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This review is taken from PN Review 245, Volume 45 Number 3, January - February 2019.

Cover of In Her Shambles
David C. WardDigging Away
Elizabeth Parker, In Her Shambles (Poetry Wales) $9.99;
Ari Banias, Anybody (W.W. Norton) $15.95
Looking up definitions of ‘shambles’ for this review, I find that it usually means ‘wreckage’ or ‘mess’ (an archaic meaning is the killing floor of a butcher’s) but that there is a usage in which it is pridefully applied to gardens whose display is a seemingly artless cascade of surprising beauty. I like the idea of adopting Shambles as a term, like Folly or Ha Ha, for landscape gardening. I suspect Elizabeth Parker would too not least since turned into a verb, ‘shambling’, the term (rhyming with rambling) also means a kind of purposeless or awkward walk or gait. In gardening or poetry, then, ‘shambles’, as demonstrated by Parker, is an oxymoron, a seemingly accidental yet entirely purposeful aesthetic reconstruction of what she encounters. As we know, there is nothing natural about landscape. Rather it’s how we design and arrange it: ‘While he stayed shut, her throat bloomed / long-stemmed flowers / threading their colors through a breeze.’ Or in ‘Dry’ a river is unclogged:

You sleeked my snarls of algae
brought a lush hiss to my throat
brown trout wafting their bodies.

It’s not all blooms and flowage though as nature is as much muck and mire or decay; ‘From Home to the Garden Centre The Forest of Dean’ makes the forest viscous with industrial leavings: ‘a forest still oozing iron, / bedrocks greased with ore.’ Nature is dangerous, with a hint of the butcher shop’s blood and offal:

Birds, shrews, mice
pried from the white portcullis
of the cat’s teeth

Mostly, though, things are humid and mouldy: ‘Our new spades prise a lid of dry soil / from loam riddled with red ants, rotten bulbs / last years hyacinths that failed to hatch / nipped and leached by microbes.’ Or, from ‘My Black Gardens’: ‘I relinquish my black gardens /  matted kelp, ripe bladderwrack. / I lose skins’. Sloughing and relinquishing extends to people, relationships: ‘A spider trails its tiny shadow / across the bathroom tiles. / Your heat is gone but there are scents’. ‘Writing Him Out’ is a nicely done ‘breakup poem’ about the ink running out (writing this poem presumably) and then rinsing the pen and flushing the watery residue: ‘The plughole glugged up stained water / then swallowed him down for good.’

This flowage is amplified in several poems about running water and rivers. Poets like rivers because they’re analogous to verse as well as to life. And Paker has several river poems, the best of which associates family members and friends with kinds of rivers:

My aunt’s river grazes its banks
and widens
Rocks are loosed to salt her river
My uncle’s river remembers its monks
their nights rowing to secret mass
prows cutting water bonds
to rock chapels in the gorge


This morning my river was high
green and urgent with rain
rushing light and leaves toward the estuary.

Rivers, though, are just a little too dramatic for Parker; the mood of ‘Quiet Water’ with its pipe ‘bent up from mud / its leak snaking through outgrass and deadnettle / twitching each stem,’ the field getting sodden, surprising the unwary. She favors a sense of decay, or decadence in poems that are astringently opulent. No more so than in ‘Lizzie’, her poem about the poems that Dante Gabriel Rossetti buried with his wife and then had exhumed:

They plucked out his book
with a bible and a worm
leaves edged red
bound in calfskin
disinfectant reek
when he unpeeled the rags.

Against this high drama (romantic but creepy!), Parker counterpoints the hum drum of modern wordprocessing; ‘I spell-check / save as / rename / print / close / shut down.’ Parker is being ironic or self-mocking here, if she uses a word processor, her sensibility is of the fountain pen – the piercing of the cartridge, the flow of ink, the sharpness of the nib.

Lurking behind this reference to a fountain pen is Seamus Heaney’s famous injunction to his pen, ‘I’ll dig with it’. Dig, Parker does, into genealogy, history, and the land, freighting her poems with these connections.

Contrasting are the poems of Ari Banias whose title Anybody centers his subject not just on the possibility of connection but to the malleable defining of the body itself; the title could have had a question mark since the book is about finding oneself.

The choices:      cheating husband, vapid fag
checked-out corporate guy, self-centered evolved guy, sensitive
yet inarticulate, predator, messiah, martyr, angry man…

It’s very much a young person’s book not least in its working through the self-definition of sexual identity. About fraught relations with his father: ‘I know / I was afraid. Of him. And so. / I know I played alone / with dolls and that / we roughhoused, hard, like brothers.’ Coming out aside, there’s a fragility, even a naiviety, to these poems that works for a while but then gets cloying:

The book I almost finished.
The look I gave you
while you weren’t looking and now
you’ll never know the way I feel.

Dear Diary! There’s an entire poem listing defunct and extant ‘Gay Bars’ in America; ‘The Stonewall’ isn’t name checked which is too bad because it’s not like Banias is the first person to go through these growing pains. A sense of history as well as a sense of irony wouldn’t be amiss here. A little subjectivity goes a long way, especially these days when the ‘coming of age’ memoir / novel / poems has been done to excess. If you’re going to do it you have to have a sense of style and Banias is just a little too in love with his own mopiness and self-dramatisation. There’s an audience for this, of course, but having worked through this stage of his poetic autobiography it might be a good idea for Banias to go for a shamble.

This review is taken from PN Review 245, Volume 45 Number 3, January - February 2019.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this review to
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