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an ache is an ache is an ache: a review of qarrtsiluni’s winning chapbook

January 3, 2010

BOOK REVIEW

We are used to sorting everything quickly into simple categories, such as good and bad. We do it, I’m sure, partly as some instinct we’re born with. I imagine it was designed initially to tell our bodies how to handle situations. Hungry crocodile stalking us at the watering hole? Bad. Discovery of fruit growing wild and with abundance within walking distance of the homestead? Good.

For many of us living in these comparatively safe and comfortable times, the assignation of “good” and “bad” to objects and experiences is intellectual, not physical. It’s a luxury, but it’s also a shame. We complicate things unnecessarily. When we feel pain, for example, we do an incredible amount of analyzing and diagnosing before we ever get to alleviating it. Pain is pain, and maybe if we knew that our first response would be gentleness instead of judgment.

As intricate as the language and images can be in A Walk Through the Memory Palace by Pamela Johnson Parker, her poetry reminds us an ache is an ache is an ache. If we are fully in our bodies, the sensation of desire (sexual longing) is the same as sadness or heartache. Although we may say sexual attraction feels “good” and sadness feels “bad,” the weight and throb is nearly identical in our cores once we pull off the specifics of the stimuli. That is my primary experience of Parker’s chapbook (a qarrtsiluni publication and winner of the 2009 qarrtsiluni chapbook contest, 28 pp., perfect bound paperback, $5.95, ISBN #0978174968), and it was extremely powerful.

I had sneaked away with the book to my favorite sports bar two weeks before Christmas. I needed to unwind. (I find the combination of beer and poetry an especially relaxing indulgence.) I made notes in my journal as I read (for those unfamiliar with my quirks, this means I read the book cover to cover and encountered the poems in the exact order they were presented). When I finished reading the final poem, which is dominated by the fear and reality of cancer, I believed I’d been kicked in the gut.

I told myself, “Somebody should have warned me.” My mother died in April after a wrenching battle with cancer, and I was really doing my best to avoid thinking about it. (Suppression, you know. It’s not just a quirk. It’s a way of life.) Then, suddenly, there is “Breasts,” an emotional poem written in six sections skillfully disguised with impersonal, scientific labels: “Figure A,” “Figure B,” “Figure C” and so on. The poem was wet and heavy and made a thud when it landed in my lap.

Somehow, however, it also created an open space. And maybe through the magic of 2-for-1 Blue Moon on tap or maybe serendipity of experience, I recognized the feeling immediately (no, silly, I didn’t recognize it from my own experience — refer to the self-deprecating note above about suppression). I recognized it as the same feeling left with me by “78 RPM,” the opening poem in the collection.

The connection seems odd. There is a sweetness in “78 RPM.” We are young and in love and on a porch in summer listening to music. The finger of a boy is like the needle of the Victrola:

As the heavy arm angles

From left to right, as
The stylus traces
Its sapphire finger

Down the record’s groove,
As he skates a single
Finger along the sun-

bleached down of your
Arm.

The manifestations of heat and love are plentiful, and when the young couple is thwarted (an aunt returns with iced tea: “Here’s something/ For this heat”), we ache. We are enmeshed enough in the scene that, like our narrator, “You’ll have to keep your/ knees pressed tight together.” The tension of that longing, its weighty presence and the space it somehow creates is the same as the ache in “Breasts.” In the final section, “Figure F,” a woman receives a 2 a.m. call from her sister. It’s about stage IV cancer:

… Between
Our phones, there’s the roar

Like the oceans, as
If we were holding shells up/
To our ears.

It is enough when poetry is strong and beautiful (both adjectives I would use to describe Parker’s work and this collection). When it also leads us to understanding of our basic fears and joys, it’s a terrific gift. With A Walk Through the Memory Palace I am able to leap from summer love to grief and back again and realize it’s not that far to travel — even in my own suppressed experience.

And once I noticed this dynamic, I could see it in the other poems, as well, not just the opening and closing pieces. It intensified my enjoyment of the collection as a whole, layered meaning into so many of the other lines, like these from “Tattoos:”

… the tattoo

of skin against skin, that

most ephemeral

of canvases, which

right now seems worth any

multiplicity of stings.

