This Is Uncorrected Proof
September 14, 2017
Sep 14, 2017
10 Min read time
Morgan Parker's intimate poems complicate the public discourse on black women.
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé
Tin House, $14.95 (paper)
Morgan Parker’s second poetry collection, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, revels in music, not only through allusions to figures such as the titular performer, but also through Parker’s unwavering instincts about the musical capabilities of language. In “13 Ways of Looking at a Black Girl,” Parker builds the poem’s catalog structure on internal slant rhymes punctuated by white space:
at risk pretty Queen Latifah Nikki Giovanni
Ma Tina Turner sex
dyke ugly bitch sex Mamma NeNe Leakes
Elsewhere she adapts and incorporates song lyrics from a wide range of musical genres—torch to hip-hop, blues to bebop—into her charged and distinctively frank verse. “Summertime and the living is / extraordinarily difficult,” Parker writes in “The Book of Negroes,” warping lyrics from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935) while subtly taking to task the simplified and romanticized narratives about black identity perpetuated in a century of popular culture. The living is complicated, to put it lightly, and the living is definitely not served by “one-story” narratives of racial stereotypes. Throughout this collection, Parker dismantles hackneyed stereotypes as they appear in many forms and as they are trafficked in American popular culture.
In “ALL THEY WANT IS MY MONEY MY PUSSY MY BLOOD,” the collection’s opening poem, Parker reframes a walks-into-a-bar joke, replacing the punchline with the sucker punch of truth about institutional racism, black death, and police brutality:
Okay so I’m Black in America right and I walk into a bar.
I drink a lot of wine and kiss a Black man on his beard.
I do whatever I want because I could die any minute.
I don’t mean YOLO I mean they are hunting me.
Identifying institutional racism and black death among the anxieties wracking Parker’s collection risks conceptualizing or even abstracting them, but Parker concretizes this systemic brutality through prolific use of a first-person point of view: “There’s far too many of me dying,” she writes later in the same poem. In “Delicate and Jumpy,” the personal, bodily risks of racism make the speaker hyperaware: “Turns out I feel my body / more than I should.”
Parker identifies institutional racism, black death, and systemic brutality through prolific use of a first-person point of view.
With her penchant for persona, projection, and aside, however, Parker redirects the reader’s tendency to objectify the collection’s speaker (and, therefore, black pain) or to conflate the manifold experiences of black women in America. By juxtaposing the candid self (“I spend / most nights topless / and appreciate / my dog”) with the imagined candor of a black celebrity such as Beyoncé (“if you could see me now arms up / over the mantel”) Parker cultivates complex representations of the internal lives of black women, a poetic process that indicts racist (and sexist) generalizations. In an interview with Nylon, Parker writes:
I just want [people] to realize that the center of the book was this kind of statement on black American womanhood. I wanted then to bring in as many visions of that as possible. It’s really about the multiplicity. It’s about the fact that we are contradictions—we are so complex, and on one hand, you can be totally praised for your body and the way that you take up space, and at the same time, you can be totally defaced.
In turn, she rightly snubs well-meaning but oblivious non-POC whose acts of empathy verge upon appropriation, and who demand that a single black person, or black poet, act as an authority on and voice for all black people, or insist they perform their anguish publicly in the face of news-making tragedies. “Sentimentality, notoriously, is entirely compatible with a taste for brutality and worse,” Susan Sontag reminds us in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Rejecting this empathetic voyeurism, Parker presents experiences that unify the “meaningful” with the quotidian. “Afro” opens:
I’m hiding secrets & weapons in there: buttermilk
pancake cardboard, boxes of purple juice, a magic word
What’s “hidden” in the Afro is indicative of both how non-POC people see her and the stereotypes engendered by the hairstyle. As the catalog continues, these rumored objects range from the mundane—“boxes of purple juice”—to the absurd—“Miss Holiday’s vocal cords”—to the reflexively dangerous—“brown liquor intended / for distribution at Sunday schools in white suburbs.” This poem is part fuck-you satire, part admiring mirror.
‘Sentimentality, notoriously, is entirely compatible with a taste for brutality and worse.’
The collection’s Beyoncé poems sometimes adopt the voice of the superstar, as in “Beyoncé Is Sorry for What She Won’t Feel” (“Like America / and wine, I am all legs”), and sometimes meditate upon her, as with “White Beyoncé,” who “Sneezed on the beat / and blessed her self.” These poems provide a thematic refrain in the collection, a chorus in celebration of black excellence and female empowerment that nevertheless honors the complexities of these ideals and the people who lionize them. “Slouching Toward Beyoncé” riffs on and argues with Yeats’s “The Second Coming” with lines such as “Things don’t fall / apart they find new homes.” The poem begins with Beyoncé,
Who reads her horoscope
in secret and bathes
her loose strings
in holy watercolor
Sometimes the Beyoncé poems read like the poet’s vision board, as in a picture captioned with #dreamlife; elsewhere they feel like love letters, not unlike Marcus Wicker’s series that includes “Love Letter to Flava Flav” and “Love Letter to RuPaul” from his collection Maybe the Saddest Thing (2012). Sometimes Parker’s poems seem like an argument against the idealization of Beyoncé, who has, through the lens of American culture, become a kind of effigy of what a black woman can and, perhaps more dangerously, should be. At other moments, however, they seem to be a way for the speaker to embody a fake-it-till-you-make-it kind of self-love. “I have been a pleasure,” Parker opens in “Beyoncé Prepares a Will.” If this is the case, then the use of persona has been transformed from an act of getting outside the self, of putting on a mask, into a way to get deeper into the self, accepting its imperfections and better one’s mental health. Both acts are no small tasks when one is caught in the crossfire between rhetorical and physical forms of violence.
