Body Litter and Carnival Knowledge: Susan Parr’s Pacific Shooter

pacific shooter

Susan Parr’s Pacific Shooter is an elegant, slender volume with a pretty cool cover design. It was selected for the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Series by Susan Mitchell, and published by the lovely folks at Pleiades (2009).

I’ll be honest and say that I felt a little lost in a few of the poems. That said, I was maybe focusing on a different level of the language than was intended. Once I started paying more attention to sound, and let go of my determination to find a sort of narrative or specific scene, reading this got a lot better.

Why? Because Parr loves sound-play — here are some examples:

In the mint tongue, grousing / is a loose teal shard. The breath’s / a sousing over a cup. (from: “Mint Linguistics”)

There’s the repeated ‘t’ sound (mint, tongue, teal), the recurring ‘in’ and the connection between the ‘g’ sounds (tongue, grousing) for instance.

In bald laryngal fog — / drop one trisyllable gallop. // Chuck one fat sonata-cog / in the sleepwalk saw. (from: “Earthirst”)

Here, it’s the ‘l’ that dominates and permeates, then the ‘k’ (chuck, cog, sleepwalk) and the ‘aw’ (sleepwalk, saw). The effect this sound-play has is that it ties otherwise (seemingly) unrelated pieces together, puts them in conversation with each other.

My favorite poem in this set, I think, is “Auntie Phillips, Fabian, Maverick —” (I qualify this statement with “I think” because this poem is so different from the majority of the book that it’s hard to compare.) “Fabian” here refers to the Fabian Society, a British political (socialist) organization. When you look up “maverick” (which I did), there are several definitions. The obvious one: one who does not conform. But I also found this other definition interesting: “An unbranded range animal, especially a calf that has become separated from its mother, traditionally considered the property of the first person who brands it” (source: Wordnik).

Auntie Phillips is a maverick, possibly politically and socially, but also as an unmarried / about-to-be-married woman. Her husband, we learn, is “an Englander down to the gorse in his jersey,” and the gender roles are clearly divided between the two: “Auntie chose the clothier, sent / the invitations. / He was the breadwinner.”

These are wedding preparations: the bride chooses her dress and makes the guest list. The turn happens in the last stanza:  “When he purchased a centerpiece one day, / Auntie let out a hoarse note. / No reason for him to be so fatal.” Has he overstepped his bounds in taking care of decoration? What is ‘fatal’ about the centerpiece? Is it his choice of centerpiece, of focus for their relationship? Is it him, independently of the ‘centerpiece’ (whatever it may be)? Fatal can mean ‘of decisive importance’ as well as ‘lethal’ or ‘leading to ruin’ (among other things).

image source: Antique Images (click)

image source: Antique Images (click)

What is clear is that Auntie’s progressive views clash with the decision the husband makes in the final stanza. She’ll let him be the breadwinner, in keeping with tradition, and will take on a homemaker’s tasks, again in keeping with tradition, but when he decides what the focus of their reception / their wedding / their table / their relationship will be, something shifts. The “hoarse note” is not ladylike; it gives voice to her disapproval.

Auntie “Didn’t like the epoch, couldn’t / hearken to its galactic rise / (but felt, sometimes, extinct — / or lithic, at least)” — she is a woman who does not quite belong; the social climate she is born into is an ill fit for her. She lives in it (accepts it, since she has little choice in the matter), but every once in a while she grates against the norms and expectations. She has been claimed, yes, but she can still be a maverick in the other senses of the word.

Another poem that stands out is “Poem in the Shape of a Poem.” I’m no big fan of poetry about poetry, but she just pulls it off. The reason the poem works (for me) is that the self-referential nature of the poem exists solely through the title, and the body qualifies this when it closes on “And please forgive my hats. / They rarely fit.”

I also enjoyed “Receding Universe Rag” — a formal poem written in the voice of, well, a receding universe. The pattern that structures this piece is smart, hardly noticeable at first read. There are repeated words that tie lines into stanzas and then weave the stanzas together: A noun early in line 1 reappears at the end of line 3, and a noun, early in the penultimate and ultimate line of each stanza, is repeated at the end of the first and second line of the next stanza, respectively.

I’m one bone away from a very bright man –/ One beep from the solar age. / One glass of milk from a collar bone — / One microwave from the beep. // One drop away from a glass of milk — / One floor from the microwave.

In all, this is a fun collection to read aloud because of Parr’s fascination with sound. It also has quirky themes and lots of cool words. While the poems Pacific Shooter can be disorienting if you are reading for concrete meaning or a narrative, reading this collection with an ear for sound-play and appreciation for tongue-in-cheekness makes it rather enjoyable.


P.S. — You can read Parr’s poem “Even Football” (which is also in this collection) on this blog: and “Formal Manners” and “This is Not a Lemon” over at DIAGRAM



About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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