Review by Sherre Vernon
The ‘80s were shoulder pads and pearls. The ‘80s were for Jennifers and sex and space—and The Queen of Queens gives us all of this and more. Martelli’s speaker has “orbited over three decades” and shows us “[e]verything then / is happening again” (18), particularly for women. This speaker, the gray pearl of the first poem, shouts through “five types of hunger…The hunger for love. The hunger for freedom from bondage of self. The hunger for cock. The hunger for full moons. The hunger to know” (33). This is a collection that eats what the soul craves.
Guiding and challenging Martelli’s speaker are specters of women whose “bodies [taste]/ like a blue-green ocean…taken whole into [the]belly” (17). She is a queen among queens: Geraldine Ferraro, Barbara Bush, Cindy Lauper, Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris, the speaker’s mother, her great aunt, and at least one strega. Together they are “a collage of stars, constellations: The Queen, The Coke-Whore, The Madonna, The Constellation of Return” (45), and her agony is so relatable that perhaps we all want to be, too.
Caught then, in this ethereal net, our Queen of Queens, turns her spit (words) into precious stones (pearls) and strings them together delicately. They are real pearls that dissolve and gaudy beads that chunk against the chest, and they are what is made when a mother holds something painful in her mouth long enough for beauty to layer around it. Even as these poems are raw, they are so careful—the way we think of formal verse as being careful—each word, each syllable and line exquisite in their precision. Martelli employs free verse as deftly as received forms: Jericho Brown’s duplex, the erasure, the list poem, prose poems, and the dramatic monologue are tools for this jewel maker. It is her attention to craft that gives Martelli’s collection space to “[turn]on itself like a wounded animal: / a story that curves the way a spine curves, licks itself clean, scented, whole” (61)—it’s irresistible. As a woman, as a mother, as child of the ‘80s, I can give you “16 reasons” (13) to pick up this book—most of all, it will make your “poor body…sore…and exposed,” make you admit you are “made of red mud and spit” (47).
The Queen of Queens by Jennifer Martelli
Bordighera Press, 2022, $18, Paperback
Sherre Vernon (she/her/hers) is the author of two award-winning chapbooks: Green Ink Wings and The Name is Perilous. Sherre has been published in journals such as TAB and The Chestnut Review, nominated for Best of the Net, and anthologized in several collections including Fat & Queer and Best Small Fictions. Her debut poetry collection, Flame Nebula, Bright Nova, is forthcoming. To read more, visit http://www.sherrevernon.com.