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Bird Full of Rain by Glenn D. Parker
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Bird Full of Rain

by Glenn D. Parker

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Insatiable Fidelity: the becoming poetry of Glenn Parker

The volume Bird Full of Rain is a collection of poems written by Glenn Parker, compiled and edited by four of his friends and fellow-poets after his death. Parker is a poet unknown to probably all but a tiny handful of poetry readers in the United States and perhaps unheard of anywhere else. (In a recent issue of Poets & Writers featuring twelve poets publishing their debut volumes, the interviewees were asked to name their own favorite debuts. In the midst of a number of obligatory mentions of Harmonium, Prufrock & Other Observations, and White Buildings, Daniel Brenner named Bird Full of Rain—the sole mention of the book I have found in the American poetry press in the decade following its publication). Guy Davenport, in an essay included in The Geography of the Imagination, laments the low regard in which poetry is held as an occupation in the U.S., recalling “an excellent poet who I happen to know is a bus boy in a short-order kitchen, and another who cleans shower stalls at a gym, and another who is a janitor in a Boston tenement,” opining that “it is a kind of miracle that we have a single poet in the country.” Though (I presume) unknown to Davenport, Glenn Parker too was one of these humble miracles.

Bird Full of Rain is not the book Parker would have published—if, indeed he would have chosen to publish at all. “He was all the way inside his life,” writes editor Sundin Richards, “and was too busy looking to concern himself with the creation of a personal system to be examined posthumously.” The book, then, is a sort of cross-section or inventory of what Parker found in that looking. It is a record of a poetic sensibility, being worked out in notebooks, on napkins, matchbooks, ticket stubs. In some of this strata there are lines where that sensibility realizes itself in startling clarity, giving us an unapologetic—largely un-selfconscious, I think—personal vision; what Richard Cronshey calls “moments of unconditional perception:”

Two raindrops
touch your cheek

as you turn
and smile

and all the places
of the world

become exotic
at once.

Here an instant of perception of the tiniest, most ephemeral detail has altered the experience of the widest possible context. Sometimes, on the other hand, a whole milieu will be summoned to bear witness to a single instance:

When she wears the red sombrero
with the gold trim
all the animals of the ark
appear at the window.

Not just the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air are called up here, but the Biblical account of the flood and the child's playroom shelf with the toy ark. In the next stanza they are gone again; what stays in the poem is the crowded, alive sense of the multifarious.

These cameos are really functions of a deeper principle, a certain oscillating dialectic; for in Parker's poetry two separate traditions are debating, sometimes duking it out, in the presence of a usually silent but scrupulously fair referee. These traditions are the poetic inheritances of the Americas on the one hand—especially of the Beats and the Latin American reworking of Whitman, and to a lesser extent the confessional poets—and on the other, of Europe, especially Rimbaud and the Surrealists. The Beats (I'm guessing Brautigan in particular) impart to Parker a rich landscape, both rural and urban, of loved kitsch. Much of the postmodern literary scene in the United States regards kitsch with an attitude of ironic mock-celebration, but in Parker, this world is genuinely loved for the sake of the mainly blue-collar human lives inhabiting it. Irony is, indeed, a trope not often met in Parker's poems. This, among other things, sets them apart both from the self-deconstructing linguistic sparklers of language poetry and from the exemplars of so-called mainstream poetry that derive, via poetry workshops and MFA programs, from the Confessionals or from the New York school. The distance which irony can impart to a poem comes instead, in Parker’s work, by a surrealistic dream-tone, inherited from Rimbaud and mediated by Breton, Eluard and Char. This distance, however, is never disengagement—a distinction which obtains thanks to that referee I spoke of, who operates by light of Parker's profoundly spiritual motives, deriving from his reading and praying the texts of the Church Fathers, Kierkegaard, and Bonhoeffer (who he [physically] resembled slightly), and his study and practice of tai chi and other Taoist disciplines. (It may be that Merton is the great unremarked link here, but though I think Glenn had certainly read Merton—both poetry and essays—others will have to estimate the degree of Merton's influence on his poetic practice).

