Poetry. Writerly Advice. Memoir. Literary Analysis. Book Reviews. Serious Journalism.
Confident. Daring. Witty. Morgan Parker’s debut collection Other People’s Comforts Keep Me Up at Night handles modern culture and autobiography with comedic elegance. She crafts poems that observe the beauty and ugliness of American life. From poems about discrimination to social media, Parker uses powerful emotions to build a sense of immediacy and definition within the collection that builds upon itself from beginnings to endings and page to page.
In “If My Housemate Fucks with Me I Would Get So Real (Audition Tape Take 1)” Parker begins with “I didn’t come here to make friends,” and ends with “I’m so real my hair is going gray, / legs bruised up like tree bark, / veins of my neck as swollen as / ripe fruit, the cheeks of what is growing.” A vivid juxtaposition of internal negotiations and external physicality dominate her poetry We see a speaker navigate life with daring resolution. What begins as internal interlocution morphs into brilliantly written visual images. As each poem ends, the underbelly is exposed, the violence about to burst. Which is what seems to be what Parker is aiming for. Questions about American culture, environment, and relationships stack on top of each other until the reader has exhausted all mental resources.
Parker extends her reach into American culture with a fierceness that excites astute criticism of the current atmosphere. Through materials such as Jay-Z, reality television, and song lyrics, Parker is confident, chiding both what she does and doesn’t understand. She points at femininity and gender roles with comical lines like, “Cinderella jams to Curtis Mayfield/ while scrubbing her/ own vomit from the bathroom/ tiles. On her hands and knees/ she’s all like, / Damn why/ I gotta be the man of the house?” The words are humorous, but there is a deep concern beneath her words—Parker has more to say that just quick quips. Her work is here to move the hard conversations of our society forward.
Oftentimes, the speaker desires tangible honesty, admitting that “Touching you on the shoulder/ is the honest I’ve been/ all week.” Subtly, Parker points out a flaw with the digital era, the lack of human connection. The focus on virtual versus real threads throughout the collection. Her poem “Everything Is Bothering Me” goes far enough to point the finger at herself and others with:
I am trying to sleep alone
you are doing whatever
I swear to God I know people
they live on the internet/ they are the best.
Parker indicts herself. She isn’t afraid of being called out on the very flaws she writes about because this is a poetry about the people, and how we need to be better. Technology and its grip on our attention troubles the voice in this collection as it pulls her into further bouts of loneliness. We see Parker attempt to disengage from tethered technology with the lines, “So I can be more present/ I am getting e-mails on my phone/ there are other places/ ways of living/ we have ruled them out,” but ultimately failing. Society has only mobilized the oppressor, not squashed it out. Through heavy enjambment and a lack of punctuation, her poems rush forward to create an incredible sense of urgency of the matter.
Alongside the social criticism and the urgency to reconnect is a tough, vulnerable voice. That voice starts from the collection’s title Other People’s Comforts Keep Me Up at Night. The title reeks of anxiety and desperation to understand the world it inhabits. And quickly, we learn that this voice, and the insomniatic habit perturbed by other’s creature comforts resonates on every single page. This is an intelligent, complicated voice who knows what it feels like to hurt. The voice knows heartache, but shades it with a toughness that can only be described as resilient in its efforts to shield itself from further pain.
Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night is a provocative collection investigating and revealing problematics within American society. Parker successfully troubles still waters of society’s lethargic acceptance of what it means to “live in this day and age.” She positions power, money and complacency against happiness, success and ambition; voices like Parker’s are must to draw our attention to the comforts of our lives that have taken away the facets of humanity.
Covered up. That’s what happened to the name of the original author of The Mansion. Mary Ruefle seems to care little for the previous author, shamelessly taking the book as her own by erasing the original text and everything else that once made it Henry Von Dyke’s book. That is, until you dive into Ruefle’s heavy-handed process of creating something new from something borrowed:
Everyone knows that I can afford to live/ in/a text
The formation of immortality surfaces through the erasure, for both Ruefle and Von Dyke. The omission of the original text under whiteout quiets the pages and allows new meaning to come alive through what remains seen.
