by Rita Marie Martinez
90 pages—Aldrich Press, 2016
The rest cure—enforced bed rest for weeks at a time—was infamously imposed on female writers suffering from nervous conditions, notably Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The prescription included refraining from writing and reading, as well as complete isolation, to keep women’s creative and educational aspirations in check.
But in Rita Marie Martinez’s collection of poems, The Jane and Bertha in Me, the cure for neurological illness is instead a complete surrender to the feverishly creative, the sweet letting go of the everyday to the devotion of reading and writing. The writer, who herself suffers from a chronic neurological disorder that causes constant headaches, finds an escape for her speaker by putting her in front of a three-way mirror. In it, the speaker examines herself through the characters of Jane and Bertha in Jane Eyre (as well as the more sympathetic version of Bertha in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea). Primarily utilizing obsessively imagistic persona poems, Martinez portrays a married woman, a deviant woman, an ill woman, a mad woman, and ultimately, how she plots her escape from the unremarkable traps of her life.
In “Thinking of Bertha on the Metro,” the speaker conjures the Jamaican wife in Jane Eyre whose husband, Edward Rochester, locked her in the attic because of her supposed violent, bestial behavior. The speaker imagines herself in the character of Bertha, exploring her feverish need for escape.
Throughout the collection, Martinez adds delicious confusion between the speaker and the characters in Jane Eyre, as shown in this quote. The speaker is both Bertha, the woman desperate for escape from Rochester’s attic, and a modern woman, dependent on medication to deal with debilitating migraines, struggling with relationships that share an eerie similarity to Victorian romances in its oppressions.
Notably, however, in The Jane and Bertha in Me’s first section, titled “Femme Covert,” Martinez describes Jane not as a helpless victim, but as one who thrives off of a masochistic thrill of her own subjugation, not because she wants to be punished but because she can use it as fodder. Jane is interested in living a passionate life, but also one that involves social mobility from the life of a governess. She knows what she’s getting into and she doesn’t care, as long as she gets what she desires. In the prose poem “Mortification Triptych,” Martinez describes the violent scene in which John Reed, her cousin, violently punishes a young Jane for reading a book that belonged to him:
… She’s splayed across the carpet , a bird rending its own plumage. On the back of her neck, blood sizzles; she smears it beneath her eyes like war paint. She flaps her wings in the dragon’s face and claws her initials across his arm. Her beak gleams through smoke. The breakfast room splattered with feathers, scales and ash.
Martinez skillfully captures such primal, animalistic imagery throughout the book, pointing to a passion that the speaker shares with the female characters in Jane Eyre. Like Jane, the speaker in these poems must read, has an urgent need to devour Gothic novels. In “Reading Jane Eyre,” she writes: “I plucked it from the shelf and stared at the cover— / the forlorn wedding dress yearning for Jane’s scapula … I scarfed the pages like pork rinds, / yucca chips, crackers slathered with guava jelly.” (A Cuban-American poet, Martinez makes juxtapositions between Victorian England and contemporary Miami, Florida, particularly her own Cuban culture, easily and without forcefulness.)
Beyond this hunger for the page, Martinez’s poems harbor another more sinister type of consuming: violence against women, which runs beneath the text of Jane Eyre and is more openly addressed in Wide Sargasso Sea. In “Jane Dreams of Laci Peterson,” it is as if Jane sees her own body dissolving as she imagines Laci’s decomposing corpse: “the bay erasing her features / as her husband nonchalantly purchased and watched / snuff films, an endless parade of women / …faces eventually blurring.” In response to this violence, the speakers in The Jane and Bertha in Me want to inflict their own types of violence, their own kinds of containing. From the title poem, “The Jane and Bertha in Me,” the speaker imagines being Jane and wanting “to extract Rochester’s teeth / with her Tweezerman / deposit his wrenched incisors / …in a velvet / pouch and pin it to her bra.” By contrast, this violence is not driven by a need for ownership. Rather, it is a violence born of longing—for love-brimming relationships, for escape from their circumstances. Jane extracts Rochester’s teeth “so she can feel his presence, so she can lay / that satchel on her pillow and wake each morning // to the prayer of his teeth marks on her pale cheek.” This sense of longing runs through even the most violent of poems, such as these lines from the prose poem “Mortification Triptych”:
She crawls beneath the garnet couch, hides like an abandoned rag doll, the missing clasp on her favorite dress, a base coat of nail polish, a clitoris, lice latched onto a stranger’s hair, a solitary sock, the nipple capped by a child’s mouth, a penny, her uncle’s letters ripening in a drawer like wild berries, the mattress cowering beneath its Marseilles comforter, termites crunching the mahogany vanity, sinking their teeth into chairs carved for the benefactress, sawing through the rash between her toes as she rubs her feet across the crimson carpet again and again trying to smother an invisible fire, stamp out spirits seeping through the barred windows, the brick chimney, the bolted door…
The women in The Jane and Bertha in Me are also willing to discard this passion and longing if it does not serve them, as Jane describes in the prose poem “Jane Addresses Edward”:
Martinez also shows that her speakers are not the lovelorn characters typically stereotyped as caricatures in Victorian novels. In “Alice Fairfax in Wonderland,” the housekeeper at Thornfield can sense Jane’s cunning, her longing for social mobility through her romance with Rochester. (The poem is inspired by the mixed media installation “Crystal City” by Franco Mondini-Ruiz, which celebrates the birth of the Chicano movement with a display of stemware and other table accoutrements set in a grid-like pattern.) Alice Fairfax, who disapproves of the relationship between Jane and Rochester because of their violation of the social hierarchy, has a nightmare of kitchenware gone awry after examining the household’s kitchen accessories for theft. Mondini-Ruiz’s exhibition visits her dreams and, to her horror, comes to life:
But it is Bertha, Martinez recognizes, who suffers the most—whose only source of escape is ultimately suicide. The speaker mourns Bertha’s fate as if it is her own, empathy winding its way into every portrayal. Remembering her own proposal, the speaker in “From Principes Negros de Juana” describes the roses from her fiancé as “garnet ambassadors [that] rest on my lap / …If I bend the wrong way the buds will bob / backwards, perhaps snap.” In “Letter to Bertha,” the speaker imagines going shopping for matching clothing with Bertha, how they’d “climb the Statue of Liberty” and “toss your straight jacket into the ocean…along with it each vestige of sadness / that has tinged your bloodshot eyes.” One of the final poems in the collection, this letter to Bertha ends with a kiss between the speaker and Bertha, “obliterating suffering from (her) lexicon.” Perhaps it is a way for Martinez to imagine a woman’s disparate selves coming together in the face of disaster: the Jane, the Bertha, the speaker. Martinez mourns what cannot be saved, even while her very writing is an attempt to save by rewriting the characters’ experiences. In the end, what readers may remember is Martinez’s visceral need to salvage these femme coverts, and to recount how they tried to save themselves. Martinez’s careful separation and synthesizing of the voices allows us to see how each woman explores the particulars of her victimhood differently, but with a similar sense of ferociousness. Perhaps, Martinez suggests through these highly nuanced voices, one of the best ways to survive any violence, whether from a perpetrator or from one’s own body, is through the power of language.