Yves Bonnefoy has urged that poetry be made in a simple, universal vocabulary: stone, air, tree, bird, light. In Parker's work, this purified lexicon has made room for donuts, backpacks and parking lots; in the best poems evocation and colloquialism bow to and augment each other. With his twin inheritance from the Beats and the Symbolists, Parker resembles Ashbery, more as a cousin than a direct descendant. (I think he evaded, by his disinterest in publication, the tendency of many poets in the '70s and '80s to define themselves in response to Ashbery in particular.) For the most part Parker preferred, and took, his “influences” straight; the one mediator who I think did indisputably impact him is Dylan, especially Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing It All Back Home, and the novel Tarantula. (One might make a case for Tom Waits too.) This influence shows up especially in Parker's funny characters, with names like Helen Dimetapp, Roland Chickenwire and Bob Shiva; but these owe at least as much to the waitresses and customers of the all-night greasy-spoon diners Parker inhabited, as to any LP. These figures have lives that pivot, sometimes in a single stanza, a single line, between such heartbreak as you feel in a dream, and theatre of the absurd.

This dangerous ground is in fact right where they live. Helen Dimetapp, named for a cough suppressant, “has a house / on the fault line.” Salt Lake City, Utah, where Parker wrote most of these poems, is of course situated on the Wasatch fault (overdue for The Big One by about 500 years now), and one may find any number of places there to sit around and wait for plate tectonics to cough. I myself once lived immediately down the hill from a little spot that went by the name of Faultline Park, with sandboxes, swing sets and a lovely view of the valley; I strongly suspect it turns up in the poem. In Parker's work, the fault runs between the poignant and the wacky, a difficult poise to maintain; and it does sometimes slip, though never too jarringly. Sometimes all that registers is the mark of the needle on the chart; and we wonder if what we've read is just a tremor, or the herald of something more. This ambiguity imparts a hint of portent to what might otherwise be mere vignettes, as when we see Helen as she

returns home from the park
and looks at a map
of the seas of the world
and circles all the places
she likes
with red lipstick.

These maps are a motif that shows up more than once. One poem ends with “A small boy reading maps on a Sunday afternoon,” a boy who I suspect may be an image of the poet himself. There is a particularly moving instance of this theme in the second section of “The Pillars Begin to Shift”:

The symbol of the victim
is the symbol
of pure transformation.

The photograph of her bones
is the symbol of the deep south.
Her eyes resemble maps
of the world.

The architects converge there
on Friday mornings,
when the streets become
more self-explanatory
with the continuing snowfall.

The omnipresent clown
puts the sun
into his pocket

as a beautiful woman
goes crazy in the streets
of Seattle.

Gladiolas are growing
in the Ethiopian orphanage
and her eyes
look like maps of the world.

The “symbol / of pure transformation” in the first stanza, which might have been lifted from Rimbaud's blotter paper, is symptomatic. Parker's poems are full of transitions, moments when the fault shifts. Some are very subtle, and hard to spot amidst the bigger ones: the snow making the streets “more self-explanatory,” for example, or the way her eyes resemble becomes, after the “beautiful woman / goes crazy,” her eyes look. Frequently there is simply the expectation of a shift, an expectation that can verge on the apocalyptic, but is just as often at ease. To my mind the most poignant instance of Parker's cartographic preoccupation is found in an untitled poem showing just this dreamy but not illusioned anticipation. In addition it presents in only a few lines the street-chorus of hardboiled, noir characters, the quiet cinematic aesthetic, and most importantly, the characteristic easiest to miss—Parker's realism:

There was a single door through which leopards came.
It was a city of bums and whores
with mushroom deals cooking on the side.
I could be sitting alone in a room,
waiting for the bombs, and I'd still want to give you
a handful of cherry blossoms.
I looked at a map of the Black Sea
and thought of red flowers among grey stones
and a soft wind blowing across naked bodies.
I don't know if the Black Sea is really like that.

I have had the experience of reading this poem aloud to a room and being surprised by a laugh at the last line, as if it were the punchline to an exquisite-corpse joke. It is not my business to dictate reader response, but I think this laughter is symptomatic of a mistake all too easy to make regarding Parker's poems, rough as some of them are. To me, the spirit of this confession, “I don't know if the Black Sea is really like that,” is a linchpin of this poetry. Parker's aesthetics may have been derived from Breton and Kerouac, but his ethics was from Kierkegaard, Buber, and the New Testament; he had an utterly serious commitment to meeting whatever was there to be met, whatever experience at all. This meant full fidelity to his experience—“I'd still want to give you / a handful of cherry blossoms”—and to the world, which exists beyond the subjective experiencer, in its own plenitude.

