There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé
(Tin House Books, 2017)
Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé is one of those rare poetry collections that is simultaneously strange and comforting, defiant and self-conscious, plugged into mainstream pop culture and extremely personal. It also happens to be something we need more of given the current political landscape and the damage it has done to race relations in this country: unapologetically Black. Parker takes an honest look at herself, her surroundings, and the culture she’s embedded within, and then distills her observations and self-analysis into short poems that are painfully honest and packed with an unexpected sense of humor. The result is a heartfelt, thoughtful, funny collection that refuses to stay in the same rhythm for long, instead opting to jump around the same themes and explore new spaces the same way John Coltrane would: rooted in place, but with one foot in the stratosphere.
This collection touches on a variety of subjects that go from drinking and craving a Xanax to sex and going to therapy, and they are all tackled with different approaches. However, the way most of Parker’s poems are constructed serves as the cohesive element that gives this collection structure. While some elements vary, Parker is at the heart of these poems and her experiences are the lens through which reality is filtered. Surprisingly, this does not prevent the writing from also becoming a collective experience, because she takes cultural references and then intertwines them with the experiences of black womanhood in a way that makes the writing feel like shared events without making them lose their distinctive voice. The individual in the writing might be Parker, but her desires and feelings are sometimes global, and that allows her writing to touch a nerve with all readers:
I’m Black in America and I walk
into a bar and drink a lot of wine, kiss a white man on his beard.
There is no indictment.
I could die any minute of depression.
I just want to have sex most of the time.
I just want my student loans to disappear.
I just want to understand my savings account.
Perhaps the best thing about There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé is its duality. Beyoncé and Jay Z appear in this book multiple times and there are tips of the hat to popular hip-hop songs sprinkled throughout the text, but the author is also in constant conversation with feminism, identity politics, and academics like bell hooks. This duality makes the collection at once smart and approachable, which are two things rarely found in perfect harmony. When you throw into that mix the bluntness, wit, and deceptive simplicity Parker uses to approach race in the United States, comparisons to Langston Hughes are inevitable: this is the voice of the people, but coming out of a very specific mouth that can arrange words much better than the rest of us.
For those who live it, writing about Otherness is never easy. However, Parker makes it look that way. Her style is strange enough to make readers read carefully and friendly enough for meaning to be grasped by most. Also, humor and self-deprecation are used in a way that makes devouring these tough, truthful, personal poems about sexual agency, mental health issues, depression, and African-American womanhood a pleasurable experience, despite the fact that they often point to painful realities. Perhaps the way Parker approaches all this is most evident in “Afro,” which is a standout piece in a collection entirely devoid of throwaways:
I’m hiding secrets and weapons in there: buttermilk
pancake cardboard, boxes of purple juice, a magic word
our Auntie Angela spoke into her ﬁst & released into
hot black evening like gunpowder or a Kool, 40 yards of
cheap wax prints, Te Autobiography of Malcolm X, a Zulu
folktale warning against hunters drunk on Polo shirts and
Jägermeister, blueprints for building ergonomically perfect
dancers & athletes, the chords to what would have been
Michael’s next song, a mule stuffed with diamonds & gold,
Miss Holiday’s vocal chords, the jokes Dave Chapelle’s
been craving off-the-grid, sex & brown liquor intended
for distribution at Sunday Schools in white suburbs, or in
other words exactly what a white glove might expect to
ﬁnd taped to my leg & swallowed down my gullet & locked
in my trunk & fogging my dirty mind & glowing like
treasure in my autopsy
Parker is a strong, intelligent, flawed, complicated, self-aware woman, and that shines through in her work. She is also, at times, Beyoncé, the queen of her hood, a fan of Dave Chapelle, a walking “museum of necklines and cloudscapes,” a person in a bar, and Michelle Obama. She is broken and sexy, she is scared and insecure, she is in control and powerful, she is free and accidental, she is a writer, an observer, a chronicler, and a Black Woman in the middle of the chaos. In these poems, Parker is a plethora of personas, all aware of who they are and in touch with the truth that makes them look inside themselves: “There are more beautiful things than Beyoncé: self-awareness…”
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé belongs to the group of new voices that are collectively writing a manifesto about African-American Otherness in the age of computer/cell phone mediated disconnection and hip-hop. These are works that belong next to the writings of bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldúa, while also belonging in a club in the form of a feminist response to a Lil Wayne song. While poetry in general struggles to leave behind the world of MFA readings and journals with birds and clouds on the cover, the work Parker offers the world demands to be read out loud, demands to be discussed and explored, and begs to be looked at all by itself and then in relation to the spaces, situations, historical facts, and places it comes from. This is a subversive, smart, touching collection that deserves to be read more than once.