Having a Larf: an Examination of Some Poems of Steve Parker
Dave Mehler and Brendan McEntee
“I just like romping around an issue vaguely grabbing at anything connected and throwing it all out as a big splodge to see what pattern it lands in.”
”Personally I was just taking the mickey really.”
”I’m far more interested in pidgins than whole new languages. Creating a poem of entirely new words would seem like some spurious academic exercise to me right now, though it might be appropriate for others.”
”It’s always fascinating seeing someone assemble one of my poems. I do it at a more impressionistic level than that, and often it doesn’t always become clear what I was doing exactly until someone else starts twisting the lens back and forth.”
”But anyway, it’s about setting up layers of conducive impressions rather than trying to deliver meaning, or that’s how I see it here.”
”I’m all into the tangential montage.”
”I’m very into writing that sort of askance, but it takes askance readers to spot it and gel with it.”
”a waterfall of associations.”
”My ideal poem is something that is just out of reach, but that people come out of feeling that they sort of got anyway. I also don’t see any great point in over the top obscurity, but I love stuff that I don’t quite get but feel I’m almost there with, and that somehow I understand without quite understanding… .”
”…the intention was to pull stuff in from all over the place and create a pastiche around two streams, cliches and superficiality included. That’s it really, no larger intention. Just a thing thrown into the air.”
”No worries if it gets seen differently by every reader. My intention here might be irrelevant, plus it seems to alter a little every time I read it.”
”I had a larf doing it anyway.”
Here, in these various comments Steve Parker has offered in response to critics at TCP about the poems featured in Triggerfish this issue, we begin to see a consistent restatement of a poetic methodology in craft and aesthetics for a body of work. And it’s consistent, and something we believe is successful. The poet takes snippets of thinking, readings in literature and news or history as well as personal experiences of no necessary import consciously or singly but for what surfaces in the heat of writing at the moment, then places it on the page to see if or what readers will make of it: impressions, montage, collage. What is given then is a lens into the mind of the poet, what has been preoccupying his thinking on a subconscious level, and a viewpoint which is unique to the artist which forms a poetic tapestry. Meaning to the more free-ranging associative impulses can be applied, creating a coherence of words, of images, but in the end, the poet has given his vision to the reader: make of this what you will. Often the logic imposed belongs solely to the receiver of the work, making the work become universal: drawn from the poet’s experience and understanding and also fundamentally the readers‘. In the process one is offered a lens not only into Steve’s life and thinking but also insight into one’s own as a reader piecing together and imposing logic onto some of the more free-ranging associative impulses into meaning or meanings. The reader is very much involved in the process of meaning making, as Steve points out. He has no qualms if his intentions, when they exist or are realized consciously, be made subservient to the readers’. In fact, in many cases this seems his intent. One of the things that makes his work successful is this underlying humility about his intention and a willingness to make his poems reader-collaborations. Another is his humor and whimsy amidst it all. “Having a larf,” seems to be key to the process, and it pays dividends especially in the his darker work.
