The Terrifying Self-Awareness of the Siren: A Review of All Day I Dream About Sirens by Domenica Martinello

by Sonnet L’Abbé

Sonnet L’Abbé is a Canadian poet, editor, and professor. They are the author of A Strange Relief and Killarnoe. In their third book, Sonnet’s Shakespeare (August 2019), they overwrite all of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. Quill and Quire called Sonnet’s Shakespeare “one of the most audacious volumes of poetry to appear in this country” and the Globe and Mail called it “a document of our time.” In 2014, they edited the annual Best Canadian Poetry anthology, and their chapbook, Anima Canadensis, won the 2017 bp Nichol chapbook award. They teach creative writing and English at Vancouver Island University, and do editorial work for Brick Books and The Malahat Review.

All Day I Dream About Sirens
Domenica Martinello
Coach House Books
2019, 96 pp., $19.95

This past summer, when Disney cast a Black girl to lead an upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, the Internet had a hot second of mind loss. The storm of resistance to the very idea of Halle Bailey as the fictional Ariel showed just how deeply mythological figures are possessed by collective psyches, and how the biases and financial aims of Western media shape their contemporary representation. Though of course many people have always known Black mermaids exist, some clearly considered a plan to put a Black mermaid on the big screen not as corrective, but corrupting. These tensions produced a pressing set of questions: whose ideals get to live in the modern iconography of the mermaid? Whose truths survive under the sign of the Starbucks siren?

Montreal poet Domenica Martinello has been asking herself the same questions and has now plumbed them to illuminating depths in her first full-length collection of poems, All Day I Dream About Sirens. “Pearly white belles” are what Martinello calls Ariel and her sisters—the versions of them that appear in the 1989 Disney animated movie. To Martinello, Ariel is the baby girl of a Western male god, a typical love-struck (middle-class, white) teen, a willing self-effacer for the love of the Prince, the “American Dream’s / premium antiques collector.” Martinello casts Ariel as a key figure in the dynamic she traces throughout the book, in which the sirens of Classical imagery—whether the foretelling sirens of Homer’s Odyssey or the lyre-playing bird women decorating many an amphora—embody powers of instruction and wisdom, but these powers are contained and managed by the (mis)interpretations and (mis)representations of male storytellers. “What do sirens and Ariel have in common?” she writes. “Tits, tunes ‘n’ fins!”

What power still is vested in the contemporary siren, suggests Martinello, has been co-opted by capitalism, narrowed into a clichéd danger-pull on the male gaze, wielded by unattainable girls who like to bare their breasts and belt nostalgic sea-ballads. Martinello’s poems show us a 21st-century siren who gets floated in contemporary visual fields as “the acquiescent, dangerous female logo,” appealing to consumers more as “thirsty mermaid … sob sob facial … wet dream pinterest” and boner-clickbait, rather than as formidable source of portentous knowledge.

In the book’s opening ode, “O, Morning Commuter,” the reader is addressed by the siren whose likeness has helped brand a multinational coffee company. In 1971, in Seattle, she first appears on the side of coffee cups as topless, brown, navel-showing hippie fish-lady, “designed to pull you in like a writhing net // but pleasantly.” Later, as the brand expands its territory, she’s greened, smoothed out, her breasts and body cropped out, “re / visioned … in a crystal think tank” by corporate marketers. “Here’s another version / of how this all goes,” the siren declares.

The voices of mythological women intermingle with Martinello’s varied contemporary lyrics.

The wry ode, historically astute and classically songful, yet cynically promo-savvy, sets the tone for the chorus of lyric voices that follow. We hear from Parthenope, whom Greeks saw as a failed seductress of Odysseus, and whom the Romans depicted as being turned by Jupiter into the city of Naples (for loving Vesuvius, who got zapped into a volcano). If you Google Parthenope,“whose wetness quenched Virgil,” you’ll get images of streams shooting from her breasts to quench Vesuvius’ raging fires. We hear from voices named after the cattle of Helios, slaughtered and eaten by Odysseus’ seamen not long after their ship passed within dangerous earshot of man-eating sirens’ tempting song: in Martinello’s imagination they speak as souls treated as heifers, recalling fragments of dehumanizing encounters with blindly plundering fratty boys who “won’t … wait / for a yes.” We hear from Melusine, split-tailed serpent-girl of French medieval tale, who speaks her affinity with the filles du Roi, French women brought to New France/Québec in the 17th century to marry colonist farmers, “unspreadable // virgins … destined for suicide.” We hear from a Demeter who covers herself in a buzzing armour of bees, and from a Circe who “watches some shade of herself played” out in the character of Cersei over seven seasons of Game of Thrones.

