Teach me to climb
Down from ambition.
Beyond my fingertips
rolls the moon.
–from the title poem, “The Ladder”
I balance over a young man’s body and perch, a bird, atop his extended arms and legs and pointed feet to fly AcroYoga style. I am not, in my mind, young anymore—nearly forty—but still light and limber enough to lift and pose and feel youthfully liberated, my life altered by the relationship I am building with myself and these others who base and balance and learn a communal trust. We must intuit and become more patient with each other because each movement is about connection and waiting for our partner to be ready also to move.
I joined these flyers merely a month or two ago because I needed to learn this trust, specifically the subtle rebellions of my own body and emotions as I lift off the ground of a difficult survivalist past and recalibrate to what Alan Michael Parker so beautifully describes when he is “distracted by a poppy seed / yes, a poppy seed, a single one” in his poem “A Poppy Seed.” The speaker admits “I wanted to listen to the poppy seed,” before continuing:
if only we could talk together
like childhood friends, this little asteroid and I
and then the conversation would turn,
as it does,
around the curve of the Earth
to the possible wholeness, for example, of God.
Parker’s entire book of poems, The Ladder, speaks to every nuance of trust and mystery that I feel as I grow closer to listening to myself and the intimate conversations of the world around me—the low whispers and deep groans, ambition dismissed and the roundness and wholeness of everything aware of its own shape.
This wholeness is both felt and lamented in poems like “The Sweetness of Nectarines” in which an older man wishes he had not spent so much of his life breaking it open. Also in “Candying Mint,” one of my favorite poems, where Parker beacons his reader to “listen” again to something small yet persistent: the mint plant, “really just a weed” he says “spicy, ragged, alive.” His speaker notes how it grows “toward the sun” and, comparing it to Torah, understands that its wildness is a law—not perfect in its presentation and growth—but hearty and vivacious and reaching its objective just the same; it grows towards God reaching its goal. “Yes, Rabbi,” the speaker says, acknowledging a spiritual authority’s earlier admonition in the poem:
the lesson is true:
to become a law means to know God,
but who could be ready for that?
Rabbi, try the candied mint: its heaven.
Ah heaven: less about form and more about flying though, in AcroYoga, one cannot have flying without form.
Likewise, one cannot have quality poetry without attention to line breaks; pacing; the most precise word choice to accentuate a phrase; the dance of language when it withholds, not exactly saying what it actually means to say; and how to tease a whole narrative out of a few poetic breaths—Parker excels at all of this. His form and flying are superb. In “The Dog Misses You,” for instance, the speaker does not admit that he feels his partner’s absence; instead, he gives a long account of the dog’s feelings of absence and ends the poem with:
The dog has three wishes left. She wishes she knew where to find
you. She wishes you would come home with a treat. She wishes
you and I were together on the bed, and up she would jump.
There is so much supposedly veiled (though not at all) affection in prose poetry that mimics journaling.
“Postcard to Spain” has a similar effect as the speaker receives a postcard from Spain that he wrote and sent to himself while there, a clear comment on how impersonal our global culture has become though we have more access to communicative tools like Instagram and Tumblr. Via these social medias:
you’re everywhere at once in Spain,
with a toothache at the pharmacy,
sipping an icy lemonade in a park
then dipping your bandana in the fountain,
finding the darkness in you
Parker is both intuitive and kind as he reminds us that our access to one another—our perceived ability to obtain greater knowledge of diverse perspectives and empathize—is likely false; more a product of brief glimpses, shallow awarenesses, and tailored presentations than anything deep or abiding. “Thanks to you” the speaker says to himself, the postcards sender:
I see again
the face of the clerk at the post office
in the tenderness of her hijab,
how perfectly her sigh made her lips purse
when she smiled at my awful Spanish
and counted out my change
slowly in impeccable English,
as though I were no smarter
than her stapler. But she liked me,
I could tell: our moment was simple,
irrespective of her politics or mine.
I have been thinking a lot about the light
I glimpsed in her kind irony,
as though I could see
the unflickering living candle of her.
She linked that I was mailing myself a postcard.
I believe it is moments like this that Beth Ann Fennelly is referring to when, on the back of Parker’s book, she writes “[w]hat sly elucidation we find here, and what unexpected philosophy. . .”
Agreed. Parker is sly and unexpected, lucid and philosophical.
His poetic language is also incredibly beautiful, embodying in these lines everything I want poetry and a book of poems to be. I am constantly surprised by his imagery and metaphors as he writes lines like these found in “Influenza Ode 47”: “while the dirty river to the harbor / dries like mustard upon the evening meat” and from “The Raking ix”:
I want to live in a pyramid of leaves
a red leaf like a gulp of wine
sex the leaves everywhere
twirl a stem and see
what’s turned away from God.
Sensual, subtle, truth disguising itself as pure heaven; Parker does not in the least disappoint.
This is a book you will read over and over again simply to discover yet another nuance, a slightly different way of listening or seeing than the last time you read the poems. Every new discovery is like finding your balance again, learning the wholeness of your own soul and how it fits into the bigger picture, inviting us to revive that sense of self that is unafraid to admit its need for another in its space, working together, learning to revel in a poppy seed, drink wine-red leaves, melt the candied mint slowly in the mouth, show affection like the dog jumping onto the bed, roll the moon on our fingertips, forget ambition . . . fly.