Linda Rose Parkes, Familiars, (Hearing Eye, 2014), 59pp, £7.50. ISBN 9781905082735
Reviewed by Kyle Cooper
[Originally published in LP10, July 2016]
Samuel Beckett’s character Estragon (who, I recently discovered, shares a name with a brand of European mustard) makes the damning statement that “People are bloody ignorant apes.” This line between human and animal is one oft-discussed in poetry. Evolutionary theory, genetics and our basic psychology tell us we are not so different from the other inhabitants of our planets. But religion, emotions, reason and – perhaps – a fair dollop of our own egos tell us that we are more than that. Poetry, often falling somewhere between these two poles, discusses this perplexity.
Parkes’s third collection, Familiars, takes up the discussion in fresh terms, examining the relationship between people and animals, interrogating family dynamics and exploring sexual battles and confluences.
The collection opens with a “bang” – in ‘Interruptus’, a couple are interrupted mid-coitus “when a cowgirl rode in…and started firing rounds / into the luckless cattle”. There is a passion to the poem which treads a line between violence and lust:
Now our only desire
was for the horse to unseat her –
to toss her through the air,
her hair broken loose,
Parkes uses the interactions between humans and animals to look at the violence of sex, and the sexuality of violence. ‘Bovine’ portrays a woman returning home to find a “bull god of rain and fecundating power” snorting on the landing, a heavy and virile masculine figure. The relationships between male and female genders are explored in terms of bodily, animal language, as well as in terms of complicated mental ties, as can be seen in ‘The Mole Man’. This poem sets out a sinister scene in which a male acquaintance appears at a woman’s window, dangling a mole by one foot, “subjugating / those white hands”.
The coven of body-sex-violence is brought together most potently in ‘Cleavage’, which depicts a bodily modification in the jarring juxtaposition of “The B-cup waiting behind the whittling knife”. Parkes sees the body identity merging with a city – “subcutaneous fat, patches of skin / mounting in smoke at the heart of Krung Thep”. Parkes considers what components make “this integument of woman” and the gender and sexual identity that these components give rise to, and are subjected to. What emerges is a being of motherhood “with its mammary glands / that once made sweet and fatty milk” and an elemental desire, with “nipples pink as Himalayan snow-berries”. This earth-woman dynamic is seen in ‘Strong Milk’, in which a female companion is transfigured into “the cow shadows / chomping and snoring / in the grass under the moon”.
A ‘familiar’ is also an animal companion to a witch. Parkes encourages this interpretation, and a wyrdness (spelt, in the proper wytching way, with a ‘y’) runs through the poems, rooted in ancient symbols of femininity; the moon and tide. ‘Last to Leave’, paired with ‘A Moonlit Night’, depicts Hecate – queen of the underworld and witch goddess extraordinaire – swimming in a bay with her familiar dog “summoning / the beasts, the birds, the fish”. The narrator’s “palate grief-struck” as she sees the animals leave with the dwindling tide brings a note of mourning to the collection, which is taken up again in ‘A Moonlit Night’, in which the poem is interrupted from its musings on the sea to ask desperately
O will she never get up,
wind down the stairs
to lift the latch?
before returning to the ocean – “ah to be buoyed and engulfed / by something huge at last”, a deep and unknown, deathly sea, but one that makes the narrator “alive / on my feet” in contrast. Parkes explores this sense of desperate devotion, made impossible, in an earlier poem, ‘Shut Out’, with a dog barred from his home overnight – the door haunts Parkes’ narrative; “I’ve dreamt / all night of a door / that never opens”. This terrible powerlessness takes a more central role in
‘In the Offing’, as Parkes ponders a conversation with her mother ”about / when she’s not here”:
a wave about to
steepen and surge
and carry her away
to where I am not
to where ill never reach…
However, Parkes uses the themes of witchcraft to examine the matrilineal rituals of mother and daughter. She looks back through her mother’s line in ‘My Inner Ear’ and ‘Sweet breezes of her own country’, hearing sounds and words of languages from her past, and blending them into song. Parkes mixes the “tarantara” of Russian trumpets, “the sonorous chime / of my mother being born” and “the Dance of the Moorish Slaves” into a chant that causes Parkes to stumble, as she carries her female past balanced with the “health cuts, job losses, collapsed umbrellas” of the everyday on, as it were, “a tray with everything on it”. Parkes also looks forward to her relationship with her daughter, passing on this lineage in ‘Lobbing my Daughter the Ball’, questioning whether she has done her best, given her daughter enough “to run behind / as I run behind you”.
Completing the circle, Parkes brings her witchery to bear on the gender struggles – sexual and not – which she deals with. In ‘There goes my girl I whisper’, Parkes takes a masculine sexual familiar – the snake – and questions her father’s authority on the animal; “I know the / snake was / female”. This poem is sinuous and serpentine on the page, allowing Parkes to question ideas of form and gender, as she does later in ‘Cleavage’. Such roles are experimented with again in ‘A Character Role’ – “How was he going to reduce me again? / I wanted fireballs, earthquake, drought”.
A collection that draws on myths of womanhood and reworks them, Familiars is rich and fertile. Parkes deals intelligently and deftly with a range of subjects. Personal grief, gender identity and constructions and the role of family are seen in light of the human animal (humanimal?). Parkes does not believe “people are bloody ignorant apes”, as that would be to be too harsh on both parties – rather, it is the relationship between the two which informs and guides this collection.