Not one of these forks can move now. They have neither arms nor mouths.” Martelli references Ovid’s tales in many poems, but always in a way that brings them into the present and infuses them with her own feminist point of view. “A Brown Wren Perched in a Laurel Tree,” for example, alludes to the fates of Callisto, Daphne, and Danae, all violated by Zeus and then punished for his violation. You don’t have to be familiar with Greek mythology, however, to understand the import of these poems, for the deity in “A Brown Wren Perched in a Laurel Tree” is referred to not as Zeus but as “God,” and the poet’s choice of that terminology brings this violence into our contemporary world.
Martelli’s poems take their impetus not only from Greek mythology but also from a wide range of cultural references, for example, the story of Black Phillip and Thomasin from the movie The Witch, novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Tess of the D’Ubervilles, and archeological finds such as the discovery of a nun’s bones walled up in a Scottish abbey. As with her choice of the word “God,” this broad spectrum of allusions has the effect of erasing time, as if all these abuses are happening simultaneously. In addition, the poet’s homage to her literary foremothers—six nods to Sylvia Plath, one to Anne Sexton––intensifies this effect as well as placing her own poems in the context of other truth telling women.
Although not all these poems utilize cultural allusion, all are steeped in and speak frankly of the female world of estrus, pregnancy, lactation, caregiving, and all involve metaphorical transformation. In “2 AM Feeding,” for example, the poet becomes “a cigarette left dangling on the porch rail.” In “Oak and Moon,” a woman grows antlers while in “Sacrifice” the speaker herself becomes a doe. These metaphors extend from the personal to the overtly political. For instance, “America (as a Gigantic Woman)” depicts the nation itself as a crime scene with the chalked figure of a gigantic woman at its center.
Certainly, many of the tropes Martelli employs throughout this collection call attention to misogyny, but these women are not mere victims. They have their own fierce agency. The speaker concludes “Owl and Bones” by saying: “But look: something in me takes things in quiet talons, swoops, /leaves whole bones, and once, the long vertebrae of a snake.” Similarly, in “Winter Is for Women,” the Queen of Night bulbs who “…grip their toxin/and beauty in a tight fist, know exactly/what they’re capable of.”
I’ve long admired Jennifer Martelli’s poetry, not just her individual poems and her original voice, but also the way she organizes her books into a cohesive whole by weaving repeating imagery and themes throughout each collection. In her previous book, Queen of Queens, pearls are one of the images that knit the poems together. All Things Are Born to Change Their Shapes uses recurring images of gigantic women, ghosts, snakes, waves, and birds, particularly owls sacred to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, to remind us we are in a realm where the supernatural is a present as the so-called real. Striking individual images, as well repeating motifs, work to establish and maintain this collection’s tone. Two sisters’ eyes are “as black as the jumpsuit of an assassin” (“Killer Pussies”). In another poem sections of oranges are “pulled apart like small bloody lungs, each an aspirated sigh” (“Inversals”). Every word, every line pulls its weight. Martelli never lets up. Each poem, then, shapes or changes our reading of subsequent poems just as the book’s title promises. By showing us how things change their shapes, Martelli reveals the shadows our actions and stories create, the shapes behind the shapes we see. At the start of Louise Gluck’s persona poem “Circe’s Power” from Meadowlands, Circe says “I never turned anyone into a pig. / Some people are pigs; I make them/look like pigs.” In All Things Are Born to Change Their Shapes, Martelli herself acts a kind of Circe. Reading this book will change the shape of the way you view the world.