The Best Literary Writing About Mothers and Motherhood

Knock Wood: A Memoir in Essays by Jennifer Militello

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Review by Lara Lillibridge

 

The winner of Dzanc’s 2018 Nonfiction Prize, Knock Wood is the first work of nonfiction by Jennifer Militello, whose previous honors include the Yeats Poetry Prize, the Betty Gabehart Poetry Prize, and the Tupelo Press First Book Award.

This book centers on intertwined elements: a mentally ill aunt in an abusive marriage, a criminal high school sweetheart who eventually dies of a heroin overdose, Militello’s life as a mother and her aunt’s experience raising her daughter, and an extramarital affair. Events appear to influence each other regardless of chronology.

There could be no outcome. There could be no end. Every moment was the bat hitting the ball. Every moment had the undersides of leaves blowing to exposure in a way that predicted rain. This was a ride that had run out of our control. (72)

Knock Wood is a poet’s memoir, filled with rich, beautiful language and metaphor. Superstition is also a repeated theme. Out of 29 chapters, five are titled Knock Wood.

Militello’s bad luck starts when she knocks on a newspaper instead of something wooden.

I had trusted a newspaper, that temporary husk of wood, with my fate. I had knocked not on the heart or pulp of some willow or birch, but on a bird of a thing, a hollow bone printed with words of a single day, with ink that smeared the fingers and then the face, a thin wisp of a page filled with horrors, cast aside half read, barely perused. (40)

Throughout the book, Militello returns to this moment and the idea that everything could have been different if only one little thing had changed. The stories flow and circle back, overlapping and expanding, like concentric ripples from rocks thrown into a lake simultaneously.

It’s a quiet rumination, and an exploration of the boundary where mother ends and woman begins—of wanting disparate things and trying to reconcile them without killing yourself. It’s sincere and beautifully wrought. It captures the hopelessness of what I call in my house “the deep sad” that many of us experience. In the face of our pretty Instagram world where mothers are never allowed to be less than perfect, I found it exciting and refreshing to see a mother write about despair, regret, and other deeply human emotions so lyrically. Militello’s prose is haunting and sharp, her emotional nakedness a gift to the broken shards inside each of us.

We were the unruly ones. We were the gluttons. We were the ones who had torn open a hole in the order of the world. The end would sob instead of scream. The end would whisper instead of rage. It would happen so naturally, it would be as though we chose it, as though we killed ourselves. (72)

I can’t help but think of the Aldous Huxley quote, “What is art, after all, but a protest against the horrible inclemency of life?” This book embodies that protest.

Knock Wood: A Memoir in Essays by Jennifer Militello
Dzanc Books, 2019, 144 Pages, $16.95 [paper] ISBN: 9781945814969


Lara Lillibridge is the author of Mama, Mama, Only Mama (Skyhorse, 2019), Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home (Skyhorse, 2018) and co-editor of the anthology, Feminine Divine: Voices of Power and Invisibility (Cynren Press, 2019).

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