Erasures, the poetic act of deletion, censure and hiding what once was, is an art form Ruefle has claimed as her true form. In the act of erasing, Ruefle manages to open the book up, breathe into it new energy, and give it an audience it didn’t have before Ruefle hid the contents away from our sight.
Not only does Ruefle cover up the text with white out, she affixes images, “stickers” and other visual layers to the top of the pages. Through erasure, she writes:
Using you as an illustration
We see Ruefle surface in this line with the vague ‘you’ often seen in the bulk of her poems. She calls out to a 'you’ to serve as a piece of the erasure. The line is followed by a photo of a large, hairy spider glued over the remaining text on the page. As The Mansion progresses, Ruefle begins to use varying graphics to add a new element to the poetry.
The book becomes a multidimensional art piece that relies on Von Dyke’s words, Ruefle’s poetics, and visual collage. As it seems, Ruefle isn’t erasing Von Dyke; rather she is collaborating with him.
Punctuation is at the heart of my poetry; it seeks to represent a psychological, physical, or emotional upset. A thwarting of sorts. Thwarting in poetry serves to impede or shift the poem from one line of thought into another—it can complicate the image, scene, or emotional tone of the poem. The dash doesn’t always thwart—sometimes it adds to the previous statement, or provides emphasis (which is grammatically sound).
For me, a dash, whether internally or at the end of line offers the flexibility to make a poetic jump that requires space, or halting. I don’t have a problem finding a place to insert a dash and it is something that I consider my strong point. My work is held up through the functions of a dash. My “problem” with the dash is writing the line or words that follow it. I am constantly asking myself how to proceed from there…what I should write next. Should I begin a new line of thinking? Should I complicate the previous image? It isn’t about the position of the dash, rather what is to follow the dash. To understand the function of dashes and the subsequent lines and words, I am looking at a variety of poets that have mastered the use of a dash. The poets that I have looked at are:
· Emily Dickinson, The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson
· William Carlos Williams, Spring and All
· EE Cummings, a selection of poems
· Kimberly Burnick, Good Night Brother
Annotations for William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All:
“Or rather, the whole world is between: Yesterday, tomorrow, Europe, Asia, Africa, – all things removed and impossible, the tower of the church at Seville, the Parthenon.”
Williams uses the dash to add motion to the prose. Moreover, it would seem that the dash serves to impede his series because it is a never-ending series. The list highlights how the eye cannot see any of these things in full—it his first mention of the use of the imagination versus reality. He cannot go on forever so he dashes off; he uses the punctuation instead of saying, etc… Another interesting facet of this section is Williams’ use of a comma in conjunction with the dash, almost as though he is preparing his readers for a quiet upset. When I reach the comma, I take a breath because I can feel his choice to create a distance between what I have just read and what is about to come…which relates to the phrase, “the whole world is between.” Furthermore, his dash does something that I myself want to do. He follows the dash with a statement that complicates the statement prior to the dash. Before the dash and the statement, the list was just a list, but the insertion of the statement completely changes the way the reader “reads” the list. It redefines what contemporaries of his time “see” the imagination.
This is different from my poetry because I use dashes to thwart an image or idea. I tend to dash off when I see the poem coming to a point that has nowhere to go or needs me to frustrate it into a new image or complicated idea, but I have a hard time creating a line after the dash that further complicates the previous lines and/or images. I lack the confidence to complicate the situation. After reading this bit of prose, I wanted to try it for myself with a previously written poem. I took a set of lines from “Lineage" that contains a dash and complicated it in the same way that WCW did:
“The concrete crushes the street heavy
after the sun sets little chirps turn off everywhere,
the world black
and the sky very gray
vultures circle in sync with the cyclone air—”
“The concrete crushes the street heavy
after the sun sets little chirps turn off everywhere,
the world black
and the sky very gray--
vultures circle readying to pluck out my eyes.”
The image in the first set of lines ended with a dash and nothing followed it. The image hung there and didn’t leave the reader with anything. I don’t want that to become a habit in my work. To just end it. I rearranged the position of the dash to come before the last line in an effort to complicate the entire image and result in a blinding of the reader after so much seeing was presented in the previous sections.
