Big Loves: Erica Wright on Barbara Hamby & Marci Whiteman Johnson on Alan Michael Parker

Erica Wright on Barbara Hamby:

In one memorable poetry class, nearly a decade ago now, everyone was arguing about which poets were “generative.” I kept wrestling with the word, trying to grasp exactly how the professor and other students were defining it. I think it meant something like “able to be imitated.” That is, you could write a Richard Hugo poem and get somewhere as opposed to, say, a John Ashbery poem, which would lead only to a bad imitation of Ashbery. Over the years, I’ve come to think of generative poets a bit differently. They are the poets that inspire you to be better whether or not you directly imitate their style or content. They energize rather than demoralize. One such poet is Barbara Hamby.

I did not dive immediately into Babel, the first collection of Hamby’s that I came across. The poems look intimidating because they span the entire page. It only took a few lines to hook me, though. The poems aren’t dense so much as fervent. They teem “because this is our adventure, our calling, our do-or-die / mission, translating the world into the body’s bright lie” (“My Translation”). If poets had locker rooms, this would be the halftime speech for the underdogs.

Hamby is not just a poet’s poet, though. Her poetry is chockfull of the real world, particularly its idiosyncrasies. She places film references next to literary allusions, and the cohabitation feels right. Why shouldn’t Lorca be in bed with Steve McQueen? Even as I write this, I hope I’m wrong about Hamby’s readership. I hope that it is vaster than I know.

Marci Whiteman Johnson on Alan Michael Parker:

I’m sure I drive my friends crazy telling them over and over to read Alan Michael Parker’s poetry. So they’ll be thrilled to know that I have some other people to evangelize. So here goes. Alan Michael Parker is a contemporary poet published by BOA editions, whose last two books are some of my favorite poetry books of all time: Elephants & Butterflies and Love Song with Motor Vehicles. I’m particularly partial to Love Song because it contains one of my favorite poems of all time, a poem titled, simply, “The Cat.”

For me, “The Cat” epitomizes Parker’s work, so I’m going to use it to show you just what it is I like about his poetry. Of course there are plenty of fabulous, original images, and lots of lovely language, blah, blah blah, which sure, you can say about a lot of poetry. But the thing that stands out to me about this poem, and his work in general, is his ability to take something ordinary and turn it into something extraordinary. Here we have a feral kitten, half-dead in the street. Ordinary. Kind of disgusting, even, “a scrawny, contagious cat,” yet, the narrator says, “she could be my heart.” The poem continues in this vein, comparing the cat with the narrator’s philosophical musings: “I named the cat Simone de Beauvoir./Is that the name of my heart?” And also with love: “What does my heart pretend not to know?/Working at love/means abandoning the burnishing.” And also with need, fear, knowledge, and finally, with the writing of poetry and with heaven:

So many poems about the next life.
To make the poem itself a moral act.
Which is to say: heaven.
Which is to say: a larger room.

I had to put the whole last stanza in here, because not only is it one of my favorite stanzas in the poem, it also poetically expresses what I’ve been trying to say in the last paragraph. Alan Michael Parker uses the small minutiae of everyday life to create something larger and more meaningful. Something above and beyond ordinary life: “heaven.” Or, “a larger room.”

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Kevin Fenton says:

    That stanza is remarkable, the way “a moral act,” “heaven,” and “a larger room” all align to create a single, startling, expansive concept. I don’t read a ton of poetry (other than my gifted MFA friends) but this reminds me of John Koethe, whose work I also love.

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