The Habiliments


The Habiliments. Apostrophe Books, 2016.

Early in his poetry debut, The Habiliments, Joe Milazzo asks, ‘What if you are among the dis- / illusionments? What if yours is / the rescue that everyone is always / saying they’re getting the hell /out of?’ This strange ironic transference turns illusion into a kind of metonymy of self-identity and conflates escape with hell. In Milazzo’s linguistic landscape ‘backyards explode with palaces,’ ‘the bones of rationale begin to knob and peep,’ ‘bone dreams merely of a snowmen’s chorus’ and ‘your westward affections run senile like a river.’ Quotidian reality wears a new syntactical and semantic garb as each poem seems to unravel language and a circadian rotation of ‘dreams’— ambiguously of sleep, of aspiration, of nonsense, of the fantastic, or of the banal. If Milazzo’s poems are a kind of ‘dream song,’ they are constructed in radically different ways than John Berryman’s (though there are certainly formal echoes of that poet’s phantasmagoric layers). In Milazzo’s dream songs, Berryman’s angst and sorrow collide with John Ashbery’s metaphysics of erosion, Rosmarie Waldrop’s semantic drifting, and John Yau’s surreal atmospherics. An odd paradox underlies all of these poems in that the ‘habiliments’ themselves simultaneously refer to dressing and stripping bare. An alternative and archaic meaning of the word ‘habiliments’ suggests a verb that means ‘to reduce a tree by stripping off the branches.’ In these poems, that meaning is revealed in metonymy and synecdoche whereby ‘habiliment’ becomes both reduction by stripping and construction by dressing. Obsessive palimpsests return to scenes to harrowingly dress and strip bare—alter and erase. The accouterments, costumes, objects, and trappings in which we construct identity are woven into a tapestry of memory, dream, forgetting, and, ultimately, grief. Meditating on the hour-to-hour dwelling within this grief, the poet inhabits space, reading the objects and the activities once pursued by the living. From breakfast eggs eaten in a kitchen to a glass of water on a bedroom end table to a mown lawn, Milazzo takes these familiar domestic habits and presents them within ghostly galleries of ‘cartoony partitions’ where shadows wait ‘at each crossing/, for the me/ that might be ahead/, that me chasing the assurance/ of one last fading ray.’ Milazzo uses allusion, antimeria, neologisms, conversions, and logical disruptions, as well as a deep attention to the elusive uncertainties of language to explore how words simultaneously succeed and fail to express emotion, describe reality, or make sense of our relationship with others.

“In one domestic/cosmic sequence, The Habiliments explores the contradictory potentials of lyric poetry—intimate and expansive, broken and fluid, novel as a virus and persistent as a dream. As dreams interrupt, intercut, undermine, and translate the dreaming speaker (does he speak or dream?), we begin to conclude that consciousness is a fabric strung between opposites, beauty an allergic response to irritants. The Habiliments reminds us that, for all our failings as a species, Poetry is our least obnoxious trait.”—Joyelle McSweeney

“Artemidorus of Ephesus wrote that dreams are a movement of the soul, giving hints of good things or bad things to come. In The Habiliments, Joe Milazzo utilizes dream as a method of reentering the past to explain the present, capturing glances of ghosts in fleeting light: ‘I know it, tomorrow I will fall apart into corners and infinitesimals.’ These poems scale and shear the mountains of grief to release those captive spirits and let them live again.”—D. A. Powell