In “Fitzroy’s Moral Collapse,” we see the poet tracing British colonial imperialism in the Congo with it’s tendencies toward snobbery, patriarchal religious and class superiority and racism of the gentry toward primitives and inferior class structure of the colonized, applying a parallel to England’s treatment of Ireland, past and even present. Strangely, one of the ways he pulls this off is to have the speaker sound insane, intentionally misspelling words, speaking with an invented “pidgin” and archaic phrasing (“wouldst”) to mirror the archaic and prevalent thinking of over 200 years ago during Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle;, of whom Fitzroy was the captain. Fitzroy as speaker is almost that of a man suffering from delusion and fever. Steve intentionally throws in odd references, (“fortnum ectoplastic” which should be ectoplasm) which I suspect might have to do with a contemporary installation art exhibition in the UK;, obscure references to metallurgy (“fettle”); which sound like they could work in the text but shouldn’t in reality, exaggeration of emotion (“shuddering and lissome delight”) to satirize the high English Ladies’ sensibilities;, and utilizing malapropisms like (exchanging Vermouth for Vermont and & Caliphorn for California), ensuring the extension of these problems also to North America. Through the combining of words into compounds that have never been joined before (“frontwoods,” “erotortoise,”, “quackgrasses,” “finchfather” and “Galapageese”) one can feel the confusion, anger and fear that someone like Fitzroy might experience as his (the prior) view of the world is threatened with upset and the beginnings of being overturned. “These are not words, this is not right” the reader might say, just as Fitzroy himself, a deeply religious man, might have said “This is not true, this is not right” about Darwin’s own experiments. The reader definitely gets the sense that Parker is giving someone–if not everyone–“the mickey,” but the flights of fancy definitely make the more serious subject and satire, if that is what it is, go down easily enough—
“the lives of crestien men
whose wives yet reside
in their flossing bosoms of yeastertide
this in its askance
was his moral claps”
Steve ends the poem on wordplay and rhyme. Who wouldn’t enjoy the romp, or look deeper into a heart of darkness, should they wish or dare?
The poem “caribou dive dive we have only these moments” is a simple poem on the face of it, as a reflection on death, the tainted spiritual influence in the world–mangling the machinery–and a wild freefall of associations along the way. But as always with Steve, there’s also something more–the use of run-on and enjambment to move the poem & the reader forward works very well to give it a wholistic energy and momentum despite the disparate details which very well could hang a reader up but don’t–because of the momentum they become like interesting wildlife or wildflowers along the path causing the reader to look closer as they drive or walk past. Steve has said in commentary that this poem is a reflection on his nearly overdosing, dying on heroin, and then being revived. It’s not a cheery poem but it’s a poem that works with a sum greater than the parts: someone with an altered state of consciousness falling metaphorically into an armchair considers mortality and nonbeing. The submarine references brought me in mind of a recent special I watched on the discovery of a U-boat submerged in the English Channel that no one knew about–apparently even the Germans had forgotten about it! In conversation, Steve admits he saw this special as well and indicates it stands in for a dark submerged presence (representing unconscious forces). Caribou, wonderfully, comes out of nowhere. it’s a good metaphor for prey. Since we all die, we are all prey. Steve wrote:
“The caribou thing is just a personal fixation. It involves caribou as probably one of the main prey animals of humankind in the Northern Hemisphere for 90% of human existence. It involves all sorts of things in fact about humanity, to do with the way that wolves cooperate to attack caribou, to do with our close relationship with wolves and dogs, to do with our learning to use sophisticated language and domesticate animals… It’s wild theorising, but if you were starving out there in 10,000 BC winterland, a good way to know where the caribou were would be to follow the wolves. They can smell them from thirty miles away, and we can’t. Take the kill off a pack of wolves, but give them enough. Pretty soon you have domesticated dogs… And in all of this you have the emergence of hugely sophisticated wolf/human languages that deal with strategy and cooperation…”
