Monday, 8 August 2011

Bobby Parker's 'Ghost Town Music' reviewed


It is impossible not to connect Bobby Parker’s debut with the poetry of Charles Bukowski. The apprehension about doing so stems from the negative connotations inevitably brought forth by such a comparison – dreggy bedsit scribble, easy cheap indulgence, soggy English American affectation. It is both a shame and a testament to the singular Bukowski that his influence has become so ubiquitous; likewise, it is a testament to Parker that his incorporation of Bukowski poetics is for the most part transgressive and not derivative, even incidental at times. His project has the strange quality of both extreme affect and lack of artifice – a staged lack of poeticity that somehow comes across as authenticity.

Ghost Town Music is more notebook than collection, featuring a comic strip, photography, reproduced handwritten scraps and typewritten pages. Again, these come across as entirely natural, expected, a kind of vital ambience for the poems themselves. And it is the poems themselves that are most worthy of discussion. Therein, however, lies the problem. Quoting from any of the individual poems as representative exemplars of Parker’s shtick would inadvertently undermine the way GTM functions as a whole. There is an absence of metaphorical language throughout – one poem even featuring a deleted section: “(THE EDITOR THOUGHT THAT THIS LINE WAS TOO / LYRICAL TO BE INCLUDED IN THE COLLECTION)” – and a plethora of unabashedly crude rememberings of high, horny and broke adolescence. Situated together in a nonlinear progression of scrawled reminiscence, which is charmingly human and naked, the pieces blur together into a never-pitifully-melancholy shard of growing up, and while on their own there is nothing particularly exciting or interesting about the language the poems utilise, as a speedily read mass they insinuate their – how to put this? – genuineness into the reader.

For example:

In the time between
getting the sack
from one job in a factory
and walking into town
to the recruitment agency
for another job in a factory
I marvelled at
the way the sun
made people on the street
seem happy to be alive.

That is one poem (most are untitled and the book is unpaginated) in full. And in a sense, it’s not very good. If I were to read it on its own I would dismiss it as Bukowski-aping affect. It is hackneyed, and the marvelling at the people in sun is crudely functional. And yet as part of a collection read chronologically it, along with the other parts, coalesces into a believable authentic speaking self documenting an existence that is very much undocumented – as far as I can see – in the young contemporary poetry scene: a poetry about a particular kind of existence and formative surroundings free from mainstream stylisation, not locked into Movement-dogged bogstandard English plainspokenness. It is the fact that these poems read like they could not have been written any other way that gives them their aura of authenticity, of genuineness, despite the obvious affectation.

The fragments of introspection are what work best for me, when Parker is less concerned with portraying a lifestyle than expressing personal feeling. ‘Little Bean’ is, as Luke Kennard has noted, quite simply heartbreaking and I wouldn’t want to taint it by speaking of it further. But also affecting are the fragments like this one, appearing sporadically, little notes to self made public:

If I want sun
I close my eyes under a lightbulb
If I want sea
I close my eyes and listen
To the toilet flush...

Parker’s poetry in this collection, wilfully messy and semi-edited as it may or may not be, is a becoming. There is a humanity that presses against the words and helps give them their force, and as the poems ransack childhood and early adulthood for purpose, so their quality as poetry seems to be writing towards itself. It is a journey towards something enacted in the process of the poems together and the implication of what the poet is working towards as poet, and I think it will be a journey worth joining. 

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