The line may make one laugh, but that's because of its incongruity. In fact all those grey stones and red flowers blowing in soft wind over naked bodies, the whole vision, is occasioned by a fascination with the Black Sea itself. As I indicated before, it's Parker himself, I suspect, who is that boy reading maps on a Sunday afternoon. That boy is fascinated at one and the same time by the map and the place mapped. Maps, too, look, which is why the woman's eyes can come to “look like maps of the world” where before they merely resembled them. This faultline between experience and representation, between experience as experience, and as grist for the poem (between the sea and the map) is, I think, what makes the sparks in Parker's work, both when it fizzles and when it flares.

If Parker's relationship to experience is faithful, it is also thirsty. His poems are a record of a deep desire for the widest possible range of experience; indeed, for many, seemingly incompatible experiences—incompatible, that is, according to the ordinary scripts, which would have one believe that the plumber cannot be a poet; that the pole-thin girl on the magazine cover must be either perfectly happy or secretly miserable, but does not dream that she might be ordinary. Parker found nothing implausible or even surprising in Marx's notion that a man might labor in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and philosophize in the evening; and he had no interest in the common narratives which dole out escapism but no real escape. His interest lay not in stories about experience but in experience itself.

Alan Finkielkraut writes in The Defeat of the Mind:

"The followers of postmodernism do not dream of an authentic society, where people live comfortably in their cultural identities, but a polymorphous one, a multicolored, heterogeneous world in which individuals have many lifestyles to choose from. They have less interest in promoting the right to be different than the right to have access to the differences of others. For the multicultural means a storehouse of options."

Leaving aside the matter of how just this characterization is, we may at least concur that it describes a real enough tendency. Though Parker shared many of the sentiments of multiculturalism, nothing was more foreign to his project than this storehouse of which Finkielkraut writes, this smörgåsbord which would reduce every possibility to a variation on aesthetics. Parker once remarked to me that had it not been for Kierkegaard, he would not have found it possible to be a Christian. Kierkegaard's account of aesthetic is impossible to treat both briefly and justly, but one can say without too much risk of caricature that he considers the aesthetic one of three “stages on life's way;” more than a set of philosophical or artistic problems, the Aesthetic is an orientation towards life; that evaluation of life which makes art (by whatever name) the only relevant category, whether or not one is “an artist.” From such a position, no matter what specific aesthetic standards one uses, every choice—from what to wear in the morning to how to treat the bagger at the checkout stand to whether to keep or turn in the found wallet or to embezzle from the company—is made with reference to art and art only (though perhaps hedged about with extraneous considerations like legality or convenience). It is the stance which sees one as a character in a story, and the essential question then becomes not, what is right? but, what makes a good story? what sort of figure will I cut, or will it help me cut? It is obvious that such questions do not need to be consciously or explicitly formulated in order to be operative. The same is true of the questions “what is right? what is my duty? what does the ethical law dictate?”, which pertains in good Kantian fashion to the Ethical stage (Kant's ethical mores insisting that one may not treat other beings—Kant says “rational beings”—as “means simply,” but only as ends in themselves); or, in Kierkegaard's final, highest stage, the Religious, the question “what is the will of God?”; Kierkegaard's great exemplar of which was Abraham ready to sacrifice his son Isaac when the divine will so bid.

Parker is hardly the only poet whose poetics are influenced by this Kierkegaardian take (Auden is a famous case); and I do not think his poems are conspicuously shaped by Kierkegaard in any overt way (with the exception of the line “Say goodbye to the Kierkegaardian cowboys”—a line with which I freely confess I don't know what to do but comply: goodbye! goodbye!) But Parker's aesthetic is clearly aware of the critique Kierkegaard spelled out. In particular, Parker knows that what makes a story is not the only or highest question. Parker is aware of, and resists, the temptation to see the world as a backdrop for his own show. His visions are his own; but the Black Sea is not. He does not want mere choices; he wants to be changed.

There is, I think, the germ of a paradox here. Parker's poems seem sometimes colored by a perhaps naive forgetting that some experience is a one-way street, irreversible. This is trivially true of every experience, of every moment; it is more pertinently true, in a different sense, of those experiences which shape us, of which we say they make us who we are. Such is falling in love, or religious conversion; such is the undergoing or witnessing of indelible suffering; such can be war, drug addiction, learning a language, or reading a poet. Parker sensed very well that every life-choice was not just a story about oneself but of the world one lived in. He had no interest in cutting a figure; in looking like or playing a great lover, a misunderstood poet, a champion of the poor or a man of the world. He had however a voracious interest in the infinitesimal details of milieu in which one could move, because all these worlds were real. He longed to encounter these worlds as other worlds. There are some times when he seems to think that one can slip into and out of them at will, or that the ability so to do would be the ideal superpower if one were a comicbook hero. His vision touches down in so many scenes, so rapidly. Yet he also knows that the worlds to be met thus are worth meeting because they change you. There is a commitment in his most successful poems that mitigates his insatiability. His itinerary reminds one of a dada version of Coleridge's projected curriculum vitae. Early in his career, still eager to get it all down on paper, Coleridge wrote:

