The Habiliments   by Joe Milazzo   Apostrophe Books , 138 pages, February 23, 2016

The Habiliments

by Joe Milazzo

Apostrophe Books, 138 pages, February 23, 2016

 

REVIEWED BY THOMAS COOK

Those people familiar with Apostrophe Books and their mission, to publish “poetry intersecting theory, philosophy, cultural studies, & pataphysics,” may be surprised to learn that one of the most powerful series of poems in Joe Milazzo’s quiet, haunting, lyric elegy The Habiliments, happens to be a series of short treatments of the speaker watching his morning eggs ooze in the pan. The Habiliments is a book-length mediation on loss and inheritance, a father and house, and the speaker’s spectral presence within the world left to him, as he drifts through days and rooms, wraith-like, dreaming of alternatives and imagining other lives, grounds the book’s surreal landscape in the emotional plight of this voice. Redemption comes in small doses that the speaker must mete out for himself, in the way of pouring orange juice, reflecting on the power of whiskey, sifting through photographs, preparing eggs.

In the book’s third egg poem, “THE DREAM IN WHICH WE SEE WHO’S SORRY NOW”—all the titles in the book begin THE DREAM IN WHICH—, Milazzo writes,

 

And with the breakfast egg’s

opening, a shadow falls pale

across the yolk, only to smear

into a frontier of white where 

nothing freezes. My engines

melt into spatters. My eye

is dragged into milk…

 

The shadow falling, the crossing of frontier into a landscape that does not freeze—Milazzo infuses this morning ritual with allusions to passing from one life to the next. The yolk and the white come to stand in for the speaker and his father, the speaker and the house, the house and the father, and countless other pairings that we read into the speaker’s fundamental displacement. He is neither here nor there, his father both living and dead. The presences of these two men, like the egg’s two parts, comingle, however imperfectly. 

Here, in a later egg poem, we see how Milazzo adapts the same phrases and images to slightly different ends, in this case under the title “THE DREAM IN WHICH ALL BILLS ARE PAID,” here in full:

 

And with the morning egg’s open-

ing, a shadow pale falls

into the yolk’s target, only to

congeal into a fresher white

where nothing matters. My

fork melts into spatters. My eye

is dragged through the milk. 

What I can admit is wad-

ding beneath the napkins, what

I can confess can no longer 

be ignored over the metal

singing of the crickets. 

 

Milazzo shows great control and care in the modulation of these poems, as they change and enlarge his themes, of loss, the inability to put past behind us, to function—whatever that means—in a world of ghosts. The voice in these poems often calls out in a plaintive tone, earnestly asking the question of how he should be in the world. “It is at dusk that the sky / turns over its pot and slowly / lowers it over the one outside / we share” he writes, in “THE DREAM IN WHICH ONLY STRANGERS ACT. “Surely you remember how this works” he continues, “Surely my voice / offers you its second skin, surely as you strike your pilot matches.”

If a sustained rumination on feeling displaced by the passing of a loved one (whose voice happens to become your own) provides the beat of The Habiliments’ heart, Milazzo’s facility with metaphor is a surprising and illuminating counterpoint. Consider the repetition of breakfast discussed above, its almost incessant similarity. The book’s titles begin to harken back to this echoing, to tautological thought: “THE DREAM IN WHICH CERTAIN NARRATIVE CONVENTIONS DETERMIN US, AND NOT, AS WE WOULD LIKE TO BELIEVE, THE OTHER WAY AROUND,” “THE DREAM IN WHICH THE WINNING LOTTERY NUMBER IS JUST A SINGLE NUMERAL REPEATED INTO INFINITY,” “THE DREAM IN WHICH I AM AN IMITATION OF AN IMITATION.” In the hands of a different writer, or in a book guided by a different spirit, these titles would, on their own, sound flip, self-consciously postmodern and ironic. Here, however, given Milazzo’s subject matter and attention, they become resonant avenues for understanding the predicament. In “IMITATION” he writes, 

 

…Time hurries

only if you think of it

first. A chair, stuck.  A

book, an ended “now” toil-

ing at coming back.

I am trying to teach

the life arrested in these

interiors of my language

 

The interior, the objects that fill the house, the water of the life in which the speaker swims, these by necessity become figurative. Turning the stuff of life into metaphor is a means of survival, of logotherapy. “THE DREAM IN WHICH THE SURVIVORS NURSE HELPLESS METAPHORS” speaks to this broader linguistic sensibility, the mode in which the speaker finds himself operating involuntarily: “To what glamour have these follies / magnetized you?” Indeed, the speaker does encounter himself often, as though the composition of these pages—consider the DREAM dimension—is partly an unconscious act: “I can no longer see / through / the window of my derision to where / the fog’s heartless pinpointing is / headed.”

The Habiliments drifts, page-to-page, 138 pages in fact, without much section break or pause, yet the reading is swift, often because what we understand from one poem we know will be taken up, in some way, in the next, so we read across these changes of attire and costume, these habiliments, to understand what is consistently human underneath them. And indeed, there is as much human as there is magic here, the human element being what pulls us through the spell of the titling and the way Milazzo tends to spread these poems across the page, in some cases, it seems, arbitrarily. Yet again that works here, in this world, where the speaker pieces his life together, his life and another’s, and all of the things in it, a sort of gathering that we immediately trust when we learn that these dreams function as attempts to reveal what lies beneath the shrouding. “THE DREAM IN WHICH I AM EMBEDDED IN THE APPOSITIVE” falls roughly in the middle of the book, its title of course speaking to how the voice is pulled through this landscape. In it Milazzo writes, “This shanty gets again to slipping into / an old transcendence, the greatest out / of us plainly speaking.” The Habiliments is that, a shelter, a domicile transcending consciousness and unconsciousness, life and death, the human and object world. There is where Milazzo’s voice, speaking plainly of it all. 

 

Thomas Cook edits and publishes Tammy with JoAnna Novak and Tyler Flynn Dorholt. He is the author of four poetry chapbooks and lives in Los Angeles.