Fall 2014 / Spring 2015
Alice James Books, 2013; 80 pages; $19.95
ISBN: 978-1-938584-01-5; paper
Reviewed by Ronnie Norpel
Suzanne Parker's Viral has an immediacy and a currency which makes it unputdownable. That's hard to say about poetry, but Parker's word-tales pull us away from the internet even as we expect them to go viral.
Just as many of us wished for an "un-like" button on Facebook when we heard about it, you might say Parker was "un-inspired" to write her series of poems by Tyler Clementi’s shattering leap from the George Washington Bridge after his NOT friend exposed his private, same-sex moments on the World Wide Web. Viral, indeed. She dedicates her book to Clementi.
The poems in Viral are separated into three sections, or acts: the first juxtaposes the actions of those who exposed him and the circumstances of his growing up; the second considers the imagined aftermath of grief and emotional fall-out of his death; the third comprises at-large yet personal reflections on the hunger for closeness and concomitant desire for safety.
Parker teases meaningful details—the poetry of Tyler's life and death—from news reports, and shapes them into sharp cultural commentary.
She takes the transgressor's point of view in "Because," feeding us his easy excuses, filling us with dread of his—perhaps our own—disconnectedness, all the while tagging our culture:
Because the eye exists to watch and I / owned the rights to the technology.
Because the emoticons filled the small / screen of my living.
Because pixels are related to pixies / Disney, the $13 ticket.
Parker puts us in the position of the precious soul we will never know and rips into the reader's humanity: Tyler Clementi was a specific, and young, person; he played the violin. In "Stopped I," Parker notes "the sound of momentum stopped," and we accompany Clementi in his departure from his dorm room, his apartness, his loneliness:
Leave the music locked in its case under your bed,
the miles eaten like glass,
the chatter like flies breeding in a jar…
Leave the intersection, the bus station, the church door,
and the exhaust.
With your back turned, there is no one there.
Leave now. It is time to walk.
In "Day 5," Parker breaks down the task of making toast, personalizing the process as the imagined thoughts of Tyler's grief-stricken mother. Anyone who has mourned the loss of someone so close can feel the painstaking challenge of merely functioning:
This is how you make toast. Lift arms from the lap. Grip seat of chair with both hands and push body from what has held it the last three hours before dawn. Walk six steps across black tile to fridge. Lift left hand from side. Pull on freezer door and breathe deeply the cool air. Again. Breathe. Again. Look at packages of frozen food. Locate bread. Shut door. Press forehead against steel. Rock side to side. Do not think of mortuaries. Do not think of water ballooning lungs. Do not think...
With Viral, Parker has done what all great poets do: eloquently witness an unspeakable sign of her times. She has taken to task a current event, examined its facets and explained it to us with eye-opening and heart-rending wordsmithery. In the end, we are all called out: Parker's astounding tribute to Tyler Clementi is a cri de couer for being present to others "IRL." In real life, let's take this viral.
Actress and writer Ronnie Norpel is the host and producer of the eclectic variety show TRACT 187 CULTURE CLATCH, featuring poets, prosers, actors, comedians, singers, tap dancers, hula hoopers, and musicians, gigging bi-monthly on the Upper West Side since Feb. 2011.