* ** *

I focused my review on this arch because it was profound for me, but it’s certainly not all there is to the collection. Parker is extremely skilled at her craft. For example, the poem “78 RPM” (referenced above) begins with the record player, then a reference to light and a progression to tension. To end the piece, our narrator backs out of the poem, reversing those images, now in the order of tension, light, record player:

Knees pressed tight together
As the light dims.
As the record changes.

This piece, bulging with youth, balances nicely with “Taking A Walk With You,” which shows us an older couple. A poem about an unkempt yard (“Unreal Gardens Without Toads in Them Or, Last Year’s Journal, This Year’s Yard”) is contrasted by a poem about the obsessions of a meticulous gardener (“Some Yellow Tulips”). And since a trusted method of improving one’s own writing is to study the writing of others, this chapbook is one not only for the poetry lover to scoop up but also the poet: Parker makes rich language, delightful images and clever line breaks look easy.

* ** *

I have to confess that I jumped at the chance to review qarrtsiluni‘s first chapbook as much for curiosity about the process and product as for the content. I had already enjoyed parts of the collection online, but I hadn’t made it all the way through on-screen. I find it easier to absorb — or climb into — print documents. I honestly believe (especially since the online version of this chapbook is gorgeous and user-friendly) that I fail the technology, not the other way around. Case in point: every time I read the title online (A Walk Through the Memory Palace) I read it as memory “place,” not “palace.” There’s a huge difference! And I didn’t correct myself until I held it in my hands.

I have always believed that Dave and Beth at qarrtsiluni are onto something with their publishing models and philosophies about sharing work, and, as I explore publishing options of my own which lean closer and closer to their approach, I wanted to see for myself the quality of the print publication. (I had previously purchased two editions of qarrstiluni in print and was pleased with their feel and appearance.)

A Walk Through the Memory Palace is a beautiful book. It feels like more than 10 poems. That’s intended as a compliment. It feels substantial and important, which are big jobs for chapbooks, the smaller and sometimes assumed to be “lesser” cousins of full-length poetry collections. Parker’s assemblage of poems and the qarrtsiluni contest challenge that stereotype. If you ever believed chapbooks were somehow inferior to collections, I’m willing to bet this one will change your mind. It has a huge impact. It is big in every way.

* ** *

Here are some links for reading, purchasing and getting more information:

The book’s contents (copyright Pamela Johnson Parker 2009) are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial 3.0 United States License, and its cover art is “Cupid Complaining to Venus” by Carrie Ann Baade.

UPDATE: There are other online reviews of the chapbook, as well. There’s Jessie Carty’s review at 58 inches and Elizabeth Switaj’s review at Gender Across Borders. There is Sherry Chandler’s here and Robbi Nester’s here. And a terrific and related read is the RWP interview of Dave and Beth about their publishing ventures.

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8 Comments
  1. January 3, 2010 1:43 pm

    p.s. $6 is a steal for this book!

  2. January 3, 2010 1:53 pm

    Wow, what a review! Thanks so much. As one of the publishers, I must say I find it very gratifying to learn what a deep impression it made on you. These kinds of reactions make it all worthwhile, more than any sales figures could ever do.

  3. January 3, 2010 2:15 pm

    dave, i’m glad you like it. thanks for all the work you guys put into it. totally worth it!

  4. January 3, 2010 11:39 pm

    I have spent many years sitting in a bar, alone, with a book of poems…

  5. jessiecarty permalink
    January 4, 2010 8:47 am

    wow! So nice of you to note my review but i am much more a fan of your review and how you related your reading experience with the book as well as the poetry itself. Well done!

  6. January 4, 2010 10:52 am

    Carolee, this review has as much to tell us about the reading of poetry as it does about this particular book. Thank you so much for writing down your thought process – I found it fascinating, and your analysis (which was also very personal, because these poems DO hit us in the gut) told me some things I hadn’t yet figured out about what makes this collection of poems hold together — one of the reasons it was so strong. Thank you also, so much, for your appreciation of the book itself as an object and vehicle for encountering Pamela’s poems – as Dave has already said, this makes all the effort worthwhile.

  7. January 8, 2010 7:42 pm

    What gorgeous cover art. I’m behind the times–I didn’t know Dave and Beth were publishing books now. You picked a goody to review, Carolee. I like how you tok it to a Sports Bar and drank beer while reading it.

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