Carl Tomlinson reviews This Fruiting Body by Caleb Parkin (Nine Arches, 2021)
The dedication in Caleb’s Parkin’s debut collection reads ‘For all my families’ and a quick glance through the contents reveals poems for his mother, his mother-in-law and his ‘Great-Great-Grandspider’. This is an early hint that Parkin is not going to be bound by the idea of family as laid out in Linnean classification. It suggests he’s not going to shy away from the problematic ground of anthropomorphism, nor does he.
The book opens and closes with poems addressing exhibits in the Horniman Museum. In ‘Young Animal’, “a little girl / weeps” before an exhibit comprising the preserved skulls of dogs, she is “just a pup”. The poet offer his gibbon “cousin” a piggyback. Already we see the riot of cross species communication which runs through this book. By the end of the book Parkin is ready to “whisper in impeccable walrus: / I’m flying.”
This could end up as chaotic and self-indulgent. That it isn’t is due to Parkin’s wholehearted commitment to the idea, and the variety of unsentimental ways in which he approaches it. However much he, and we, admire and strive to protect the Great-Great-Grandspider, “She doesn’t give two shakes” for us. It’s a toss-up whether the ‘Hermit Crab’ or the Saab driver Parkin equates him with would feel less flattered by their being compared to one another. The arc-reared pigs in ‘Campers’ are defiant residents of a kitsch holiday camp, even as ”crisp leaves crackling under charcoal suns” remind us that ‘long pig’ carries connotations of cannibalism.
The arc-reared pigs in ‘Campers’ are defiant residents of a kitsch holiday camp, even as ”crisp leaves crackling under charcoal suns” remind us that ‘long pig’ carries connotations of cannibalism
He acknowledges elsewhere the ultimate failure of attempts to identify too closely with anything not oneself. In ‘I Compare Myself to a GIF of a Dung Beetle’ the insect is both “like me” and “unlike me”. This indifference of nature and the impossibility of any writer truly knowing their subject are brought into cruel focus in ‘The Channel’, which I read a few days after 27 people drowned trying to reach the UK. Parkin has worked in Radio and TV production. Watching a news report about another crossing, he identifies with the reporter who “points his mic at them”. He watches as
On the boat, one of the young men dips
a hand in the waves, each time the boat lifts
at every crest. His fingertips in North Sea water
But Parkin also knows that
[…] wouldn’t know anyone’s names; this water
I’ll never feel, brisk and sudden, on fingertips.
Parkin’s CV includes a stint as a Senior Inclusion Worker, but he’s acutely aware of what he’s excluded from.
When he was appointed Bristol’s City Poet in 2020 Parkin said “I consider myself a queer poet … I want to include all of our voices, to use poetry to connect issues such a gender, sexuality and environmentalism.” He attempts this most explicitly in ‘Watership Down Fugue’. Richard Adams’ novel is itself an exercise in concentrated anthropomorphism. Here, Parkin entwines a fear of AIDS and the trepidation of a blood test with myxied rabbits “fucking and dying”. Destruction looms, just as it does in the novel. The poem is not perfect, the sense of scuffling around in a rabbit warren is sometimes just distracting, but for this straight male reader it offers as powerful an insight into gay male sensibility as the TV drama It’s a Sin’.
The collections handles sexuality in varied ways. ‘In Shrinking Violets’ it is a barrier to inclusivity. The narrator shares a shower with alpha males, or at any rate males who assume they are alpha and tries “to avoid eye contact with […] these Other Men”. ‘Instead of smoking after sex’ shows he’s not above double entendre as he and his partner deal with an attack of mould on a wall — cue references to “all this moisture this excess”, “the ways bodies overflow / into other bodies” and the government struggling “to control its members”. Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea but, as elsewhere, the commitment gives him a licence we might deny half-hearted writers. He rounds it off with a couple of elegant smoke metaphors which get, if not the last laugh, at least a nod and a smile. In ‘Dear Horticultural Mother-in-law’ the “brazen” copulation of lily beetles contrasts with the complexity of “two-man households” in “camouflaged cul-de-sacs”. Something’s gnawing away at the order of “this well-mannered patch of green”.
When he was appointed Bristol’s City Poet in 2020 Parkin said “I consider myself a queer poet … I want to include all of our voices, to use poetry to connect issues such a gender, sexuality and environmentalism.”
The notion of a cul-de-sac recurs in other poems, and its dead-end connotations strike a discordant note with the idea of the body as fruiting. There’s a tension between the exuberance of the rampantly anthropomorphic poems and the confines of the collection’s only prose poem, ‘garden’. Here Parkin boxes the description of an increasingly frantic, and ultimately fantastical, battle with a length of buried plastic piping in justified lines fenced in by the word ‘garden’, which opens and closes the poem in bold type
the pipe keeps going and across the fence we
see the cul-de-sac sag while underneath it some underpinning is being
there goes the neighbourhood fraying
like an ancient rug.
This isn’t a collection to delight determined formalists. Parkin makes effective use of stanzas and couplets throughout, but he’s sparing with rhyme. What’s more, the most formal poems seem to be trying to wriggle free of themselves. ‘Campers’ doesn’t really need to be a villanelle, and might have been more sustained without the second stanza which imagines the pigs on a space colony. The specular form is an interesting way of writing about the ebbs and flows of the Severn’s tide but ‘Unknown Distance, Moderate Difficulty’ falters in places. Parkin’s human and canine companions are evoked lovingly in the first half but in the second half they are ghoulish and unfathomable:
in corners of fields, accumulating in shadows
Mind those jagged gaps
in the MoD fence. Stand at Sand Point’s furthest extent
where the wind will not budge you an inch.
where the wind will not budge you. An inch
in the MoD fence stands. At Sand Point’s furthest extent.
These quibbles are by way of saying that the exuberant execution of the less formal poems is what carries the reader through this collection. You’d need a hard heart and a deep attachment to taxonomy not to enjoy large parts of it.