In “some heavy morning some sky will ring,” which is a wry title meaning, someday we die ( eg. don’t ask for whom the bell tolls…), we have a poem where Steve’s dark humor comes through in the vein of surrealistic picaresque, almost cartoonish narrative of a man sitting in a cafe alone fretting only to step out into the street toward a tube station which will take him home only to be struck by a car. The interesting technique of ensuring the poem remains light is to have the narrator speak his last words in a rhyming ditty almost. It is Sartrian tragicomedy of existential angst at it’s finest: where not even Woody Allen could do better. The catalyst for his sudden breakdown, which causes him to rush into the street where he meets the car and his death, is the observation that there seems no evidence that anyone other than himself had ever eaten in the café, and a wry realization that this seems
“…almost a perfect experience of life in itself and now
briefly he allowed himself to smile down at the table
though it shook him to do it…”
the bites of breakfast have become:
“sick saccades appeared alien and vile
and he wondered really about
Use of a stuttering device of such a simple little phrase deftly captures the state of mind—: confusion, alienation, despair, uncertainty and hesitancy. Then the speaker rushes out of the cafe creating a scene, shouting and clutching his genitals, right after contemplating a sexual inadequacy; the combination of events with the dark epiphany sets him off into a rage, and with no one even there to witness the event, possibly not even the wait staff, though even while in a rage, he self-consciously speculates they will be upset with him. Then his head flies off (“removing all ambiguity about the matter” of whether he would survive this accident) after his body is struck and bounces off a tree, and proceeds to offer a sad little monologue, like something out of a Monty Python sketch—a character spouting blood sings a ditty or having all his limbs hacked off continues shouting insults in mock bravado. All he is left with is “cloudmouths of grey,” surely a stroke as an image not only for his breakfast but brain matter and perhaps the weather (if not literal, certainly figurative) at the moment. At the same time, we don’t ever succumb to feeling too serious about this piece, it touches a little bit on states of mind everyone at one time or another has experienced and can identify with though not everyone loses their fucking head afterwards. The speaker is the pathetic antihero who shoots himself in the foot in all of us. Vicariously we witness this misadventure and either identify, chuckle, shake our heads in bemusement or pity, but probably not disgust: our reaction clearly a plumb-line test of character, mirroring what and how highly we think of ourselves.
“Arthur Machen’s Fairies,” seems a poem that wants to be read two ways: one taking into account the title and epigraphs, and the other as a personal lyricism and reflection. The poet’s obsession with water and words—water as words and water as thought and reflection, and the subconscious. And through it all is the tone of wistfulness and nostalgia, a feel for an ancient slow passage of time, perhaps a time or a perspective on mystery, mysticism, a view of the world inhabiting the other side of the senses. Arthur Machen was a Welsh writer of such things. He began publishing in the 1890’s, writing predominantly supernatural fiction, fantasy and horror. “Machen’s love of the beautiful landscape of Monmouthshire with its associations with Celtic, Roman, and medieval history made a powerful impression on him which is at the heart of many of his works.” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Machen ). His book, The White People , takes the form of a young girl’s diary as she is being told stories by her nurse which serves as an initiation into witchcraft, and opens her eyes to the world beyond the senses. What I think Steve is doing is co-opting the story to frame his personal lyric which deals with same landscape and countryside so loved and written about by Machen. One can appreciate the poem without the frame, as I did, unfamiliar with Machen’s writing, but the frame enriches the reading of the poem. The poem opens with a boy waking and calling out from sleep and a car’s squealing tires, which causes the poet to grapple and reflect on the mood-laden and mysterious night where some
“thing utters soft soft
soft as the soft Nexus of Wind at Dusk”
perhaps only in imagination or dream, or is it some spirit he is made attuned to after being startled awake, or more attentive at his writing desk, we wonder. It’s like the beginning of a gothic horror novel, but the poem itself does not waver into potentially horrific territory until the final stanza with,
“—whoever then what cloven throat
sputtered there and spake and wefted
in that inwoven space such a Waiting and a Word
—and in all its slow-gathering Silence?”
