Alan Michael Parker. Long Division. Tupelo, 2012.
Alan Michael Parker has always been funny, stretching back to 1999’s The Vandals, a book Pleiades editor Wayne Miller introduced to me many years ago, and which he periodically re-introduces to me whenever he’s forgotten that he already told me about it. Wayne really likes that book, and he should: it’s a dark, sleight-of-hand jeremiad disguised as a series of comic hallucinations, and it is still memorable all these years later. Parker’s newest book, Long Division, is just as funny as The Vandals, but it embodies a different sort of humor, as Parker turns his attention to bittersweet reflections on suburban middle-class life. Where The Vandals sought to evoke a lurking, explosive American id (or perhaps superego), Long Division speaks in the voice of a conscious, careful mind that spells out—delicately and lyrically—the compromises and evasions of the reality principle. With its lawns, children, and third marriages, Long Division finds its humor in the dark wood and Christmas lights of middle-aged maturity.
“A Christmas Letter,” the first poem of Long Division, begins by asserting that “We’re never sure anymore,” and embarks upon a series of dry, observational couplets about life in a growing “zoomburb” where “We go to the gym to go // to the beach, where erosion rules.” What makes the poem powerful, though, is not that Parker makes fun of the suburbs, but that he captures the thinking adult’s mixed emotions of pleasure in small domestic delights and melancholy at the knowledge of their inevitable brevity. This is, to be sure, a high-wire act—when a white male writes a poem called “My New American Lawn” he risks slipping into a set of tropes that became clichés forty-five seconds after Revolutionary Road was published. But Parker’s “anxiety of the idyll” is palpable. He is particularly adept at evoking sadness by moving within a few lines from big sweeps of geography (“the park-like-park cutting through the city, / the city cutting through geology”) to small-scale, everyday consolations (“We’re all well enough; the dogs get along”). There’s so much beauty in the houses and lives these poems occupy, but Parker pits that beauty, always, against things that would destroy it: smart phones, Robert Moses, death.
Throughout Long Division, Parker is particularly interested in exploring the aesthetics of lists. Six of the poems in the book consist of numbered lists, and while this is not in itself an unusual poetic form (“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” for instance, exerts a powerful powerful influence on Parker’s approach to list-making), Parker makes the list-poem his own by thinking about the intellectual and emotional work we want lists to do. “A list,” he writes early in the book, “is a foray into the problem of time,” and time dominates these poems as both a nebulous philosophical conundrum and an inexorable force marching us toward mortality. “Twenty-Two Reasons to Return to the Store” seems at first glance to be a riff on the venerable genre of the shopping list that Parker turns into an off-kilter love poem in which a probably married man professes his admiration for “2. The dance of the cashier, the Matisse she hides all day in her clothes.” But when we get to number 8 on the list, we see that something else is at stake here: “Nothing I am persists. A list stops but never ends.
Parker’s formal playfulness is especially interesting because contemporary popular culture is so saturated with lists. His lists do not engage with the millennia-old poetic tradition of the catalogue nearly as much as they do with the decidedly millennial phenomenon of the listicle, which Parker seeks both to parody and redeem. A poem like “Sixteen Ways Old People Terrify the Young” is Book Two of The Iliad reconfigured for the age of “All the Characters in the Buffyverse, Ranked” and “The Eight Worst Playoff Losses in Kansas City Chiefs History” (to take two examples I’ve seen on my Facebook feed and read with devout attention in the last few days).
If you’ll allow me a digression, I might ask why the listicle (a portmanteau of “list” and “article” which I swear I didn’t make up) is such an appealing genre for the early twenty-first century reader in search of distraction. One obvious point is that a listicle is an incredibly easy to thing write, and ease of production matters in a culture desperate for constantly-refreshing content. But the fact that a list is easy to write does not explain why it is appealing to read. The Era of the Listicle emerges because a list imposes order on a maelstrom of data. Paradoxically, however, even as it claims to be definitive, a listicle is calculated to engender cheap controversy (“no, goddammit, Eugene is the third-most-livable city in the Pacific Northwest!”), and as a result the listicle’s very performance of self-assured knowledge ends up revealing the capriciousness of its claims to authority. The listicle promises an idea of order, but ultimately leaves us hollow.
To return to Parker, what I love about his list poems is that they take this voice of sham-authority and make it dance. A poem entitled “Eighteen Ways to Consider a Neighbor Whose Holiday Lights Stay Up All Year” obviously has a bit of a hill to climb to get a reader to take it seriously, but once he moves through a few jokes (“He’s helping me be Jewish”) and metaphors (“Like lamps lit for all those husbands lost at sea”), Parker concludes with Way #18: “I, with all my little words that go out.” Death is mentioned in all of Parker’s list poems, as he combines two genres with distinct rhetorics of mastery: the list’s inherent pose of exhaustive authority and lyric poetry’s much older tradition of declaring its status as a bulwark against death. In his shopping list poem, Parker notes that “I make it a habit to buy one item each trip that I will not use for months, if ever. In this way I protest my mortality.” A list of ideas, like a pantry of canned vegetables, is an intellectual attempt to store things up for that day when we will have time to get to them, but that day will probably never come. The poems of Herrick or Shakespeare (both of whom are quoted by Parker) claim to transcend the fleetingness of beauty, but the truth of that claim resides entirely in the same realm as item thirty-six on your to-do list: the imagination. The list and the lyric are thus testaments to stated ambition outstripping actual achievement. Parker’s poems evoke for his readers the tragi-comedy of the inevitable failings of these genres, but also the quixotic nobility of any attempt to create a text that will help us stand “against chaos.”