Other People's Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night by Morgan Parker

Prodding the Line

reviewed by Chrissy Martin

Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books, 2015) is filled with electricity; it is a book of quick-moving poems throwing sparks of humor and discomfort. Morgan Parker’s debut collection does not come into the poetic world muffling the rattle of the doorknob, gently closing the door behind it. Rather, it strides in confidently, walking around the house with its shoes on, demanding a place for itself and collections like it. Parker’s book is powerfully unapologetic, giving way to a refreshing and necessary voice. Through fable, personal narrative, music, and reality TV, her poems navigate through what it means to be black, female, and working class in America.

Parker creates a careful balance of critique and humor, leaving the reader satisfied but never allowing them to feel completely at ease. In her series of reality TV poems, she plays with femininity, performance, and privilege through modern tropes of Real Housewives cast members; the continuous presence of an audience in this set of poems works to constantly remind the reader of the viewers’ desire to see women—in this instance, black women—in this role. In “If My Housemate Fucks with Me I Would Get So Real (Audition Tape Take 1),” the speaker brags to the camera that she is:

Brooding tatted over my art.
Otherwise, black.
Can do angry, can’t do
accents. I need a little coaching or
provocation. Opinionated and
everything a man wants.
Lips and boobs camera-ready.

In “Real Housewife Defends Herself in Front of a Live Studio Audience,” the speaker tells the audience, “To behave like a lady / is to refrain oneself from pulling fake // hair extensions out of the head of a fake- / ass bitch . . . .” Though in “America This Is For You (Audition Tape Take 2),” the speaker closes the series by pointing directly at America’s desire for her performance, promising, “Give me a drink and I will do a service.”

Parker actively works in the contemporary, employing modern voices such as Jay Z for epigraphs, while reworking familiar voices such as Frank O’Hara. Her poem “I Was Trotting Along and Suddenly” borrows its title from O’Hara and modernizes the piece by declaring:  

                        I’m more inclined
to Timberland than Plath, and I like
to get stoned, make my stomach
a living drum. I’d let down my hair
if I had any, step out of this golden
barbershop fresh as a cold pear.

In her poetry, Parker entwines what is privileged and what is othered, and in doing so, calls attention to the divide between the two. She unabashedly prods at the line with poems in this collection wearing titles such as: “How to Piss in Public and Maintain Femininity,” “Greetings from Struggle City,” “Real Housewife Considers Feminist Theory While Sketching Designs for Her Handbag Line,” and “Poem Made of Empty Prescription Bottles From the Garbage in Front of Bill Murray’s House.”

The most striking critique in the collection is the series of poems “Miss Black America,” which highlights the separation of blackness from femininity and traditional notions of beauty. Toying again with commonly held tropes of black women, these poems work in repetition, engulfing the reader in questions: “Does she flat-iron / or out-of-package-relaxer”; “Does she let her / white friends touch”; “Is she a doll for you             does she come / with a special comb”; “Is she lathered in cocoa butter / under her swimsuit.” In the final poem of the series, Parker abandons satire, silencing the room and writing starkly, “Does she wish for world peace / equality              or has she given up.”

-3/26/16