and it remains an open question, as any interface with the supernatural always does—did what I just hear or see really happen, did I just imagine it, am I perceiving correctly and what exactly am I perceiving, often so subtle, ephemeral and questionable our experience or perception is on such occasions as with dreams or phenomena that can’t be quantified or repeated, just glimpsed as if out of the corner of the eye or heard in the mind. What the body of the text deals with is I believe a rockclimbing excursion perhaps, here: http://www.climbonline.co.uk/wainstones.htm and on the way we encounter a body of water “black and orange” (reflecting the sun going down?), in the mountains (fells), troubled or slowed in its progress downhill feeding creeks (becks) and “frogways” past ancient places where cows have pastured for centuries, and the people who’ve lived and farmed have resided alongside them being warmed by peat fires in places like Wycoller where they built cow houses and walls out of great flat stones that are now lay askew http://www.flickr.com/photos/gonzoii/2785941809/. The cattle’s “goits” (foolishness or stupidity) drifts through the ages, and while this may seem a slight, what we get from Steve’s lyricism is a wistfulness and affection for the beasts. Are we so vastly different, or superior, especially when considering our subjection to death and knowledge of the spiritual world? From here we get an ecstatic cataloging of the plants, the mosses, lichens, and Samphire which figures predominantly, and in fact may be the only thing one actually sees of the actual landscape, while underground water seeps, and even the plants are speaking, faerie breathed, of secret ways behind the Wainscot (some panel or veil between the physical and spiritual) and through races and channels through “the wing-wet years” we don’t normally apprehend is even there. All of it adding up to a slow-gathering silence, which is Steve’s code-word for meaning, numinous or otherwise, or perhaps completion–understanding, or perhaps enigma beyond finite understanding.
In “I don’t know what you mean,” Steve is giving an answer to those readers of his work, real and imagined, who shrug their shoulders and turn away, mystified. As someone who workshops his work online and posts poetry on his blog for others to read and comment on, he has heard this refrain a few times, and undoubtedly even asks it of himself at times as a reader of his own work. Poets write work that not even they have figured out or only guessed at where it came from. What could be more perfect? It can be almost like reading someone else’s writing. Only in poetry. This poem acts in some ways as a gentle defense, in others as an aesthetic, but probably mostly as the poet talking to himself about poetry, and only incidentally in the guise of advice to the reader in how to read him. He says, “words are totally silent things” suspended like fruit from a tree, or in the atmosphere like clouds, fog, or rain. And just so we don’t gloss over this seemingly contradictory statement on the surface, he restates and dedicates one line to the statement, “don’t think they have sound” to underscore, and it works. The fact is these kinds of thoughts, and words, that make up a poem are silent before they are spoken, and come from somewhere up above or deep below, and mysterious, and it is the process of movement that transforms the parts into mysterious meaning, if meaning at all, and whether or not anyone understands—it comes from somewhere, and apparently all we know is that
“none of it is what it is
only what it’s above
“it’s not turtles all the way”
We make our own meaning, there may be no inherent meaning than what is made or until it seeps and accretes in the subconscious of underground lakes or seeps through rock and one pieces it together forming patterns and interpretations from what they know. Perhaps from one’s own life, memories, or the tradition of conversations (poetry) taking place among poets across centuries. None of it is what it is—words are abstractions, metaphors. Sometimes deeper or higher meaning comes obliquely—the direct approach is not always best or most comprehensive because it precludes mystery. Perhaps the paralysis is the act of trying to pierce mysteries or hold onto and gather the drips or words consciously. Every poet has two writers inside: the subconscious one who doesn’t know and writes to discover and speaks in code and metaphor, and the conscious self who knows, interprets and decodes and edits. When they refuse to collaborate or serve one another paralysis can be the result. It gets especially bad for the “writers” within the poet, or for the poet and audience if there is no give and take, only demands made, after a relentless effort to understand, craft, or be understood by others. One gets tired.
In the true spirit of critical thought, these examinations are meant to explore but by no means define the work of Steve Parker. Steve plays with language, utilizing ambiguity, opacity, thought, memory and experience to challenge & compel the discerning reader to re-examine their own approach to language, as it were, to begin anew with every poem–to join in the play. Indeed, one of the best approaches for a reader is to slow down their reading, giving each word its due. Steve isn’t attempting the politically correct re-write of history, but rather a personal approach, through the re-forming of language. But this poet is no guide, he leaves you at the gate and there’s no one there at the exit to ask if you had a good time. This is work that stands alone—and falls alone—based on the reader’s experience. The ruminations above serve to provide one answer, but also in hope of explaining why Steve Parker is one of the most exciting poets working today, who isn’t having a “larf” at our expense, but with us.
Ode to Damask v.ii
© Denise Porthun Jankauskas