“…we alone live there is but a single force— the imagination.”
This is different from his other uses of the dash. He treats it with the same meaning as an equal sign. He gives the line equal weight on both sides of the dash and makes both clauses invaluable to the meaning of the poem.
Poem V, Page 23.
“enter black hearts. Barred from
seclusion in lilys they strike
The dash definitely thwarts the cultivated image and introduces a new idea and image. The image following the dash does resonate back to the other image…he maintains fluidity from one side of the dash to the other.
Poem VII, Page32:
“the Milky Way
without contact – lifting
from it – neither hanging
The series of dashes complicates and elaborates on a single idea.
Annotation Notes on Good Night Brother by Kimberly Burwick:
From “Weakening the Spring Currents” :
The poem starts out with a “How” question, ending in a dash:
"How could I have known that you
would sever the strict shimmering of all
green birds on snow--
each facing south-southwest"
Here is a classic example of a dash elaborating on the previous line, but in this case, the dash is vital to the entire poem. I think that without it, this poem would fail. As the reader, we are left wondering on the actual snow? On a snowplow? On a snow drift? Burwick leaves me wondering where we are other than the cold. Where is the speaker? Is this her imagination, a memory, or physical? Merely a metaphor? The line following the dash does it again…placing the to the south-southwest…looking? All facing one direction? To migration? To summer? She leaves me with so many questions, yet not misunderstood question since they all leave me in the same direction as the poem. Direction, metaphorically, literally, and spatially, it is directive. I took to her idea, and wrote something with a similar idea:
Each drake works her and when the offense is over--
they fly far, far away.
I wanted to give the lines that ambiguity that Burwick uses to create an open-ended tone and image.
Annotations on EE Cummings, a selection of poems:
Pg 42, the wind is a lady
“moves) at sunset
hills without any reason”
While this seems like the perfect interruptive notion of a dash, Cummings alters it slightly by treating the word that completes the statement like a secret. The word touches becomes sensual. Since many of my poems hit a sensual thread, I really liked the way he repositions the words within the punctuation to create a mood. By segregating the word touches, he sets up the entire poem for tactile exploration. The other reason that I am attracted to this set of lines is because I do not tend to use two dashes this close together to segregate a word, phrase, or idea, and that is something that I am learning to include in my work to enhance the reading of my poetry. Like before, I went ahead and attempted the Cummings-style dash:
“Her mouth lies to me,
smirking her crooked lips stained blue”
Cummings does something else with the dash that I haven’t seen very often and that is to put it at the beginning of a stanza. The “front” dash adds an interiority to his poetry that deepens the meaning. For example, in “here is ocean, this is the moonlight” on page 94, Cummings writes about the ocean and the moon, of course talking about love, but sticks hard to the metaphor until he reaches the dash.
“forgets the entire and perpetual sea
—but if yourself consider wonderful
That your (how luminous) life toward twilight will…”
He stops for a moment and in the stanza that starts with the dash, he inserts himself into the poem. He connects the lovers.
Annotated Notes on Emily Dickinson:
I read a dozen of Emily Dickinson’s poems searching for answers about the dash. I found her work difficult to discuss because she uses it formally with a comma that precedes the dash. Moreover, I found that Dickinson used the dash as a substitution for most other punctuation, i.e. periods, colons, semicolons, etc. Her poems relied on the dash, but not in a way that complicated her lyrics. Since I don’t share the same style, I didn’t find her work useful for the thread that I am working on with respect to dashes. I did note that it was interesting that Dickinson’s poems survived through dashes and I intend to try my hand at writing a poem that only uses dashes as punctuation. For that, I am glad that I reevaluated her work with dashes in my head.
Do you ever that moment when you come across a book and say to yourself, “You Bitch.” to the author for doing exactly what you crave to do with your work?
That has happened to me twice this week. Once when I picked up a copy of Rebecca Wolff’s The King and after finishing Catherine Wagner’s My New Job. Damn. Both women write about pregnancy, childhood and motherhood. They execute it with delicate brutality.
Soon, I will be one of them. Soon, my book will be spoken of in reference to these topics. Yes it will. I have decided it to be so.