Isabelle Thompson reviews I Think We’re Alone Now by Abigail Parry (Bloodaxe Books, 2023)
Abigail Parry’s second collection I Think We’re Alone Now is a complex, poly-voiced book which addresses a wide range of topics, including church architecture, pop music, the limits and constraints of the English language, fishing, and beetles. At first it might seem hard to identify a single strand that ties these poems together. But if you look more closely it becomes apparent that they are about the challenges of being human; they probe within the human body and mind, and examine how an individual surrounded by a sea of voices might survive and triumph. Ultimately, they explore the redemptive quality of personal relationships, by addressing a special and particular “you”.
The ‘Covers’ section of the book is perhaps a nod to the idea of singing another person’s song, or ventriloquising your message through the vehicle of someone else’s mouth. ‘Whatever happened to Rosemarie?’ takes its title from a 1936 Connie Francis song. Every line ends with the name “Rosemarie”. The poem takes on the persona of a woman whose partner is obsessed with a former love:
I found a load of photographs – they’re all of Rosemarie –
he keeps them in an album labelled Me and Rosemarie.
There’s a little punctured heart above the R of Rosemarie,
and it lives beneath the bed you chose together, Rosemarie,
the bed he shares with me.
‘It is the lark that sings so out of tune’ also explores troubled romantic relationships. It’s written in the third person singular, and the effect is to open a window onto a wider range of experiences than a first person viewpoint could have achieved. ‘Lore’ takes on the voice of a sailor speaking about, presumably, a mermaid. “I’ve heard that pliant waist gives way to scale below the belt,” he says. “I heard she fouled the anchor when the ship put out to sea”. As the ship goes down, the sailor questions the captain, implying a romance gone wrong between him and the mermaid:
[…] But I have to wonder, Captain –
what marvellous contortion turned the girl into the monster?
Because I hear there was a time she wore your promise round her finger.
And I hear that when she left, she left it sitting on the counter.
The dull click-clink of gold against formica –
‘Audio commentary’ is one of the most powerful pieces. It is spoken by a film director as he discusses the unhappy fate of his star actress and attempts to justify his treatment of her: “You know, it’s really hard for me to talk / about that time, because she didn’t help herself, / she really didn’t.” It is insinuated that the actress had been exploited by the film makers, with the telling admission that they have silenced her voice:
Just look – we got this in a single take –
her lips have parted like she’s going to speak
and then – and this was Bill’s idea – the sound
just drops clean out.
These poems take on a variety of voices, and recount many stories, and all explore the ways in which an individual might be silenced, suppressed or damaged.
These poems take on a variety of voices, and recount many stories, and all explore the ways in which an individual might be silenced, suppressed or damaged
Elsewhere the poet takes a closer, deeper look at the individual – sometimes very literally. For example, ‘Speculum’ focusses on the experience of a pelvic examination and riffs on this subject wildly. The speculum – “Part instrument, part clockwork bird” – becomes a mirror, is imbued with biblical significance, and connects to Hamlet’s speech to his mother (“You go not till I set you up a glass / where you may see the inmost part of you”). ‘The brain of the rat in stereotaxic space’ describes looking at numbered plates containing slices of a rodent’s brain in “lilacs, greys and greens”. (Stereotaxic surgery is a three-dimensional surgical technique that enables lesions deep within tissues to be located and treated. The brain of the animal “admits no trace / of the little rat-thoughts, little rat-needs, / that scurry round its maze.” Although the individual in question is obviously not human, we are invited to extrapolate and consider what it is that makes a person unique and their life meaningful. The poem ends poignantly:
to have had my time at a kink of neural space
that more or less exactly corresponds
to that where you had yours –
uttered once, between one blank page and the next. And that will do, I think.
This specifically addressed “you” is significant. He or she is spoken to at crucial moments throughout the collection. In the long sequence that makes up the section ‘The Squint’ the poet begins by describing a lepers’ window in a church. The window is described as a “little like a cut”. The speaker and the “you” of the collection look through the slit in turn, each only getting “a partial view”, perhaps to show how two different people can be together despite having different perspectives. The second section of ‘The Squint’ offers a deeply loving recognition of closeness and partnership:
You, of course. I’d know you anywhere
by the nimble little streak of heat or luck
that prints itself like lightning on the air
whenever you are here, and all around you.
I know it, but I don’t know what to call it.
Your signature. Your rune. Your afterglow.
I Think We’re Alone Now offers a host, a crowd, of clamouring voices. It questions what makes an individual unique, what makes their life worthwhile. It offers the best answer it can – personal relationships, “you”. Love, if you like.
Isabelle Thompson holds an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa University. She has been published or has work forthcoming in a range of magazines including The Interpreter’s House, Stand and The New Welsh Review. She was the winner of the 2022 Poets and Players Competition and a runner up in the 2021 Mslexia Poetry Competition. She tweets @IzzyWithTheCats.