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé reorients a poetic mode of self-portraiture, moving away from narcissistic self-absorption to create an intimacy that allows the speaker-self to meet her own once-downcast eyes in the mirror. “What’s largest is the ego, half animal growing near mint,” Parker writes, and then as the next line turns, “I’m a rare EP strutting into the brown morning.” Self-celebration here allows for self-deprecation and self-aggrandizement, while also, somewhat paradoxically, maintaining its sincerity. Take, for example, the I statements and tonal leaps in “Heaven Be a Xanax”:
When I get to heaven I’m going
to wear my good bra
so no one can stay mad at me . . .
And I will kneel to pray
And I will address the prayer to myself
And I will be allowed
Elsewhere, the speaker of “It’s Getting Hot in Here So Take Off All Your Clothes,” renders herself a kind of Medusa-Venus hybrid:
My body gets more for less
& O! When I say less
I mean as in classically beautiful, flaws
spilling out of my mouth like sexy
moon rocks. I cut out men’s tongues &
I sharpen myself & I’m scary & I’m bossy:
I’m the chick who raises snakes like a volcano
A similar moment appears in “Rebirth of Slick,” where the speaker indulges in a kind of tail-feather strut:
It’s easy to be ravishing: don’t think
I am feeling smooth & twirl my wrist as such
Flock to me I ain’t scared
Moments of candor in the collection, including those about the speaker’s occasions of masturbation (“I blow my nose / and repent for the night / before I masturbate”) and her hopes for her vulva (“I wish my pussy could live / in a different shape and get / some goddamn respect”) position the collection as an intersectional feminist, sex-positive argument against body-shaming, unconcerned with the concerns of prudish critics. “Good morning how may I / offend you,” Parker writes in “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” Rather than repelling readers, these poems entice them to consider that poems provide a form for self-actualization and intimacy. “I want to be flawed // all the way to bed,” she declares, unyielding as a sovereign self.
Parker reorients a poetic mode of self-portraiture, moving away from narcissistic self-absorption to create an intimacy that allows the speaker-self to meet her own once-downcast eyes in the mirror.
As they elevate and render the bodily conditions of the self, these poems do not neglect Parker’s life as a poet, especially the ways her livelihood has been examined and used for the benefit of others. In “Welcome to the Jungle,” she writes, “art is nice but the question is how are you / making money are you for sale.” In several interviews, Parker has discussed the tokenization of writers of color for the sake of diversity in publishing, most notably in PEN America’s “Equity in Publishing: What Should Editors Be Doing?”:
More than once, editors have asked me to guest-curate issues of their magazines, and more than once, these editors have cited my connection to “communities” as their reason for approaching me. “We’re trying to be more diverse,” they’ve said. . . . They’ve identified a problem, which is great, but it isn’t nearly enough. They want to be validated (“I’m doing the right thing, right Morgan?” “You know I’m a white person who means well, right?” “I’m trying.”), which, while understandable in the current climate of call-out culture wherein the very basis and structure of the publishing world is finally being loudly shaken, isn’t my job.
With this in mind, Parker’s poetic phrase “are you for sale” is especially biting as commentary on the publishing industry. It implies that she has been asked to perform her identity to help publications achieve diversity quotas and connect with non-white literary communities. This approach to diversifying a publication can be an action that further others non-white people, as the concept of diversity and the rhetoric surrounding it positions whiteness as the norm, the center of an identity spectrum, whereas POC are “diverse” because they are outside that center. The concept of decolonization, however, reorients these delineations of identity so that whiteness is not at the center but only one of many multivalent identities that is equal to or contiguous with, not foundational to, the others.
These concerns are only part of what drives Parker’s book, which is full of overt and subtle arguments about being—“More than ever I feel // accidental,” she writes in “Funeral for The Black Dog.” Still, it is clear that Parker wants the reader to be changed by the poems in the collection. More than asking readers to hear her or pay attention, Parker, as with the most consequential poets, tells us to listen. And she calls out those who don’t: “This book is uncorrected proof. . . . You say you read it but you didn’t.”
Tracy K. Smith, the new U.S. Poet Laureate, says in a recent interview with the Academy of American Poets that “poetry as an art form gives us practice caring about others, and accepting that their perspectives can be as valid and vital as our own.” Parker’s collection asks for something different. It asks readers to care—to recognize and respect the selfhood of black women as individuals. This seems like a no-brainer, in theory, but is complicated by generalized perceptions embedded in our cultural thinking. In some cases, this demand arrives as an invitation to join her—to ask, to know—but other times, and perhaps most importantly, she insists that there are limits to empathy, and that those limits are called privacy and selfhood. These poems, above all, insist on self-sovereignty, pushing away the reader who would read to consume another’s identity or pain. Parker maintains her boundaries: “I’m sorry,” she writes in the collection’s penultimate poem, “Let me fucking mourn me.”
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September 14, 2017
10 Min read time