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Real Fake Flowers

Personationskin

Karl Parker
No Tell Books, 2009

I included “Autobiographia”—the first poem in Karl Parker’s debut collection, Personationskin—three times on a list of 41 “moves” in contemporary poetry (commonly encountered techniques or maneuvers). It was the only poem of his I had read so far, or I could have included more. Parker has a lot of moves—and I don’t mean that in an accusatory way. Moves are the memorable parts of a poem. There’s no dancing, no chess, without moves.

Parker’s moves include, but are not limited to:

The compound nonce word “That was prettymuch the story of my life”
The throwaway pun “ACTUALLY SAY LA VIE”
The revised cliché “life is scared”
The in-line revision “I was originally incarcerated for my efforts to reassemble / I mean resemble—the prison”
The intentional ambiguity “I run a toy glue factory”
The self-contradiction “My favorite thing to do each Spring as time / failed to pass”

He has so many tricks up his sleeve! (Which, by the way, is already lodged up a hand puppet.) What you must believe is that Parker is not a gimmicky poet. He uses these moves so smartly, I never felt peeved, just entertained, as though by clever cocktail conversation that could be called “sparkling” if it weren’t so dark. But this book isn’t merely clever—and this too is a word I don’t use in any pejorative sense—it’s frequently gorgeous and brilliant, as in the poem “Warm All the Time Now”:

Morning, the large reddish bush—in the middle
of a small public square in a town that grows

tinier this time of year—glitters with masses of
hangers-on from last night’s rain. One imagines them

evaporating as whatever will happen today begins
to happen, and sounds in the street increase. Still,

sitting in view of the bush on its slightly raised stone pedestal,
such imaginings—with all their little, glittery, liquid

differences—suggest there’s no observer here, except
insofar as companionable accidents accompany the scene.

The line “suggest there’s no observer here” caught my breath, it’s so surprising and perfect—you realize it’s an I-less poem. There’s an assumed speaker, a poet-observer, who magically evaporates (like the “hangers-on”), and the voice becomes the objective, impossible “view from nowhere.” And yet doesn’t, because poems aren’t delivered from nowhere. The paradox (a meta move) makes the poem shimmer like a mirage.

Another neat trick that Parker pulls off: recycling a few basic motifs (theater—puppets and masks—weather, mirrors) while managing to cover a lot of formal and thematic ground. Personationskin is part tract against violence, part elegy, part performance about performance, part comedy routine. It’s the thread of phenomenology that gives the whole thing depth, even at its funniest. Parker is concerned with time—or rather, our perception of it (see the self-contradiction example above). He’s concerned with reality, or our perception of it: “Plastic flowers are real. They endure.” (Are fake flowers realer than “real” flowers, being more persistent?) And with the difference between perception and reality, if there is one (from “View From the Lake”):

Fronds adorn an edge. Some of them
especially are in between the place where I can see
& where I can really see.

He is concerned with causation and will, or lack thereof: “You make hardly anything happen!” (from “Fog at Morning”) and “Love makes everything / happen, as long as you risk // your life” (“Blue & Red Roses”) and “whatever will happen today begins / to happen” (“Warm All the Time Now”). We do not have free will, but don’t tempt fate: “You see, we proceed by default, but don’t tell that to the weather” (“Progress Under Blue Sky and Clouds”). These concerns—obsessions really—emerge as the real material of the book, so the weather and things fade into wallpaper. We proceed as though sharing the view from Parker’s head, alongside his I (even when there isn’t one). This easy interiority, and the witty maneuvers, make the book feel very, well, personable—especially for an essentially philosophical text. Certain moves (“This part’s terrific, really terrific”) feel almost like private asides.

Flipping through Personationskin from back to front (as one may do with poetry collections, which needn’t necessarily be read in consecutive order), one sees first a section nearly all in caps. Since I decided to read from front to back as presumably intended, I was dreading this last section (titled “Horn o’ Plenty, or Notes Toward a Supreme Cornucopia”; in a previously published version, the alternative title was “A Poem in Sticky Notes”), fearing the worst. But it’s a delightful kind of tantrum, a Tourette’s-like explosion of pseudo-jokes and semi-notes after the controlled play that comes before it. And the Caps Lock effect actually renders the outbursts and name-games more hilarious:

IF IMAGINARY FRIENDS DIDN’T EXIST
I would have to invent them

[…]

THAT MOVIE WAS SO BAD
IT MADE MY FRIEND
LAUGH AT GENOCIDE

[…]

TO BE AND NOT TO BE
NO QUESTION ABOUT IT

[…]

I DEDICATE FISH-STICKS TO THEMSELVES

AND TO WILL, TO
HUMAN VOLITION

[…]

CHURL MEET MOUNTEBANK
MOUNTEBANK MEET ERL-KING

I admit, I’m not sure I’d have the patience for this last act as a stand-alone chapbook, if I’d never read anything else by Karl Parker. But it works in this setting and placement, almost like outtakes, or a glimpse into the subconscious of the mind whose public persona we’ve just gotten to know.

If I must quibble (and I must, I must) I quibble a bit with the design. The cover is nicely done, but the book feels overlarge (there are long-lined poems, but I wonder if they couldn’t have been accommodated by a smaller, more pleasing font) and needlessly double-spaced. It also sports the ultimate “What the hell is up with your author photo” author photo. (I think he’s wearing the same mask that appears on the cover, with glasses on top. It’s low-res and terrifying.)

But those things have nothing to do with the poetry, and the poetry is scary-funny-profound, my favorite kind. Highly recommended.
___
Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007) and The French Exit (Birds LLC, forthcoming). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney is Don’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found in Colorado Review, The Laurel Review, Puerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.

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