Alan Michael Parker makes me a liar. I love things about Parker I fault in other poets. Parker’s voice is so singular and strong that I don’t question it, even when it relies on wit, and in return, Parker rewards me for following him when I least expect it.
I do not think wit should have a place in poetry. Poetry can be playful and light, but not witty. To me, wit and rhyming are two devices too heavy for a good poem. I am very vocal about this. I have criticized poets far more famous and successful than I may ever be for relying on wit instead of making a strong lyric statement. There are, however, exceptions. Parker is one of them because he doesn’t employ wit for a cheap laugh or hollow rhetorical point. He does it to disarm readers to that the other lyric moments are more impactful. Underneath everything, Parker’s emphasis is sadness over wit. Look at the title of his latest book of poems, Long Division. We first think of math with we hear long division, and math and poetry are mutually exclusive, though Parker strives to remedy this by making math a theme of the collection. Beyond the math association, though, the title holds a different connotation, one with an undercurrent of loss and slow deterioration of some kind of relationship where people are divided. The longer I think, the more somber the title becomes.
The first poem of the collection sets absolutely this feeling of sadness, but as always with Parker, it is done cleverly. “A Christmas Letter” presents just that, a letter at Christmas that a reader doesn’t realize is a letter, despite the title, until the end. The poem ends, “Love —“ but even this raises questions. Is it the closing of a letter or a fade out, a pause to ruminate on love with the familial context that he supplies in the preceding couplets? The poem moves, like much of Parker’s work, by creating and resolving tensions between discursive metaphors and stark, direct observations. To wit:
We never know what to feel.
We go to the gym to go
to the beach, where erosion rules.
We reward ourselves with a movie.
Our food glistens in plastic,
kind of like our bodies.
Who can be alone?
This year, so many people died,
and last year, and more next year:
we’re unable to be surprised.
The instant recognition we all must feel over the idea of going to gym before going to the beach to the gorgeous observation that our bodies are glistening in our own plastic, like our Christmas dishes before and after the meal, are placed squarely with blunt truths. We never know what to feel, even on Christmas when feelings seem simple and clear. This year, so many people died. We are unable to be surprised. “A Christmas Letter” is a clever conceit that holds a deceptively simple poem that has a strong emotional punch under everything.
In Love Song with Motor Vehicles, an older Parker collection, he includes a series of poems devoted to gods of small things, like god of draperies and god of brooms. The section is absolutely brilliant, but I often wondered why he kept all of the poems together. I thought they would be more engaging and effective if they were woven through. I mention this only to show my delight that his two series from Long Division, a series of fables and a series of lists, are woven through, and the effect is spectacular. Both series are masterful and almost perfect.
Many poets have attempted to write or rewrite fables, from Anne Sexton to Angela Chase. Parker is no exception, except that he, like Sexton, focused on the emotion instead of the narrative. In “A Fable, Upside Down” Parker writes, “Maybe he was lonely—there were leaves / and sticks / and worms at night. // In time the future made sense to him, / for he knew each ending was the same.” Such lovely ideas and lines. The rest of the poem, like the other fable poems in the book, are fanciful, whimsical ideas and concepts that anyone who has read a book of Parker’s has come to expect and appreciate, but they also each contain at least one of these small, wonderfully surprising , visceral, emotional connection to lines and their ideas.
This happens even without what we might normally call lines of poetry. In the series of lists that punctuate the book, they still have these deep, profoundly felt moments. They are mainly designed for wit and humor, but they transcend. He writes so many list poems, with titles such as “Twenty-two Reasons to Return to the Store,” “Eighteen Ways to Consider a Neighbor Whose Holiday Lights Stay Up All Year,” and “Sixteen Ways Old People Terrify the Young,” and all these poems are heavy on wit but also inclusive of real, solid emotional work. More in Long Division than any of his previous books, Parker will break your heart. In “Eight Unfinished Elegies,” he writes,
1. To the bird outside the hospital window, I have lost my
2. My mother is a window through which I see the sky.
3. The small sounds of the machines keep my mother dying.
4. A bird flew into the glass: don’t touch.
5. As though on the window, I band my body.
6. Machines keep my mother dying: the sky is a machine
keeping my mother dying.
7. The machine of the body dying.
8. Fitted in one hand, the body of my mother.
This emotional punch occurs with more frequency than in previous Parker collections. Here, every poem it seems drips with emotion. In “Poetry, Inc.,” he brings back this image of a window, saying: “Look out the window: beauty. Now place one hand on the glass. Now sell what you feel.” He also includes the idea of a poem in the last poem of the collection, “Feeding a Poem to the Horse.” The conceit of this poem, and what ultimately redeems all possible bruises collected from the emotional punches of all the deeply impactful lyric moments that came before the last poem, is that better things should be found to sustain the horse, but he feeds him poems anyway, “So we both might gallop / wild and away.” I guess in this situation I am the horse, grateful to be fed these poems. Long Division is exactly what I expect a book of poems to be: sincere, despite the wit, entertaining, impeccably crafted, and emotionally resonate, galloping wild and away.