Review by Olivia Kate Cerrone
The title poem of Jennifer Martelli’s brilliant new chapbook, All Things Are Born to Change Their Shapes invokes Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, where supernatural transformations involve women ensnared in patriarchal violence. In the aforementioned piece, the speaker reimagines her silverware as
Each fork was a woman once, punished or saved: all metal, straight up
at the sight of the god who turned her: the oyster fork was proud, the beetroot nearly
raped (kept her maidenhead) and the dinner forks
lying one on top of the other, settled for mediocrity.
Similar transformations pervade throughout other poems, reflecting the myriad of abuse and oppression women have and continue to suffer as expressed in both mythic, literary, and contemporary contexts. In “You are Lying on an Altar,” Martelli weaves together startling associations between Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles with Sharon Tate, Tom Jones, Charles Manson, and Roman Polanski, “a fugitive wanted for the rape of a thirteen-year-old, [who]was confined to Europe while filming Tess.” Martelli’s poetry is also firmly rooted in the natural world, cultivating an affinity for trees, snakes, and birds with a sense of otherworldliness. In “The Nightingale and the Finch,” birds take on female personifications, but escape the pain and imperfections both endured and inflicted by other women as described in Sylvia Plath’s “Winter Trees,” who know “neither abortions nor bitchery.” Lyrical and complex, Martelli’s voice is haunted and original, complicating the ordinary with the mythic and grotesque. Suffocation, reinforced by images of burying women alive, is a recurrent and disturbing theme, which Martelli traces through various pop culture, historical and personal references. In the poem “Women Who Can’t Breathe (Featuring Women from The Mummy, The Handmaids Tale, Kill Bill, Vol. 2),” the speaker reveals that
I was raised among the suffocated, all those Marys
plastered into lawn bathtubs and clamshells or apses or
on golden pedestals. Oh the perpetual widow. Oh my sisters. Oh my mother.
With live burial, there’s time to choose: use up the last breath
screaming or wait calmly until the whole night sky,
warm with stars, explodes before your burning asphyxiated eyes.
Here, the poem speaks to the inherent agency of women even in those last precious gasps of life. No matter the cruelty and injustice wrought upon them, women harbor an essential power through their continuous transformative nature. While trauma lives at the heart of that change, the ability to shapeshift and recreate oneself proves essential—one must transform or perish. In “Delicious,” characters from the movie The Witch are reimagined in three parts, following the transformation of the Devil-stalked Thomasin into what Martelli describes as “the Soon-to-be-Gigantic Woman.” Instead of damnation, Thomasin meets other gigantic women who preserve a sense of agency and freedom in the face of a patriarchal society that seeks to oppress and demonize them. As Thomasin is pulled up from the forest floor, taking flight, “she wept so hard with release, it looked like joy.”
Jennifer Martelli’s All Things Are Born to Change Their Shapes is a triumph in its nuanced expressions of women navigating the fallout of grief and trauma. This book is an essential read, not only for its far-reaching brilliance, but also for its compassion and hope. As the speaker notes in “Winter is for Women,” even as they lie dormant, her Queen of Night tulip bulbs hold a certain power, transformed into the feminine: “In their split hearts, these women grip their toxin and beauty in a tight fist, know exactly what they’re capable of.”
All Things Are Born to Change Their Shapes by Jennifer Martelli
Small Harbor Publishing, 2023.
Paper, 61 pages
Olivia Kate Cerrone is the author of The Hunger Saint, a historical novella about the child miners of Sicily. Her Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction has appeared in dozens of literary journals and won the Crab Orchard Review’s Jack Dyer Fiction Prize. She’s at work on a novel called DISPLACED, which recently won the Novel Slices Issue Four Contest, and was also longlisted for both the 2022 DISQUIET Literary Prize and the Masters Review Novel Excerpt Contest.