Sunday, December 13, 2009

thoughts on A Walk Through the Memory Palace

Pamela Johnson Parker's A Walk Through the Memory Palace is a somewhat disappointing collection of poetry from qarrtsiluni press. The language is often bland and cliché, such as in "Tattoos": "I want you / so much it hurts to / breathe" (5) or "Talking a Walk With You": "Now as we thread / our way through cattails / in gauzy light" (15). The poems also suffer from a lack of form matching content; while the three-line wave form works in "Engendering: For Two Voices," as it matches the movement of water, and the patterns of the fish swimming through the water, elsewhere the same form is used to little effect. Also, some poems capitalize the first words of every line, which certainly is traditional, but seems unnecessary here. There is excessive use of italics throughout the book; a disrupting stylistic choice particularly when used as explanation--it gives the impression that readers are not trusted to make the connection between "the willow's dreadlocks" and "some girl / hiding her face beneath / her heavy hair" (this inevitably brought to mind the willow tree from Disney's film Pocahontas - not a particularly new or effectively used image of a tree/woman).

The most problematic poem in the text is "Some Yellow Tulips" which deals with the theme of Holocaust survivor's guilt. The use of end-rhyme is particularly disruptive; it distracts the reader from the subject. Ken Babstock (link goes to a video of Babstock reading) uses rhyme in powerfully emotive ways; this poem did bring his work to mind ("Steady brown hand on a Stanley Knife She cut me--expertly--out of her life" is a line that sticks with me). But rhyme still has a tendency to associate itself with trite content in English poetry, or feel like an affectation. Here, it reduces the impact of the poem's content, about a Holocaust survivor labouring in her garden being reminded of her past, and finally crying over it.

The most interesting fragment in A Walk Through the Memory Palace is "Narcissus: Narke" from a longer piece called "Archaic Fragments." It is crisp, short, and has a delightful twist of language ("how fish / school into your dead / calm") that manipulates the cliche of underwater skeletons in a clever way. Parker is clearly capable of very good writing; unfortunately most of the chapbook is too vague to have meaningful impact on the reader. Even when dealing with subjects that are by nature emotional (the Holocaust and breast cancer), the poems tend to fall flat because of a lack of specificity and a plethora of overused idioms and images.

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