"I should not think of devoting less than 20 years to an Epic poem. Ten to collect materials and warm my mind with universal science. I would be a tolerable mathematician, I would thoroughly know Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Optics and Astronomy, Botany, Metallurgy, Fossilism, Chemistry, Geology, Anatomy, Medicine—then the mind of man—then the minds of Men—in all Travels, Voyages and Histories. So I would spend ten years; the next five in the composition of the poem; and the last five in the correction of it."

Parker is more freewheeling, striding through the take-it-as-it-comes range that Whitman opened up in the enormous rambling litanies of Song of Myself. But whereas Whitman is generous and celebratory, delighting in the inexhaustible panoply of the world, and Coleridge is exacting and serious, the ambitious young poet rolling up his sleeves, Parker seems in his more understated way to have something of both; the delight of the litany and the imperative of the syllabus:

You must argue beautifully
on the nature of
rational numbers and
then impress your girlfriend
by wearing socks.
You must study the
behavior of the blind
for five years and then get a job
picking walnuts.
You must learn to
discuss transmission fluid
at great length and then criticize prostitutes
for being flat-chested.
You must involve
yourself with a political family
in which you play with the
children just to get credit for being
kind.
You must dream endlessly
about women who are both
naked and beautiful and
then when the opportune
moment arrives let the
phone go right on ringing

In Parker's poems I do not have the sense of these experiences being sought “as means simply.” Every mode of experience is also an end in itself. To find the arcane compatibility between walnut-picking and transmission fluid, between ingratiating oneself with politicos and critiquing prostitutes' physiques—to Glenn Parker there must be some secret and elegant way for it to all suddenly swing into alignment, like a Rubik's cube; or, if there weren't, then that, too, was something to take into account, uncompromisingly, unafraid. Although the poem here is, I suspect, a rougher draft than some—the lineation, for example, is less satisfying than in other poems—I fancy that the missing period at the end is intentional and not a symptom of haste. Parker is looking over and over again for the experience he can give himself to wholly, without reservation or remainder, and then, as if notified by an internal alarm clock, awake with the remembrance that there is still a vast, unexplored world.

This balance of ethical commitment and aesthetic ravenousness, this insatiable fidelity, is far trickier than it sounds. The reader will recall that poets have been unceremoniously shown the door of more Utopias than one, precisely because they were deemed ethically suspect: their itch for art, it has been supposed, could only get in the way of decent morals. In some moods, Parker the believer probably would have agreed; part-time Kierkegaardian cowboy that he was, he more or less concurred that there was a discontinuity between aesthetic, ethical, and religious "stages." But Parker the poet resists this absolute divide, and his work attempts a problematic and not always successful highwire act across it, which is what makes his poetry singular. Other poets succeed better at other things, and many have exemplified Parker's sensualist appetite for one experience after another, or his radical openness to come-what-may, or his solidarity with whatever, whoever, he meets. Parker's work is in this sense a synthesis, for in it these stances blend easily, naturally in the pure faith that every experience will leave him still free to move on to any other. He gives this impression without seeming to hold himself aloof, first because he is not striking a pose or carrying out a program; and second, because he insists on the absolute right-to-exist of every mode of experience, an insistence not overt but implied in the way he can take each purely on its own terms: Crusoe, Red Baron, Napoleon of Crime; monk, housewife, sex worker.

