My Tarantella by Jennifer Martelli. Bordighera Press, 2018, 86 pgs.
Review by Chad Frame
In 1964, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death and sexually assaulted over the course of half an hour in Queens, purportedly in full view of neighbors, none of whom assisted or called the police. This has led to psychological study of the “bystander effect,” Throughout her bold and haunting collection, Jennifer Martelli explores how this event affects her over fifty years later—as a woman, an Italian-American, and a poet.
The opening poem, “The Major Arcana of the Kitty Genovese Tarot,” both establishes Martelli’s connection to Genovese and begins a recurring thread of mysticism that runs throughout the collection. The clipped, direct lines of the prose poem almost hearken to short messages delivered through a séance or Ouija board—communication from beyond the grave. “Indicates something will reach through half a century,” of course, directly refers to a connection between the speaker and the slain Genovese, and the poem ends with a poignant promise that sets the tone for the rest of the book: “I’m here. I heard you and I’m here.”
An important part of the Genovese story is that the original reporting of the event has been called into question. Some say the story acts more as a parable now, and that the famous New York Times article took drastic liberties in claiming thirty-eight neighbors watched from their windows as she was brutalized. These doubts are addressed deftly in “In the Light of the Hanging Globe Lamp,” with lines such as “Maybe there were 37 witnesses. Maybe 38. Maybe there were 2,” and “Maybe she was stabbed 13 times. No, 14.” Ultimately, the poem goes for the emotional jugular by the end, essentially driving home that the particulars of the story aren’t what matter. Rather, what matters is that Kitty, or the “many different pet names for Catherine… Kay, Cathy, Chicky, Rina,” a girl who never made it out of her twenties is, ultimately, dead, regardless of the circumstances. The end result is still “Kitty’s prone and crooked body.” We are led through fact and speculation to an ugly—yet still somehow beautiful by Martelli’s hand—truth.
There are non-Kitty poems throughout My Tarantella—personal poems, poems of womanhood, political poems, family poems, and even a surprising cameo by David Bowie (I’m looking at you, “The Tin Collander with Stars” and “My Own David Bowie”), but like an obsession, like a haunting, Kitty keeps coming back. Sometimes the connections are truly ingenious, like in “The Passion,” which closes with three wrenching couplets connecting two grisly murders committed as public spectacle across millenia:
the fourteen stations of the cross—each panel
marking the hours of a gruesome death—were embellished
in gold leaf, so that the metal absorbed the dim lights
and shone. The haloes, the icons, the women weeping,
the crown of leafy thorns, even the strips of skin torn
from the lash, the stab wound through ribs, shone.
Later, “Kitty Genovese Names Her Fourteen Wounds” drives this connection soundly home.
Political poems that invoke the insensate boorishness of Donald Trump’s America, too, have a sense of Kitty in them, for what is being murdered in 2018 in plain view but civility, culture, reason, their absence “big as a hole // in the middle of a nation”?
Two poems form, for me, the true heart of the collection—“After JFK’s Assassination, Things Got Really Bad,” in which the speaker essentially interviews herself about her interest in Kitty Genovese (“Why are you writing about her? / Kitty puts things in order, things I thought I’d forgotten.”), closing with the tender “what is true? who will tell?”, and “After Bird” (also the title of Martelli’s previously released chapbook of Kitty poems published by Grey Book Press in Spring 2017), which is fraught with sensory memories from the speaker’s childhood (as Martelli says in her acknowledgements, “I conflated aspects Kitty Genovese’s story as an Italian-American woman with my own, wove some of my own memories with her story.”). In seven sections, a number of astrological and mystical significance, the speaker tells of generations of women, their idiosyncrasies, their day to day lives, the images that haunt memory, as Kitty’s memory, it is implied, still haunts her (“I had a grandma who came downstairs for leftovers. Once, she talked about how / sweet and dense Hanover Street smelled, long after they’d cleaned the molasses / that flooded the North End in a tide of the cheapest brown sugar.”)
My Tarantella is, yes, a tribute to a horrible tragedy, but it is also, by its very title, Martelli’s own dance, her own reconciliation of being a contemplative, canny woman in a time of sociopolitical turmoil, trying to make sense of so much senselessness. Jennifer Martelli is a poet of depth and consequence, and her final words to Kitty in the closing poem, “I Offer Kitty Genovese Fake Fruit,” are a far more fitting tribute than the title suggests. She closes with an offering of legacy and understanding, and an entreaty that echoes the reader’s feeling at the close of this achingly gorgeous volume—“Stay here with me. Don’t ever leave.”