The voices of mythological women intermingle with Martinello’s varied contemporary lyrics. Martinello shows great range and control of tone in poems that span from the staccato, clicky logic of “Bait Song”:

siren – noisy vice mag – harpy – new tab – turn to weather –
suicide girl snip snip – tab tab – undine – iodine – nixie:nokken:
nicor: neck – blighted bra shells bite bite – nereids – twitter deity

to the long melodic cadences and nuanced rhyme of “The Last Surviving Sea Silk Seamstress”:

God said, Let there be math,
and we soused King Solomon
clean of his robes ­– he was wicked
at the breaststroke. Each boat
a little blot of treachery, so willing
to singe the sea with bleach. Whenever
we need a bone to pick our teeth, we sing
our throats into a moneyed tinkle
and a toothpick comes rowing.

to the irreverent, cheeky punch of “Milksong”:

Sorry to burst thru your lyric sully
tude but I’ll procreate any moment.
Isn’t anything looking like sperm sex
you all harkening back to your hot tad
pole days random erections …

Martinello also includes, amidst the counterpoint of ancient and modern heroines, poems that step guardedly outside the focus on icons and speak from an ostensibly more autobiographical “commonplace,” such as in a poem named after dandelions: “there are cracks / in my praxis / where Purdy’s // yellow flowers / poke through / wear my working // class like a lion’s tooth.” She adopts a similar pose in one of the many poems titled “Refrain On The Rocks,” in which the speaker asks “how I can I reconcile my poverty // poetry of a janitor’s daughter / with an iPhone and a degree.”

… they are at once a literary scholar’s documents of field trips to fusty-storied locales, a poet’s romantic pilgrimages to her sea goddesses’ sunny Mediterranean playgrounds, and a young woman’s personal image-making, of zucchini flowers and sand and beeswax …

Martinello situates herself firmly in a geographical, ancestral lineage that connects her to her grandmother, her namesake, and to a “home [that] was verbal, Naples / a verb. Volcano, courtyards // full of basil.” Because of the way Greek and Roman mythology is institutionalized in European and North American literary culture, one can imagine writers of any number of ancestries mounting a critique of contemporary degradations of Classical representations of women’s power. But because Martinello is able to locate herself as the descendant of a woman who grew up beside Vesuvius, her depictions of solitary rocky islands or yachty excesses in Sorrento or Capri are layered: they are at once a literary scholar’s documents of field trips to fusty-storied locales, a poet’s romantic pilgrimages to her sea goddesses’ sunny Mediterranean playgrounds, and a young woman’s personal image-making, of zucchini flowers and sand and beeswax, as she stories herself and her body in a globalized, consumerist, misogynist digital culture. Collectively, her poems remind us of the acute geographic and cultural specificity of Western tradition mythologies that have been disseminated as universal.

Five poems in the book are titled “Refrain on the Rocks.” The first seems to offer a post-shipwreck-gone-wrong under strobe light, where each flashed glimpse is turned into a lyric on a deep breather’s song sheet:

Shipwrecked on the rocks (repeat x 3). Vernacular on the rocks
(end stop). Slick scales (repeat x 2) on the rocks (sharp breath)
Pinup sluts (release) on the rocks (pause) …

The second asks about the luxury of self-mythologizing: “have you had it // with buzzwords and epithets / the frothing i – i – i -.” The third gives us the Instagram version of siren life, where “AquaMermaid classes rock the suburbs, ‘It’s all about the tail.’” The fourth makes a spatial matrix of a Twitter thread by Emily Wilson, translator of The Odyssey, who argues “the Sirens in Homer aren’t sexy … [t]he seduction they offer is cognitive: they claim to know everything about the war in Troy, and everything on earth.” The final “Refrain on the Rocks” is a simple couplet that ends the book and responds to a poem by Robert Creeley (which I won’t spoil for you). I love the multiplicitous sensuality of this series, which serves up feminist lyric like a hard liquor, making us throw back chilled shots of song about jagged emotional territory, suggesting the poet is holding back while belting out, suggesting the poet is siren, sounding modernist alarm at feminine self-awareness and sexual power, repeating verse about catchiness in so many different words.

I love, too, the cheekiness of the book title’s acronym, “ADIDAS.” Nike was the goddess of victory, but there is no Adidas in Greek mythology. The word comes from a portmanteau of the company’s founder’s name, but its whiff of Classical godliness is no mistake. In her own act of self-fashioning, Martinello makes the connection between the impulse to self-mythologize and the impulse to dominate through a vision of the planet as marketplace for your product, between a multinational’s brand/dissemination impulse and the modernist male creator’s gestures to own, repackage and redistribute iconographies of feminine power. Her collection is a virtuosic essay at how to pick up the lyre as a poet lettered in the Western tradition—but without simply reproducing these inherited strategies of “making it new” that have so often been appropriative at best and often, at worst, self-glorifying and objectifying. The book works as one long brilliant subtweet to the Orphic tradition, to that long line of dude poets, from Byron to Apollinaire to Creeley, who mythologized themselves as incarnations of the god who charmed stones with his music. “[N]o more mastheads / no more gatekeepers,” insists Martinello, “no new innovations / without new stakes / through the heart / of new empathy,” she incants, as she reinstates sirens’ powerful knowledge to its true position to strike terror into entitled men’s hearts.


Sonnet L'Abbe

 


Sonnet L’Abbé is a Canadian poet, editor, and professor. They are the author of A Strange Relief and Killarnoe. In their third book, Sonnet’s Shakespeare (August 2019), they overwrite all of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. Quill and Quire called Sonnet’s Shakespeare “one of the most audacious volumes of poetry to appear in this country” and the Globe and Mail called it “a document of our time.” In 2014, they edited the annual Best Canadian Poetry anthology, and their chapbook, Anima Canadensis, won the 2017 bp Nichol chapbook award. They teach creative writing and English at Vancouver Island University, and do editorial work for Brick Books and The Malahat Review.

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