reviewed by Dan Magers
Let us say that Karl Parker’s chapbook, Harmstorm, owes a little to John Ashbery— and not have it be faint praise. Even if the poems were only good Ashbery imitations (though they are more than that), they would be worthy because few inspire such bad poetry as JA. These poems are conversational, and generally do not break with traditional syntax to any showy effect. Sometimes they have a torque that’s manifested out of well-placed breaks, and ordinary sounding lines can elongate into convulsions that twist you into places your mind doesn’t want. Encouraging you to reread. Examples abound in the poems, notably in “Reflects,” which darts forward:
it's hard to know how and exactly who to trust with such information as doesn't become us necessarily normally anyway… literally everything that happened to bend your vectored view suffusing red.
As much as the internal rhyme and the solid iambs (”to bend your vectored view/suffusing red”) spring you through the poem, what also helps is the decision to use sentence fragments where we don’t expect them, giving the effect of careening into a corner.
More often the lines are languid, as in “Say When”:
Once, in a dream, you played yourself, and were pretty good at it. All was, after all, said and done—when the sense of ending, some stairwell or other, sound of rain in fall shall we say, become the dream; back and forth things flick, day actively divides by later days. Shadowplay: we are at war for now.
I quoted this poem in its entirety, because there is no good place to stop: the lines drift along, each adding some vivid image completely appropriate to the one before it (”the sense of an ending, some/stairwell or other, sound/of rain in fall shall, we say, become the dream”). The lines are short, but not jarring, or even angular as short lines can sometimes be. They weave a gauzy atmosphere that marches you along a stairway to somewhere bad. Say when the title asserts; its malice is so suggestive.
Ashbery’s use of generalities, which became a well-honed part of his poetry through the ’70s, is quite a feat. It is the first rule of writing—abandoned. Note the book’s Ashberyian opening lines:
Modes of agency are still at work here, in the silence, the more or less quiet outside. To have a feeling of just being about to lose it, as they say. Someone told us to go stand behind a large piece of earth and we did. It's that simple.
We are given only the most vague sense of time and place: “in the silence,/ the more or less quiet outside.” Then a vantage point of machinations that we cannot control (”modes of agency are still/ at work here”). With no real action or setup, the screws are tightened through psychological description, which in these poems are intractable with external image: “To have the feeling of just being/ about to lose it.” In the Ashbery tradition, such a declarative must have a qualification (”as they say.”). Who’s the “someone” in this poem? What piece of earth are “we” instructed to stand behind? This is the inscrutability which touches off the dread with irony: “It’s that simple.”
The strand of passivity that runs through the poems includes ones that are more specific in their language such as “A Make Your Own Ending, A Moist Dot” and “Manifestus.” There are also the surreal landscapes of “You Name It” and “Rainsong,” both of which harken to the Ashbery of “These Lacustrine Cities,” with their dreamy sense of place.
But let us look at the same poem through a different prism.
Modes of agency are still at work here, in the silence, the more or less quiet outside.
There is physically nothing happening here in this, the opening sentence to the book. It is foreboding, yes, but what is supposed to happen? Mention of a bad feeling and an imperative to stand somewhere. It is remarkable that so much can be made with so little. Rhetorical flashes can sometimes become their own content, as in a line like, “I loved running through the branches/ when it matters anymore.” It is this inconsistency of tense that gives the line its urgency.
If poems are lines built of hidden gestures, the points where gestures show most is when Parker deploys a vocabulary of words like “death,” murder,” kill,” which try to bring a harsher edge to the feeling of boredom and weariness that saturate the poems. These words seem unearned; there is sincerity, but also deniability because they are just thrown out there as if death, too, was off-handed, requiring a qualification like everything else. Take for example a part from “Rainsong”:
I will not miss everyone at the end, because I will be there too, when I sing in the deadlights along the marshgrass, which appear.
Forget the fact that “deadlights” are the bane of the Derry, Maine kids in It— that unseeable manifestation outside of the physical— we can look at that compound word and the one that is the title and think of Paul Celan. But these poems, while acting out the shadows of Celan’s work, are built up metaphor, and almost do not pretend to have the intensity of the German poet. The strong sense of ennui nourished in our poems can sometimes turn to that less popular cousin, angst. It is a small rupture in otherwise sure-handed poems.
— Dan Magers