‘Familiars’ by Linda Rose Parkes
Hearing Eye, 2014
Poetry Review by Bethany W. Pope
Published in The Ofi Press issue 46
Linda Rose Parkes’ Familiars is a dense, captivating read; a collection full of deceptions, illusions, and transformations, where what seems to exist on the surface is revealed to be, at best, a warped reflection of the real thing. The tension (and discord) that rises up between seeming and being is a major theme in this book, and Parkes weaves the strand deftly.
In the serpentine, concrete poem ‘There goes my girl I whisper’, Parkes writes about male confirmation bias. Her father sees a symbol of his own phallic power in the body of a snake that he startles by the path:
in his male-
ness at the
sight of an undulating
body slithering across
our shadows in the grass
He tells the girl not to worry, explaining to her that the snake has no venom. What he doesn't know, because he hasn't observed the serpent nearly so closely as his daughter, is that the snake is a female:
I know the
Her father’s tendency to see only what he wants to see is also the central theme in ‘New Nanny’. In this poem an act of child abuse goes unnoticed because the father is paying closer attention to his employee’s other assets than he does to her care of his children:
When the younger child
was packed off to sleep
with her four-year-old hands
tied behind her back
for chewing her nails,
her father downstairs
was pouring a gin
and preening himself
on hiring this blonde
who was smart, lean
and tricksy in bed —
so tricksy he made his girls
call her mummy.
To the father in this poem, children are the business of women, and women are the business of men. This is an illustration of the mediaeval, God-ordained Great Chain of Being gone horribly wrong. He isn't looking for a nanny; being grown, he doesn't need one, and his needs are all that matters to him. As long as the children are quiet, that’s all that matters. He’s looking for a body to fill a role and he doesn’t really care if the body is capable of it:
He never went up,
he left it all to mummy —
There are some positive males in Familiars. In ‘The nourishment we need’ a pair of lovers describe their interlocking dreams. The poem is presented as twin loose sonnets; an appropriate form for a mirror-poem about lovers cleaving together in the midst of destruction. In both dreams, the lovers are seeking out nourishment in a desolate place. The man describes hunger in a dying land:
Last night, he said, I dreamed we woke craving bread
fresh from the oven; stole in our nightclothes up the hill,
along the path whose banks once flowered
with campion and wild strawberries, engulfed now
with hogweed, nettle;
The woman is seeking something similar:
In my dream, she said, we crossed the bluebell woods
all bulldozed over. Where orchids once bloomed
we followed our yearning, fertile yeast rising
in the dark where moths fly in and out
of the silence between our sleeping heads.
In the end, they find their melancholic food. For each it is the scent of the other, the fact of the other, and although it cannot fill them up forever, it’s good enough to last until they wake.
It was interesting to watch Parkes play with form, though she does so infrequently. ‘There goes my girl I whisper’ perfectly captured the shifting, sinuous, shed-skin spirit of the poem in its shape. ‘The nourishment we need’ used the twist-ended sonnet to describe a beautiful and complicated side-effect of love. It’s rare for a writer (or a reader) to understand what form is for — that doesn't exist as merely a means of showing off or a challenge for the writer; it’s meant to add another layer of meaning to the work. The sonnet speaks of love; the concrete poem makes the word flesh. They contribute to the larger impact of the pieces as a whole.
This book is dark and scintillating, rich with life and dense with mingled rage and longing. It’s a book that the reader can eat in one setting or ration out over the course of a week. Parkes strengths revolve around images; the eye of a bull, the mouth of a dog. Her weaknesses emerge when her text devolves into telling, but thankfully these lapses are very rare indeed.