The Queen of Queens
by Jennifer Martelli
Bordighera Press, 2022
In “Cisoria,” Jennifer Martelli writes:
The finger rest and the finger ring: wings
pivoting on the steel heart of a fat screw.
My friend once asked me: don’t you think scissors
kind of look like angels? if you open them?
Outside, the extra ashy Lenten light: crucifixions
in the sky, flying things. Perhaps I’ll cut and steal
forsythia branches hanging over my backyard fence.
Here are the roots of scissors: the leaves
of a plant; the tooth of a comb; the cut and the strike.
One of the many joys of Martelli’s collection is its attention to morphology. To delight in these poems is to perceive anew the shapes of objects domestic (scissors, a comb), celestial (the moon), gemological (pearls), etymological (words and letters), and symbolic (a pentacle). The cover image, Diana Torje’s Pearls of Light, is an apt preface, as is the epigraph from Sally Wen Mao’s “Nucleation,” which notes that women “wear the trauma of other creatures around their necks, in an attempt to put a pall on their own….” Martelli dwells in these shape-shifting netherworlds of multiple meaning, where one creature’s trauma can be another’s decoration—and scissors, beheld in a certain slant of light by a certain set of eyes, can resemble supernatural beings.
Fans of the 1980s will especially cherish these poems. “Madonna, Triptych, 1984” and “The Challenger” span a spectrum from sensual pleasure to unspeakable tragedy; four other poems have “1984” in their titles, while three cite Geraldine Ferraro and others refer to Ronald Reagan. Importantly, Martelli excels at unearthing tropes that transcend the trends of this ten-year span. The epigraph of “Questions for the Electorate” references a Ferraro quote from 1984, yet the poem itself is a frighteningly prescient presaging of the present post-Roe moment:
Can I rule as a monolith?
Can I rule as a woman who’s had not one but two,
two abortions? And still is not sad?
Can I rule as a woman who is not sad at all?
Can we drape the monolith with pearls: chunky fake gems?
Can we polish its flat dark marble surface until it shines
like the tombstones in the Italian cemetery?
You need not have lived through the 1980s to appreciate those lines. But there are layers to The Queen of Queens that you’ll appreciate more if ‘80s references are second nature to you. “Why I Began Writing About Vice Presidential Candidate, Geraldine Ferraro” was one of my favorites, not only because of the way it turns an undergrad’s sexual experience into a retrospective lament for youthful yearning, but also because I have a Pavlovian response—usually in the form of singing, dancing, or crying—to the synth-bubbly opening notes of “Flashdance…What a Feeling” by Irene Cara, which was featured on the soundtrack of the 1983 film Flashdance. The poem also includes a shout-out to Jennifer Beals, who starred in the movie, and a signature line from “Maniac” by Michael Sembello, another song from the soundtrack. The film’s mixture of song and dance, along with the headstrong heroine played by Beals, inspire the speaker to the point where she notes that the theater is “next to the old domed temple / they turned into an observatory…”
Martelli’s “I” contains a multiverse of multitudes: The speakers of her poems engage in conventional time travel, flashing back “over three decades,” harking to the pop culture and politics of the 1980s—and they also time-travel through space and matter, not content to limit themselves to earthbound realms or observations. In “Forgetting,” the final poem in the collection, the speaker is far from the cinema or the freshman-year tryst:
I am a monolingual orphan ashamed of my tongue,…
I am the gap between those strong teeth that stayed rooted…
I am the conversation about golden Boscs…
I am the bone buttons on a gray cardigan…
I am the crown of one Neapolitan cypress too shy
to touch the crown of the other.
After the period at the end of a staccato
sentence, I am the long breath through the lips,
the double space no one here uses anymore.
It’s an extraordinary ending to this poem and this collection, especially when you consider the usual context for a phrase like “end of a sentence.” There is a casting off here, a coming to grips with the fullest fledges of adulthood, the ones that come when you recognize you’ve lost your innocence without losing all of your anger—or idealism. An earlier poem, “When Was My Anger Conceived?” offers several possibilities regarding the origins of such anger: “The summer of assassinations?” “The summer of my menarche?” and “The summer of my first abortion?” That first-abortion summer, we later learn, was 1984—and it is quite moving for the reader to consider whether the pregnancy in question resulted from the Flashdance tryst. More moving still are the speaker’s recollections of that abortion, which echo out to this day, nearly forty years later, like an advanced early warning:
The clinic three stops down
from my dorm, three quick stops
on the Green Line, and one shot
there yet but escorts needed, one pink
set of rosaries flung at my face.
That year, 1984, my aunt said she wouldn’t vote
for anything that menstruated, could get pregnant,
could bear a child.