REVIEW: OTHER PEOPLE’S COMFORT KEEPS ME UP AT NIGHT – MORGAN PARKER (TIN HOUSE)

All my friends say baby

don’t go to work tomorrow

I go home quietly

wake up and go to work

I can do it forever

 

From “Everything is Bothering Me”

 

Morgan Parker has firmly established herself as one of the best and most versatile writers of her generation. Over the past six years, Parker has released three full-length collections and a young adult novel, to say nothing of her features on Common’s A Beautiful Revolution Pt. 1 and A Beautiful Revolution Pt. 2. Most enter Parker’s poetry through There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce or the award-winning Magical Negro. Earlier this year, Tin House made the decision to re-release Parker’s debut collection, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night.

 

The re-release begins with an introduction from Danez Smith. While introductions, especially those in poetry collections, rarely interest me, Smith has done something remarkable here. They help frame the importance of this collection, both within Parker’s opus and in the American poetic tradition. But more than that, they unearth what drives this collection and what makes its re-release so necessary. Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night is not the typical debut; readers do not encounter Parker as a young and inexperienced author, but as someone who immediately displays a deep understanding of the human condition. She’s also terrifyingly comfortable with vulnerability, unique for first collections.

 

One thing that always catches my attention with new collections is when poets choose to include multiple poems with the same title. I’m always drawn to the ways in which the poems interact with one another. Parker does this with “Miss Black America,” a title she uses for numerous poems; she also includes two poems that identify themselves as audition tapes, and two poems simply named “Poem.” These decisions emphasize the repetitiveness of specific experiences and sensations before the reader even engages the poems themselves.

 

The “Miss Black America” series interrogates Blackness, womanhood and what it means to appeal to the (white male) American gaze. Each of these poems frames questions with the repeated verbs “does” and “is,” seeking to define “Miss Black America” in various terms. At its core, this is a collection intimately concerned with self-actualization and identity. But Parker informs the reader in the very first poem, “

 

What is usually said about love I ignore

worship instead the wilted flowers gleaming

in our throats what you don’t know is

I envy this world and I want to save it…

 

From this, we can extrapolate that her connection to identity is tenuous, predicated on a desire to better those around her while also fixating on what most dismiss as fragile, dying. Parker considers sadness and trauma often, but never through a lens of despair. As these lines promise, she worships the human condition, praises sadness and its place in her experience. It’s no surprise that Parker centers mental health, especially for those who have read her novel, Who Put This Song On? Indeed, she writes about depression and mental health with absolute brilliance. In “Epistolary Poem for Reader, Brother, Grandmother, Men (or, When I Say I Want to Spit You Up),” she admits

 

I am more comfortable

being mourned than loved.

 

I feel my death: It is tucked

inside my ear like an itch

or a bad idea.

 

It’s too late for coffee, or reason, or capability.


What this re-release shows, more than anything, is that Parker has always possessed an uncanny ability to intermingle philosophy and lyric. This re-release affirms what fans of her work already know, but it also opens readers to what Smith describes as prophetic. Parker seems to anticipate the future in these poems, reacting to events that were at once imaginary and inevitable. If you’ve read anything of Parker’s, trust me, this is a collection you will want to spend time with.

RONNIE K. STEPHENS

RONNIE K. STEPHENS

Ronnie K. Stephens is a proud father of six and college English instructor. He is the author of two poetry collections and one young adult novel. His second collection, They Rewrote Themselves Legendary, won Best in Show at the New England Book Show. Stephens is also a contributing writer for Interrogating Justice, a social justice think tank. Currently, he is pursuing a PhD in English with an emphasis in diversifying the literary canon for the 21st century classroom.

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