January 30, 2013

Review by Christopher PrewittLong Division by Alan Michael Parker

LONG DIVISION
by Alan Michael Parker

Tupelo Press
P.O. Box 1767
243 Union Street, Eclipse Mill, Loft 305
North Adams, MA 01247
ISBN: 978-1-932195-42-2
2012, 80 pp., $16.95
www.tupelopress.org

At the risk of being reductive in how I think about Alan Michael Parker’s Long Division, let me just say this book is fun. Let me clarify.

Every now and then, I become so frustrated with my own writing process I literally tell people I hate poetry. I don’t really mean that I hate poetry. What I mean is I’m so frustrated by what I’m unable to accomplish in my writing process that the sight of poetry makes me feel even worse about my writing process. In such instances, the only thing I can do is step away from poetry and, after some time, gradually work my way back into reading poems. Depending on what I read I may continue to stay away from poetry, or I may find what I’m reading so rewarding I have no choice but to profess my love of poetry, beg poetry’s forgiveness, and get back to work on being a diligent writer and as good a reader as I can be. The key to poetry bringing me back from these dark times: Poetry has to be fun.

What makes poetry fun for me is reinvention. When I see writers and poets—what’s the difference, though, honestly?—taking old concepts and/or approaches and making them new I get excited. Reinvention is important as a means of resisting stagnation, and art that stagnates ceases to be. One of the qualities, or approaches, I like about Parker’s Long Division is the way he uses listing. Whereas a number of our most revered poets in the Western hemisphere—Whitman and Neruda to name but two—did incredible things with cataloging through anaphora, Parker literally writes lists, which is to say Parker writes poems as lists, e.g., “Eighteen Ways to Consider a Neighbor Whose Holiday Lights Stay Up All Year” and “Nineteen Baby Anteaters in a Japanese Zoo.” I can imagine some people getting turned off by poems as lists, but it’s interesting to me for three reasons. First, visually. Parker has “standard” lineated poems in here, don’t worry—and they’re quite good—but when I see:

1. Into a pillowcase, place a red-winged blackbird, Aristotle’s Poetics, an angel, and a sprig of broad-leafed parsley. Shake well. Tosca!

I get excited. Although I read and love long verse, dramatic verse, and prose poems, my expectation for the poem I’m about to read is that of the terse, lineated poem. Needless to say, the poem as list structure does not meet my expectation, but I mean that in the best way possible. My stagnant way of thinking about poetry is being challenged, and I like it.

Look again at that listed item above. That’s a lot of stuff going on. Yet a numerical listing enables me to process items that have a lot going on, and therein is the second reason I like this approach. The pragmatic function of a list is to prioritize and to simplify data and/or processes in a manner that’s more easily digestible. I like poetry because of its elasticity and its capacity to synthesize disparate ideas and experiences and objects. Let me confess a bias: if a poem doesn’t move around a lot, I, as a reader, check out. Sometimes a poem’s movements can seem so ambitious, so wild, so robust with ideas and experiences and objects, that it’s easy for me to get lost. If the poem’s interesting enough to me, then I will re-read the poem, and in re-reading the poem I become more aware of what’s going on within the poem. In saying that, I appreciate that Parker has employed a structure that allows me to slow down and process what’s going on in the poem, and I think this is a quality many readers will value as well.

The third reason is that the effect of the poem as list is playfulness, and playfulness means fun. When you’re reading something on your own, you don’t want the thing you’re reading to be a drag or without some kind of reward. It’s a basic principle, but it’s worth repeating, especially when one begins to feel frustrated with his own work and can’t figure out why the poems aren’t working, and the reason for the poems not working could very well be the absence of fun.

Listing isn’t Parker’s only trope in this collection. He also demonstrates the capacity to write stimulating narrative poems, and my favorites of his narrative poems are his fables. Not that long ago I started seeking out fairy tales, parables, and fables—it was how I was trying to cope with my own writing’s stagnation at that point in time. Let me confess another bias: I am fond of narratives that aren’t subject to the same rules of physics as that of the world we inhabit. I want to see and experience things I know aren’t possible in the world I live in. When I read “My giant carries me over snowy fields/ through a small town above the rooftops/ and the frosted ruins of rooftop gardens,” I’m having fun. But it’s more than spectacle. Something unusual and funny and poignant is happening in the poem, as the speaker reveals to us that “I am in love and I am carried/ by love// as though on the shoulder of a giant.” So while I’m a little bummed that I’m not seeing a literal giant giving a ride to a man, the metaphor—being in love is to ride the shoulder of a giant—is touching, for lack of a better word, and there’s also that impossible to explain trust I have in reading this poem that being in love has been captured faithfully in the manifestation of riding the shoulder of a giant. I buy it.

So I apologize to poetry for having gone sour, again. I thank Parker for this engaging collection for bringing me back. I also apologize to Parker, because I in no way feel I have come close to offering the intelligent reading—and I’ve certainly not articulated my feelings about reading this book to the degree I would like—this book deserves, but, for now at least, I am content with having read something and simply enjoyed it, and I look forward to future readings and becoming better acquainted with this exciting world.

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Christopher Prewitt is a poet, short story writer, and essayist. Professionally, he teaches. He has also worked in retail and fast food. He is originally from southeastern Kentucky, but currently resides in western Virginia. He served as poetry editor for Inscape and Minnesota Review.