Let us (not) make a bond of love: Jennifer Militello’s The Pact

In her newest collection, award-winning poet and memoirist Jennifer Militello confronts obsession, intimacy, and abuse. Through love poems inspired by such disparate spaces as a British art museum and the reptile house of a local zoo, poems comparing a romantic affair to the religious cult at Jonestown and a mother’s role to a Congolese power figure bristling with nails, The Pact offers an indictment against affection and a portent against zeal. This book places pleasure alongside pain, even as it delivers Militello’s trademark talent for innovation and ritualization of the strange.

The Pact integrates a bunch of complex metaphors for love, from a military general to the madness and death of Jonestown to reptiles. Would you say your view of human affection and connection is overall a hopeful one or a cynical one?

For me, it is a pragmatic one. But maybe pragmatism can resemble cynicism via the apotheosis of love.

I believe in extreme love. Maybe the way I was loved set a damage timer on my heart. I expect to be loved a certain way. I anticipate that love will go wrong. I’m not sure it’s realistic or fair to anyone to imagine that love can go ‘right’ for a lifetime. I am only comfortable with love in certain incarnations, and yet they may not be the most healthy. I am both extremes. I have hope and tenderness and openness, but I also eat men (women? children?) like air.

I continue to be surprised by how many of the cultural stories fed to us from our very first years are framed around romantic love being the primary purpose and fulfillment in life, especially for women. I realize more and more that the cultural training for men and women differs. That women are the audiences for this love propaganda, while men are taught to rely on their own strengths. Boys get action figures, girls are given dolls. I am surprised by the degree to which our relationships with others are framed primarily as sources of pleasure. As an introvert, I often feel strained by having to relate to others rather than relieved by it. I was also trained out of blind trust fairly early on by several formative relationships.

I see that divorce is a right, hard-won by women who were once treated as possessions and forbidden to be financially independent. I see human emotion as a double-edged sword, but not in a bad way. I think we feel joy, we feel happiness, but we also struggle and grieve. This is humanity. All of this. Our culture wants us to seek happiness, but shouldn’t we instead be seeking a sense of purpose, significance and connection, with all of the complexity that suggests? I see my view of human connection as realistic, as complicated. I am perhaps a bit wary. I don’t necessarily see relationships as inherently good or bad, though I recognize that they can be deeply damaging. And I think there has to be some balance between the relationships with others and the relationship with the self.

What’s the significance of the title? Are you thinking of marriage vows, or of promises we make in love?

A pact suggests a secure togetherness, one difficult to escape. The word “pact” comes from the Latin word meaning to fasten. Fastening can be a good thing. We fasten children’s mittens to their winter coats. We fasten our seatbelts. When we are making a pact, we are fastening ourselves to another. Marriage vows and promises made in a romantic relationship fall into this category, yes. We are fastened to other people, for better or for worse.

As the title poem in the book suggests, there are also roles or paths we are sworn into, by choice or not. Paths of gender roles. Paths of motherhood or daughterhood. Blood brotherhoods, agreements that demand that you cut yourself open and seal it with your life.

There is a figure written about in the book, a Congolese statue, the nkisi nkondi, which was used in 19th century rituals to seal vows or oaths or settle disputes between people. This particular fastening happened by hammering iron nails into the figure’s wooden body. It’s daunting to stumble across the nkisi nkondi, with its scratched glass squares for eyes and its shoulders bristling with nails — as I did at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Maybe this is what I’m thinking of when I think of the title. The fact that relationships are essential, vital, vivid, desirable, but that commitment can also contain a kind of wounding, a kind of violence.

The book description for The Pact says that it’s a ‘portent against zeal.’ Would you agree with that, that your writing highlights the dangers of too much obsession? If so, how do you balance that with having had to cultivate the necessary obsession with any topic enough to craft poems about it?

Obsessions are dangerous. Writing poems is dangerous. Living passionately is dangerous. I’m warning against all of this, sure. And yet it is in some ways the force that drives any poet’s life. A friend in graduate school once told me I was all “id”. I’m just that kind of person. You can know something is dangerous and still do it. It can still have rewards. Feeling a lot for me is exhausting and yet it is essentially who I am. It lets me feel when I love someone, when I read poems. When I look at trees. When I drink Prosecco. I’m a cloth through which the water of feeling is constantly running. It feels that way. It’s why I write poems.

There is no balance. I believe that. It’s why we have that myth of writers drinking too much or self-destructing. Extreme living was once the mark of a writer, the space for blowing off emotional steam. This book was difficult to write because I was touching the little flames we often try to quell that live inside us. That said, I hope my next book of poems will end up being much more distant from an actual me.

Where, and how, do you get your ideas? Can you describe your writing process?

Speaking of obsessions, my writing process always feels fairly intense. It is a series of exercises in trying to escape myself, fool myself, thwart myself, and then stepping out to a new stage during which I inflict myself and my sense of order on what I have gotten down on the page. The generative stage is a wild mess involving drinking too much and listening to music and tapping into that place where I can stay out of my own way. I don’t write in lines initially. I don’t punctuate or think. My job is to push as far as I can, away from what I regulate and control. I follow the writing where it goes once I let it take the lead. It knows best.

Then I look at that work and see what’s there and try to draft a poem out of the parts that rise from the mess. I drink a lot of tea and wind myself up. I construct order out of the chaos, reordering, making choices, shifting, rewriting. I revise and revise again. I kill whole poems easily and salvage their parts for use. I rob them of their hearts. I let the poems cannibalize one another. A good poem is a monster, but also a bit of an angel. A good poem requires murders and surgeries and births and electric shocks. Making one is a strange experiment in a lab where ghosts and sleepwalkers and lunatics work.

Who are some of your favorite authors or poets? Has anyone else inspired your work?

There are so many inspirations in so many facets or categories that it’s difficult to list them. I think everything I’ve ever read is in each of my poems someplace, in all the work I do, as if every sentence or line or image is a distinct ingredient that adds some hint of flavor. I am not a linear thinker, so there is a blur of influence that just stirs around in the pot until each voice loses the individual clarity with which it was taken in.

However, this book specifically was written alongside British poet Tim Liardet’s incredible collection The World Before Snow, and so was shaped in conversation with the poems of that volume. I also often cite Robert Duncan’s “My Mother Would Be a Falconress,” one of my favorite poems about complex familial love, as another impetus.

Jennifer Militello is the author of Knock Wood, winner of the Dzanc Nonfiction Prize (Dzanc Books, 2019), as well as four previous collections of poetry: A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments (Tupelo Press, 2016), called positively bewitching by Publishers Weekly, Body Thesaurus (Tupelo Press, 2013), named one of the top books of 2013 by Best American Poetry, Flinch of Song, winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Award, and the chapbook Anchor Chain, Open Sail. Her work has appeared widely in such journals as American Poetry Review, The Nation, The New Republic, The Paris Review, POETRY, and Tin House, and been anthologized in Best American Poetry, Best New Poets, and Poem-a-Day: 365 Poems for Every Occasion. Militello teaches in the MFA program at New England College.

The Pact is available from Tupelo Press here.

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