James Agee's dedicatory introduction to his first book, his only book of poetry, Permit Me Voyage, (the Yale Younger Poets volume for 1934, undeservedly neglected today) begins with a dedication “to God in the highest / in the trust that he despises nothing,” and then proceeds, “and in his commonwealth:” There follow eight pages enumerating every creature under God's heaven, to every one of which Agee's work is addressed, whether in gratitude or prophetic urgency, in the conviction that it is relevant, and most startlingly in the apparent conviction that it can in some sense be received. The lists go on and on: to Agee's parents, teachers, priests, advisers, friends; to those who built the world he lived in and the language he lived (Mark Twain, Ring Lardner, Hart Crane, Abraham Lincoln...); to those who, as Agee sees things, oppose it (and these he curses with enough eloquence to teach the denouncers of “our enemies” a thing or two, about denouncing and about themselves); those who tried and succeeded, and those who tried and failed; paragraph after paragraph beginning “To those who...:” saints, failed saints, scientists, honest businessmen, travelers, soldiers, artists; who believe or who despair; who are brave or who are afraid. He puts, back-to-back, and wholly without irony, “the fathers of Holy Scripture” and the atheist Shelley; on the second page, heading up a list that includes Charles Chaplin, Diego Rivera, and Albert Einstein, he puts James Joyce; on the second-to-last, all in his own paragraph, he puts Leopold Bloom, “and in his mildheartedness to all mankind.” The whole litany is like the passage from Ecclesiasticus which later gave Agee the title of his book with photographer Walker Evans on southern farmsteaders, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; yes, and those not famous too, who have vanished “as if they never were.” Reading Agee's dedication, I think immediately of Glenn Parker, his honor for and lack of distinction between the ordinary and extraordinary. Though Agee's poems are of a far greater formal elaborateness than are Parker's, the spirit that enervates both poets is unmistakably the same. This kinship across decades, (sometimes across centuries and languages), not a question of “influence” but of shared motives of soul, is one of the surest tests of “real poetry” I know, and in this case is perfectly clear. I don't know that Parker ever read Agee's poetry; I am sure he knew Agee and Evans' book. What is clear is the universality of the vision; the deep and unfeignable respect for every dimension, the conviction that “nothing human is foreign.” The poet, too, even when he curses, “despises nothing.”

This startling and subversive attitude is so axiomatic in Parker's poems that it gives, without pounding so much as a single table, a sense of total conviction, a wire-taut sense that the poet means business. He's even a little crazy. Yet, there's also that dreaminess, the waft of opium from Andre Breton's Paris. It's an odd, laid-back urgency which informs this poetry, a sense that the history we live in is for the time being, and it sometimes imparts a tinge, or more than a tinge, of anxiety; for dreams can be troubled dreams. Like Agee, hard-drinking and thrice-married Roman Catholic, Parker believed and despaired; and Parker's faith, as faith, is lived in dialogue with its opposite. Intimation of apocalypse, like those bombs I could be waiting for, resurface in poem after poem, reminding us that the stories of our lives, while they will not be erased—indeed, they will become indelible—will, inevitably, be recontextualized. Parker experiences this anticipation in various modes. In one poem—it might be a modified dream-transcription (a conceit he uses several times)—his first-person speaker acknowledges to the “well-dressed young men [who] ask me why I don't / have a lover” that it's “Because I'm / too fucked up inside.” Then comes the blitz:

German buzz bombs are
flying horizontally across
a rice field in
Holland
and I'm terrified of death beyond
measure and I know
it's the end of the
world.

I can't prove it, but the fourth section of “Spring is the Season of Looking” may sublimate a vision from a quietly apocalyptic poem by Stephen Dobyns (with whom Parker shares little enough else), “The Day the World Ends.” Dobyns’ poem concludes:

And in one window a hand appears.
It is sunset and the sky is full of promise.
The hand, a woman's, seems almost rich
in its pinkness and plumpness; oh,
what a wealth it contains as it catches
the ring, drags down the already forsaken shade.

This in turn may well echo Eliot in the “Preludes,” II: “One thinks of all the hands / That are raising dingy shades / In a thousand furnished rooms.”

The history of this verbal icon of hand-in-window would be interesting to trace. It occurs again, for instance—end-of-the-world overtones and all—in Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler, a novel I read about the same time I knew Glenn, but which we never discussed. Whereas Eliot's line is contrasting morning, the raising of the curtain, with the dinginess of the anonymous rooms and the identical motions at their windows, and Dobyns' poem pulls down the shade at the end of the day at the end of the world, Calvino's use of it makes the hand (blindly waving from a prison window high up a cliff) a sign of the riddling indirection of human experience which may, or may not, be trying to tell us something. Unlike Calvino's unreliable narrator, to whom the waving hand fits into an unsettling network of supposed signs pertaining vaguely to worries that seem sometimes apocalyptic, sometimes merely neurotic, Parker is calm and open, watching but not paranoid. He gives us hand, and window, but no shade, and no need to rush to interpretation. The setting is again one of finality:

This is the place where nothing
has ever happened before.
This is the place which everyone
knows exactly nothing about,
and a dying girl stares languidly
at a single arm that rises
like a cobra in the window
across the street.

