These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.
20 of 100: There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker (2017, Tin House Books)
Quick, personal thoughts:
- I find the sheer volume of contemporary culture references in this book to be soooooo satisfying. I guess some people disagree, but Parker has a terrific answer. Here’s what she says in an interview for The Paris Review on the pop culture references, Parker says, “It would feel false if I didn’t include all those things that really shape contemporary life. … I don’t really see what is so difficult for folks to grasp about it, but I think it’s a debate wrapped up in class and race, and what constitutes high and low art. I’m using pop references, but not in a light or gimmicky way. The poems are exploring and troubling something. My references may look different from someone else’s, but in my life I experience the Real Housewives more than I experience Greek myth. These are my contemporary myths and symbols.” I think this also speaks to the accessibility of the work: for a majority of people, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga are more recognizable references than Hera and Demeter.
- Despite zooming over lots of territory (in terms of references, themes and personas), the speaker in this collection has a consistent voice. Parker has also built into the voice a confidence in what’s being told, (even if what’s being told is evidence of insecurity). That confidence lends the speaker a kind of credibility such that the reader simply accepts the idea that the speaker is an accumulation of all that’s described. Whitney Houston’s “Everywoman” comes to mind. Parker gives an explanation in The Paris Review interview linked above: “I get bored easy. The number one thing for me in writing is to entertain myself and challenge myself and scare myself and push myself. Plus, people are complex. I think it’s important to show that a kind of showy, glittery poem about Beyoncé can exist alongside a much quieter poem about depression.”
- Part of the magic of this collection is that it could be assumed that the speaker is manipulated by all those forces, influences and expectations, but she puppets them instead. The speaker makes forces act the way she wants and say what she wants to say. She has heard their propaganda and uses their same words against them.
- You all know I love list poems, and there’s a really great one in this book. In “99 problems” Parker numbers the list, repeats list items and uses a number range for some items (see examples). This isn’t Parker breaking the list rules (if there is such a thing). This is Parker making new rules.
- There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé ends on what is quite possibly my favorite last line of any poetry book I’ve read: “Why do you get up in the morning”
Lines I want to remember:
- “I wish my pussy could live / in a different shape and get / some goddamn respect.”
- “I will not be attending the party / tonight, because I am / microwaving multiple Lean Cuisines / and watching Wife Swap, / which is designed to get back at fathers, as westernized media / is often wont to do. / … So when / at five in the afternoon / something on my TV says / time is not on your side / I don’t give any / shits at all. Instead I smoke / a joint like I’m / a teenager and eat a whole / box of cupcakes.”
- “The sun bends its back over Struggle City.”
- “While tree trunks / grow into their pleats, / I continue to respect / unwritten codes. / The world would crumble / without my unwavering / sacrifice.”
- “people in movies are always saying / I can’t live like this! packing a little bag // or throwing down their forks I mean it / one of these days my whole body might just / go away”
- “Sometimes it was so sunny you thought / You would die or even worse live to be old / … You were so tired / What strange dreams and sweaty sheets / The disorientation of waking / The gloom of being where you are meant to be”
- “When one season of / The Real Housewives closes, / another one opens.”
- “And someone will not invade me / And I will kneel to pray / And I will address the prayer to myself / And I will be allowed”
- “There are things / called medication / and days. They are hard / to believe. I am tired / so I wife myself. / Down here / the boys are theoretical.”
- “There are more beautiful things than Beyoncé: / Lavender, education, becoming other people, / The fucking sky / It’s so overused because no one’s sure of it / How it floats with flagrant privilege / And feels it can ask any question”
What others have said:
- from Emilia Phillips‘ review in Boston Review: “With her penchant for persona, projection and aside, 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.”
- from The Washington Post: “Each woman in this fierce collection wants to be seen for who she is, not what society wants her to be, and each demands respect. “
- from The Harvard Crimson: “Despite her book’s raw intimacy, Parker still creates a subtle distinction between writer and speaker in each poem. While her poems are emotional and her speaker unsure of who she is, Parker demonstrates a deep knowledge of literary and popular culture, an impressive command of her art form, and a sharp wit. She seamlessly stitches together allusions to T. S. Eliot, classic film, and modern music, portraying a speaker who struggles to find her place in the world. … Parker also subverts societal expectations with cliché twists that force readers to reevaluate their own assumptions. The speaker makes her bed and has sex in it, too; she kisses herself hello.”
- from The Nation: “What is also of particular interest is how the signifiers of glamour (sequins, bubble baths with lavender and cucumbers) in her poems are juxtaposed to mental health. There is an admiration for leisure and luxury at the same time that she questions what it means to desire or to be desired or to be alone.”
- from the book’s front flap: “The only thing more beautiful than Beyoncé is God, and God is a black woman sipping rosé and drawing a lavender bath, texting her mom, belly-laughing in the therapist’s office, feeling unloved, being on display, daring to survive. Morgan Parker stands at the intersections of vulnerability and performance, of desire and disgust, of tragedy and excellence. Unrelentingly feminist, tender, ruthless, and sequined, these poems are an altar to the complexities of black American womanhood in an age of non-indictments and déjà vu, and a time of wars over bodies and power.”
Where some of the poems from this collection live online:
- “The President Has Never Said the Word Black“
- “13 Ways of Looking at a Black Girl“
- “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife“
- “ALL THEY WANT IS MY MONEY MY PUSSY MY BLOOD“
- “Beyoncé on the Line for Gaga,” “Rebirth of Slick” & “White Beyoncé” here
Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!