Love Song with Motor Vehicles
Alan Michael Parker
ISBN: 1929918356, 2003
BOA Editions, Ltd., $13.95
In his elegy for W.B Yeats, Auden proclaimed that “What instruments we have agree/ The day of his death was a dark cold day.” Sixty-five years later, descending from that vision of a world measurable in terms of technology, Alan Michael Parker writes “I croon to the picture on my computer” (“Plutonium 57”). Parker’s third book, Love Song with Motor Vehicles, returns to the wide-ranging subject matter of his first book, Days Like Prose, after The Vandals, a book length sequence reincarnating historic European marauders in the present day. Love Song with Motor Vehicles follows the trajectory of The Vandals, though more skeptical and hardened, the flesh of language hugging the brittle bones of the self a little more tightly.
Parker remains a poet for whom language is a rickety mediator between mind and world; the words often fail to carry the self out of the mind or to bring the world inside. What results in the poems is the frustrating in-between space. The poems seem ready to break at any moment, to become all thought as in, “It has taken me forty years to admit / emotions have no words” (“Text”). Loosely held together by images, the poems create a lazy tension. Parker’s is the repose of a mind habitually unable to reconcile itself with the world, but which cannot help trying.
“Salmon Seen from Above,” one of the best poems in the collection, exemplifies Parker’s subject matter and methods. In it “a small school of land-locked coho/ flick and dart…at play…” The mind is beckoned outward as “Their every act becomes/ pure expressiveness and wit.” The speaker wants an unfettered experience, a human approximation of animal violence:
But I would catch them, and I would
kill them and cook them and eat them,
and not only because I say so;
I would stay up late, drink wine,
read Cixous aloud, have silent sex,
then rise early to dangle a nightcrawler,
come and get it, breakfast.
But the mind will not set its owner free, asking “is it merely opportunity/ that turns appetite to greed?” When the speaker concludes, “…I can no longer see the fish / unless one leaps,” the only recourse is a futile plea: “Leap, damn you, leap!” He is at his best when self-consciously attending to the vernacular. These are poems wrought of television, average-priced cars and the quiet music of manageable self-loathing. The news is usually on and it’s usually bad, but that’s something we’re used to. In “Television, Trees,” the news sits in the family room, intruding quietly on the snow-scene outside: “On TV the bombs explode /…out the window [are] woods and clouds…” As is often the case, images give way to contemplation. Questions become images of the mind that asks them as it is slowly encroached upon by an irritating but familiar world. When the speaker asks “Can smoke be hard? / The birch tree peels in curls / that look like smoke but aren’t,” and “Is heaven a place to come or go?”, we see a mind trying to decide if experience, especially the vicarious experience of war, can be turned off with the TV. Parker evokes our confusion precisely: “Bye, Mom. Don’t be sad. / It’s only television that we’re on.”
Parker is at his best when working in series. The book’s final section, The Penates, a sequence inspired by the household gods of Aeneas, is among Parker’s finest work. As in The Vandals, Parker has transplanted a cast of historical characters into modern life, moving through their stories in fluid couplets. These gods live among us, in our suburban homes, our restaurants and our hotels. Because we are not interested in their work, they do their job, then leave. The poems esoterically render defunct spiritual life in America.
The sequence begins with a god walking out in “The god of Brooms Has Forsaken Brooms:”
She knew she was needed,
And if she trundled out to the old bike
She had not been on for years,
Pumped the tires,
And announced we had no milk,
She would not be back.
She was no different.
In the corner, her broom leaned
Into its body as all brooms do,
Long, light, elegant, fantastic,
And onerous and awful beyond grace.
Our objects are “beyond grace,” and we are beneath it, as our gods leave us when we ignore them. These poems do not recount great triumphs or pivotal moments, but function as snapshots or vignettes of the gods’ day-to-day frustrations living in a godless world. In “The God of Steel Wool,” scouring pads are figured as “Her twisted ones, her spots of rot, her inside-outs /…Her sparrow eggs, her vowels, her little moons /…Her clouds, her silly clouds,” where we see dirt. The gods become scaffolding for startling observations as in “The God of the Vase:”
But something missing is not
The same as something missed,
The God of the Vase insists
To anyone who listens, firmly
Lodged and anonymous
At a corner table set for two,
The lilacs and the honeysuckle
Exploding into scent:
Nostalgia is not desire.
Similar moments occur in “The God of Wine,” in which a deity mutters “his only line: The body’s a cheap hotel,” while stumbling around in search of an ice-machine:
The body’s a cheap hotel:
It’s resident transients
Come and go like money.
We are all a kind of money,
The body’s a cheap hotel…
The Penates makes a satisfying capstone for the book. The sequence approaches the problem of American spirituality obliquely, fashioning an allegorical world in which we recognize our own deprivation in these unlikely deities. Love Song with Motor Vehicles admits that, despite all that it lacks, this is the only world we’re granted.