Parker usually apprehends his eschatology in this interested but unhurried way. For one thing, it isn't what's going to happen that's diverting, but rather, what this awareness of it can mean now: the ability to look out the window and see not just the world but beyond the world. For another, this apocalypse is, subtly, always going on anyway, which is how Parker knows that the bombs per se would not change the urge to give those blossoms. “Apocalypse” means also “Revelation,” and is Biblically not only “the end of the world” but the revelation of “a new heaven and a new earth.” (“Spring is the Season of Looking”). The awareness itself is transformative, and the transmutation is always underway. As with Language poetry's so-called (mis-called) “new sentence,” Parker's scenes often shift with the mere formality of an “and” or a “then,” if that. I haven't counted, but my impression is that the most common verb in Parker's Ovidian project is the ur-verb “become”—the word which is itself, precisely and literally, what he calls the “symbol of the victim” (think how many of Ovid's metamorphs are victims—not to mention Christ or the mass): “the symbol of pure transformation:”

and prayer becomes a house behind history
where all the false languages go to be healed.

~~~

The sky became a jeweled saxophone.

~~~

Three satellite dishes become three profane
orchids which can still hear the
orange music in the bull's mind.

~~~

...the night ocean became a black angel
in a garden of wind

It seems worth noting that “become” means not simply “to turn into,” but “to make (or perhaps better, reveal as) beautiful,” that is, make comely, as clothing may be said to “become” the human form; “comely” in this case deriving from the same root as “comb.” I do not insist that Parker has this tension at the fore of his intention often or at all, but I think the memory of language is at work in the double resonance of the word, and I think it gives us a clue to the meaning of Parker's spiritual project as preserved for us in the poems. The bivalence of a word like “become” is one of the pieces of fallout from Babel. Parker knew very well that language obscured as well as made possible; that names for things could occlude as well as facilitate their presence. By themselves words will do nothing for us; one must use all the senses (and in new ways, as Rimbaud urged). Parker gave to things, as Cronshey writes in his introduction, a “bold and gracious attention, that generosity that had the power to restore things to an original fascination; a raw significance, glamour and imponderability.” The map that looks may indeed “become” its territory, not in some merely paradoxical Borgesian tautology, but by way of our eyes becoming maps when they look. Both Cronshey and Stefene Russell note that Parker was wont to use the word “lovely” about anything from the shadows of trees, to a person's gesticulations, to a punk rock show—“without a trace of irony,” Cronshey adds. Parker's poems do literally become their subjects, with unanticipatable results:

...The road becomes
a thin blue version of the
Tower of Babel so my girlfriend and I decide
to keep driving till the windows
fall out.

Note this subtle continuation (like “let the / phone go right on ringing“) at the poem‘s close. This last excerpt is an example of the odd rationale one often finds in these poems, related I believe to the projected course of study (“you must...”) as a kind of surrealist causality informs it. But here, as opposed to those unqualified Rilkean imperatives, these are connected by the hinge of a phantom “so” or an even more ephemeral “and.” Perhaps whatever strange dream logic justifies these connections lies beneath what calls for the project of picking walnuts after, and only after, studying the blind; perhaps it's what dictates just what moment will be opportune for not answering the phone. I don't know.

The poem that makes the most use of this non sequitur device (e.g., “I find out my mother is drowning / in a riptide so I agree to function / as a flower boy for a large hotel”; “I discover the square root / of minus one is imaginary / so I agree to spend the rest / of my life living on food stamps”) seems to be a reworked version of a prose paragraph also included in the book—an inclusion I am not sure is really warranted. These paragraphs, the longest of the “Fragments” given in the latter half of the book, are not the only ones whose language also figures in the longer poems. It is perhaps a matter of taste whether you prefer them as snippets or in a more fully worked-out context—the difference between haiku and renga or tanka, perhaps—but one of the book's defects is that when you come upon these repetitions without warning, the immediate sensation is disappointment, irritation, or embarrassment.

