Jennifer Martelli

She Used to Be on a Milk Carton by Kailey Tedesco, Illustrations by Whitney Proper, April Gloaming Press, 2018, 104 pages.

Reviewed by Jennifer Martelli.

tedesco milk carton


        In her poem, “On My Girl,” Kailey Tedesco writes, “Around the time of my mother’s hemorrhage,/my mood ring filled with bees.” Bees and cauls, mothers (or, Mothers), mirrors and rings, rebirth, both divine and macabre, are the obsessions that whip us in Tedesco’s collection, She Used to Be on a Milk Carton. When I read the title, I thought of missing children; when I read the book, I thought of Laddie, the little vampire on the milk carton in The Lost Boys. I realized I was entering a magical world of red-hot liquid, circular as a drop of blood. The lost girl is “saved” at the end, “in reverse-baptism—” when she discovers

        the hole in the world was a grave

        & the fingers, still sputtering dust clouds,

        will be the last to fold in bloom antipode.

         Birth and re-birth are depicted at times with religious imagery. In “Purity Ring,” the speaker melts and melds metal, creating circles of regeneration:

        You are the word for emptying

        rings from each finger

        into a ceramic bowl like a stream

        of urine.

        I stay awake praying to Christ

        in a bronze doze & lament


        nuzzling to make you lonely

        against the babes of resurrection.

The vampire—a creature who drinks spilled blood—is another resurrected creature, a “vamp,”  burlesque performer, reborn:

        If I could have one do-over, I’d have vampires

        there in vamp-face crouching over

        glass & your own slow breathes. You’d be

        sired by morning. Fresh-faced as you pluck

        asphalt from your elbows, a mug

        of blood in your hands.

        The images of the caul—the amniotic membrane enclosing a newborn’s face, signifying magical qualities—reinforces the idea of birth, of the mother, and of magic. “Caul” is also a term for a veil, like the one worn by St. Mary. One of the stark illustrations by Whitney Proper is of a veiled (cauled) woman, rising from liquid. Like so much of the imagery in She Used to Be on a Milk Carton, the caul is at times gruesome, “I ate the rabbit’s innards & I ate/the caul,” at times, life-saving:

        I could survive the drowning. After all

        the caul bathed me before

        you did—

        The speaker claims,  “My mother says I’m a caul-bearer.” But who is this mother—or Mother? Who is she, or She?

        I am always two

        or three things—I was born inside

        another woman

        & she said I felt like a Ouija board.

The M/mother is often a double, “I wish I were siamese with the statue/of Mary,” the speaker muses, though later admits, “It’s so easy to forget/I look nothing like my mother—.” The maternal/female is exalted by the poet’s use of capitalization—She, Her—and by the character, “Eureka,” the leader of a coven. Eureka, “not quite dead,” inhabits a “world of velvet—the Mother with arms & legs spread.” Tedesco underscores the viscosity of this world with the ever-changing stone of a mood ring which, “will always return fertile with the smeared hologram/of Eureka & her bodies. This is a promise.”

        This liquid state—mood rings, blood, oceans—is a constant in Tedesco’s changing world. Like Plath’s Ariel, this is a female universe, where grief informs language and imagery. There is danger, but also beauty and play. In “Room at the Madonna Inn,” Tedesco stanches the movement:

The cinema plays La Double Vie de Veronique

She & she      the teeth between scarlet curtains.

The cinemas all stop


can’t you hear the real bees?

The reflective surfaces of water and mirrors conflate in this velvet world, where the speaker holds “grandmother’s pond/like a hand-mirror.” But, this reflection can be dangerous, capable of drowning:

Light decides to float on the surface instead of looking inside. . . .Still, I wonder how we would have found you in all that copper water, lead-heavy & stamped with everything it wants to devour.

The speaker stares into moving surfaces—a pond, flat champagne, blood—in search of a mother, the Mother, a self.

        I found myself sitting back after reading each poem, amazed at how how the language refused its boundaries. The obsessive grief in the speaker’s search infuses the poems, injecting “the gem with color.” Like a golden snake eating its own tail, She Used to Be on a Milk Carton is the ourobos—alchemical and introspective.

                                                                                We can

        spend our whole lives shouting Bloody Mary

        into mirrors, hoping she’ll pop by & bring

        us through the other side, but chrome is as murky

        as any above-ground pool. All my life, I’ve been

        chasing vermin home, only to wake up

        exactly where I stand.

We are challenged to “Try to walk through that red world/without getting wet.” In Tedesco’s moonstone landscape, it is impossible not to get wet.