This blog post is part of my ongoing effort to capture personal reading notes for poetry collections and other books. Far from official reviews, these posts represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text. Scroll down for a list of quotes, reviews and links.
Last night, my son’s cat stretched himself out on my bedroom rug and showed me his oh-so-soft little belly and called to me in his oh-so-sweet little meow. I fell for the ploy. And when he gave me my arm back, I was bloody from elbow to wrist. I know it’s strange to say so, but this is exactly how the poems in All Day I Dream About Sirens by Domenica Martinello (2019, Coach House Books) have been working on me. Quite appropriate to their obsession (the Sirens of Greek mythology), these poems lure me in and smash me on the rocks.
Here’s a little background:
“I used to walk by a Starbucks on my way to work, and one day it just hit me how unsettling the implications of the siren logo are. Using the image of a feminized (and often sexualized) sea monster who lures sailors to their deaths with her enchanting song to sell coffee? The premise sounds like a devilish fable in and of itself, and I’ve always loved mythology so I couldn’t stop thinking about it. … the more I researched the Starbucks siren (herself born from the corporation’s literary allusion to Starbuck, the coffee-loving first mate in Moby Dick), the more all-encompassing the ancient and contemporary mythologies surrounding sirens and mermaids became. They felt both real and familiar to me and while also being these doors into meditations on gender, power, agency, capitalism, feminism, ancestry, sexuality, ubiquity.”Martinello in an interview in The Adroit Journal
As both a consumer and a marketer (my day job) (gasp!) I feel responsible. We lure and are lured. As a feminist, I feel vindicated. But not entirely. It’s not that easy. I also feel implicated. When I find myself sexy, it’s sometimes in a way I’d like to reject.
“I’ve been drafted to perfection four times.
Designed to pull you in like a writhing net
but pleasantly.”from the frontis poem “O, Morning Commuter”
I’m tangled in the net of these poems.
And I do think “net” is a good descriptor for the degree to which Martinello relies on the myths of sirens and mermaids and womanhood: she includes many threads, knotted together but loosely… lets lots slips through. Quite intentionally, I think. Although they owe a good amount of language and imagery to these “mishandled” (Martinello’s word) mythologies, the poems also fight against them.
I’m picturing Oprah in that video clip that’s now a meme pointing to members of her studio audience: You get a myth! And you get a myth! And you get a myth! But don’t misunderstand: you’re not being celebrated. You get exploited! And you get exploited! And you get exploited! And the language you use to untangle it is the only language you have: a language that comes from the myth.
Here’s more from that frontis poem:
“In the beginning there was in
–it gets juicier, let’s try
Seattle, 1971: pretty as a picture
of a seashell, burst forth from
the steaming, gently scalloped
fossil, belonging as easily
on the foamy beach as in a café
bathroom art motif…
I can see straight into the
whole of your head now.
Here’s another version
of how this all goes.
The book’s energy is that of correction. The poems are corrective lenses. They’re course correction. And they’re also adrift. As Martinello says in that same interview quoted above, “I wanted my own voracious cultural consumerism to have space to fully roam around and for seemingly disparate ideas to interact with each other.”
Our own impulses can be at odds with one another. And so what do we do with that? For the poems’ part, they explore. They play. And that’s clear in the language and in their movement: “The line between sea / and seamstress is three / times finer than human / hair. We called each one / seamistress / pearls of saliva on a thread / 1,000 years long.”
Lines I want to remember:
- “God said, Thoughts and prayers for this awful tragedy, / everything’s quick and bald in the twenty-first century. / The sun hangs in the sky like a logo / and we lose our honeyed fleece, / black and falling out in fistfuls.”
- “me who’s sick / for thighs and seaweed slick // for a thick old / bone like you, // a slit of wind taunting / ankles ankles ankles.”
- “The thing about lullabies: you’re gone / before you hear their conclusion.”
- “Lie with us. There is no resolution.”
- “Have you ever tried / to profit from the tides? / It’s now almost impossible / to coax myths from the blue / patterned fabric of the world. // Its lustre clogged with plastic, / backlit.”
- “look what I can do // wave my arms / throw myself like a voice // about the room”
- “Mermaids in sequined pushup bras really into burlesque. ‘It’s a big fin, so you push a lot of water.’ Sirens warbling sailors toward the rocks, picking their teeth in a heap of soft boy bones. … Neat or on the rocks, someone’s going to sink.”
- “women are cities and cities / are humiliating. // tourists haggle the price / and somehow still pay double. // … Men are angry and angry men / turn each other into volacnoes. // What is it like to live / in the shadow of a volcano? // On the cusp of eruption / it’s exciting // for the tourists.”
- “Boatkeeper, washerwoman, Woman of Bruised Knees. / Now I’m honeyfarmer, Queenbreeder. Take me / into your arms. I speak the new language. // I don’t know if you’ve heard but / I have a needle for a tongue.”
- “Like a mishandled mythology skewered / shadowless on a bedpost, still I trail / my stubborn dust.”
What others have said:
- from the publisher’s website: “From Homer to Starbucks, a look at sirens and mermaids and feminism and consumerism. What started as a small sequence of poems about the Starbucks logo grew to monstrous proportions after the poet fell under a siren spell herself. All Day I Dream About Sirens is both an ancient reverie and a screen-induced stupor as these poems reckon with the enduring cultural fascination with siren and mermaid narratives as they span geographies, economies, and generations, chronicling and reconfiguring the male-centered epic and women’s bodies and subjectivities.”
- from Arc Poetry Magazine: “Martinello treats her sirens broadly, handling not only the ubiquitous mermaid and the less-understood siren, but all manner of female water-spirits. The Starbucks logo looms green and large in the book’s psychic space but … isn’t the book’s only peck at contemporary culture. … Although Martinello does venture into personal territory when she takes us across the sea to Italy (where tales of classical sirens are woven into the landscape) and into her family history, All Day I Dream About Sirens remains primarily an impressive catalogue of techniques—and of slippery stories of slippery women.”
- from Quill & Quire: “All Day I Dream about Sirens unfolds through persona poems such as these, enacting a poetics of embodiment that extends the relevance of the siren figure to contemporary life, a time when women endeavour to reclaim their bodies and agency from the hegemony of the male gaze and associated patriarchal narratives. Using a linguistic register that glides with ease between the mythic and the modern, Martinello reclaims the singular experience of the siren through history in an attempt to fracture the stereotypical tropes that have come to dominate discourse around these ‘fishy women.’”
Where some of the poems from this collection live online:
Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!