Russell in her foreword recalls a story of a “woman whose teenage son died, [who] found gum he'd chewed and couldn't bear to throw it away,” and acknowledges that “maybe that's a little bit of what happened to me too.” The book indeed suffers from this too-much syndrome. There are poems that manifest a certain frivolity or tossed-off-ness. Editor Richard Moore reminds readers that much of the poetry was rescued from napkins and matchbooks and asks readers to “keep in mind... and recognize the spirit in which [the poetry] was written.” This is good advice if one means by it acquiring for oneself the mind of the poet, a kind of lighthearted spiritual discipline, a “marriage of the sacred and the playful,” as Moore writes; but in the context of the Foreword it reads uncomfortably like an apology for the work, an apology belied by Moore's insistence that the work deserves recognition. It is true that some juvenilia-ish lines appear; there are some unsuccessful efforts, some seeds that never blossomed and a few that are downright high-school-notebooky; and the apology here substitutes for editorial decisions, which in the event of a second edition ought to be made. Alternate versions of poems ought to at least be clearly indicated in every case where it is possible to make such a call, as has been done in the moving instance of “To a Christian Woman.” To be sure, not every variant is clear; not every image recurring in more than one poem makes one a “version” of the other; and after the moment when no authorial decision is possible, there are limits to what editorial decisions are seemly. But to find the exact same text printed twice, with one instance under the heading “Untitled,” is a serious glitch. Lesser but still preventable layout problems also occur, distractingly: some poems' sections are numbered, but the number sometimes appears all alone at the bottom of a page, with its corresponding section commencing on the next; and sometimes it is difficult to tell if stanzas on successive pages belong to the same poem or are separate, untitled works.

These defects are real; and in a book brought out by a major publishing house they would be more serious. In a book like Bird Full of Rain, however—a labor of love on the part of the four editors and requiring, I happen to know, considerable investment of time and money from many (none too full) private pockets—they are quibbles. I remain deeply grateful for the book, and only hope to warn prospective readers of flaws in order to prevent their being distracted from the gems (some of which are made more interesting by some of the flaws if you're conscious of them).

As I was doing the final edits on this essay, I came across Michael McClure's notes on Richard Brautigan (in McClure's book of prose Lighting the Corners), and was immediately struck by some of the marked similarities between Parker and Brautigan, over and above, perhaps, what Parker has in common with any other Beat writer. While Parker shares landscape and character with many of the Beats, and ecology and spirituality with some, he has in common with Brautigan a great ease and freedom with language. They share many of the same strengths and some of the same troubling weaknesses. Among the faults, I would name a certain tendency towards cuteness, the merely surreal, the occasionally frivolous (or seemingly so). A trait that can be reckoned in either column, plus or minus, is the way both writers shift focus, dissolve a scene, at the slightest provocation. In Parker's case, this can at worst be just scatteredness, though it more often reads (to me, at any rate) as a convincing depiction of picking up one shiny pebble or shell after another on the human condition's seashore. McClure reads it in Brautigan's case as an unwillingness to face conflict, as an inclination to change the subject instead. The conflict often seems to be, of course, between men and women, and if Parker sometimes seems to suffer, like Brautigan, from a lack of sense of detail or of three-dimensionality in his female figures, he does not descend to Brautigan's outright sexism, nor did he ever in personal life come within light-years of Brautigan's personal meanness. Of course, neither did his oeuvre approach Brautigan's in extent (or unevenness—neither the highs nor the lows).

Among the strengths Parker shares with Brautigan, there is, for example, a keen instinct for the improbable, perfectly descriptive non sequitur; for how long to play a gag, for the deadpan, guile-less (taken-in-by-itself?) idée fixe (I'm thinking for example of Brautigan's famous coffee stain on the airplane wing in The Abortion, or Parker's way of never being clear whether his speakers are dreaming or awake). They share a talent for the figure of speech that flickers just long enough to change our perception of the page and then vanishes. (The lines I cited at the beginning of this article, about the sombrero and the animals in the ark, is pure Brautigan—not even counting the sombrero itself.) Such moments are not the “fallout” of mere inspiration. McClure indicates that Brautigan often rewrote some passages over and over again, fine-tuning. If it sounds “light,” (and it does), it's thanks to the hours that go into making it seem a moment's thought. Notwithstanding the unedited state of some of the pieces in Bird Full of Rain, what the multiple drafts reveal is how Parker worked at his writing, revising line breaks, small nuances of vocabulary, rhythm, sonic felicity—matters of craft.

And, lacking final versions, there is indeed cause to be glad that some of the alternate drafts have been preserved, though an apparatus indicating when they were coming up would have been useful. Sometimes it seems clear—at first—which version works better. The titled “Everything Is What It Is, And Not Something Else” contains these lines:

Your mother the summer
is painting your coffin with ripe berries
and Raphael is lighting candles in your spine.
You have an intimation of earthquakes
and your spine becomes a brilliant lizard and crawls out through your mouth
where there are blue bees above the hollow ocean...

In a (presumably earlier) untitled version, with a wholly different opening section, these lines are in the past tense instead; the titled poem has a palpably greater urgency (also due to improved lineation). That spine-lizard, though—which somehow manages in the poem to avoid being an H.R. Geiger horror effect, probably due to the kundalini of Raphael (archangel? Renaissance painter? hombre from the barrio?) and to the tranquil, berry-painting mother—proves in the earlier draft to be startlingly mobile:

You were hallucinating earthquakes,
and your spine became a brilliant lizard
that crawled out through your mouth.
The aborigines chased it for seven days
across the rim of the western desert.

I confess that I regret the loss of that desert chase, and find myself interpolating it when I read “Everything Is...,” in other respects certainly the more successful poem. The earthquakes, for example, “hallucinated” in what I am here treating as the draft, are, as the object of “intimation” in the titled poem, given a status closer to reality. The poem veers away from what could be just another piece of psychedelia to become a signal of that quiet apocalypse, the faultline Helen Dimetapp is sitting on top of, the destination Parker has mapped out:

I'm driving towards
ground zero
with the perfect cup
of coffee in my hand.

A quest where one becomes aware that one carries the Holy Grail with one, and (so) keeps (right on) questing.

Donald Revell places Parker in “the tradition of the Great Incomplete, the tradition of Trakl and Rimbaud.” Richard Brautigan and James Agee, too, may be reckoned “incomplete” though their works are more extensive than either of those Revell names. To my mind, Parker seems to have shared a universal human vision like Agee's, ranging from Agee's farmsteaders and Brautigan's bowling champs and trout fishermen, and ascending to Dante, Mozart, and Christ; and to have expressed it in a language as light and as delighting as Brautigan's. One result of this is that Brautiganesque incipient nihilism is counterbalanced by a faith like Agee's. Another effect is that the hierarchical order evoked by Agee's “Dedication” becomes more acentric, more unstructured. “Incomplete,” indeed: one's sense in Parker's poetry is often of a partly inchoate energy yearning towards a promised but not yet seen shape—for it is (still) becoming in this sense, too, still underway; which is perhaps why I don't squirm overmuch at the immature poems. The work crackles with many vivid figures, many unlikely juxtapositions, many high-wire pirouettes and clown-like collapses; but beneath it all flows a profound calm, easily missed, which perhaps comes fully into our ken only when we look at the whole thing in its paradoxical unfinishedness. Then we glimpse how in these poems, as Revell puts it, “the love of humankind and heartbroken reverence for natural fact becomes music and then becomes”—becomes—“a mythic silence.” Or as Sundin Richards writes: “Glenn Parker.... knew that the singing was no mend for the wounding and that this was a good thing.”

Had Parker lived and fashioned the book himself, it would certainly have been a different book; but then, had he not been so "busy looking," the poems in it might never have happened at all. As it is, Glenn Parker reached ground zero, walking in his shirt sleeves one freezing early spring night up a canyon he never walked down again. It was just after Easter.

What we have, then, are the notes for a travelogue narrating that journey, one he had resolved to take “until the windows fall out,” letting us look through a more unmediated threshold. It's a kind of cinema of passion and thought, fused by intensity into a jewel and turning in the sun. Sometimes it flashes brilliantly, sometimes it doesn't, but the whole is a crystallization of Parker’s particular and rare sensibility, situated right at the point where aesthetics, turned incandescent, is seen in the after- or approaching glow of ethics, imprinted on the retina of your closed eyes as you sleep. Or pray. It's a journey undertaken in a world itself on the way with you, with you all the way:

We are alone in the wind
and we have not crossed the river.

The strong water laps against the stones
and we have not crossed the river.

The trees on the other shore
begin moving slowly into the west.
They are tired of waiting for us.

The river stays.
It is not tired of waiting for us. ( )
1 vote skholiast | Jul 11, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0970078102, Paperback)

Bird Full of Rain was published six years after the poet's death and represent the only collection of his work. The poems were transcribed from an assortment of curious sources including restaurant napkins, the insides of matchbooks, the backs of envelopes, the margins of books, small scraps of paper tucked into mysterious pouches, etc.

Selection of titles
-Bird Full Of Rain
-Spring Is The Season Of Looking
-Autumn is my rich brother
-Everything Is What It Is And Not Something Else
-Taiwan As Mecca Of Clairvoyant Children
-Your face has the mysterious opulence of a foreign language
-The chandeliers are falling
-Blue water was turning under the sun
-There was a single door through which leopards came
-Rat spirit in the atmosphere
-There is a healing joke
-Hymn To The Stellar Midnight

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:52 -0400)

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