Columbia Forum

As “Beautiful” as She Wants To Be

Book cover image for "There are more beautiful things than Beyoncé

Morgan Parker ’10’s new book of poetry is “a love letter to black women”

Browsing Morgan Parker ’10’s poems, one might assume she has been scribbling free verse since childhood. Her style is easy, imagistic and fluid; Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith calls Parker’s writing “acrobatic.” The turbo-charged speed of Parker’s literary rise only increases the sense of a discipline derived, like athleticism, from a hardcore, lifelong practice. Parker has already published two books and was selected for the all-star lineup in The Best American Poetry 2016, as well as for a prestigious 2017 NEA Literature Fellowship. Her celebrity fans include Lena Dunham and counterculture poet Eileen Myles.

Photo of Morgan Parker

Rachel Eliza Griffiths

But poetry is a genre Parker fell into as a College student. She grew up in Highland, Calif., a conservative suburb of Los Angeles, the child of a firefighter and a county employee (“really, really regular people,” she told The New Yorker in April). Parker wrote stories and essays and daydreamed about moving to New York City and becoming a writer — but not, ugh, a poet, she recalled for CCT: “Poetry is a weird genre, and I didn’t feel like it was for me.” That all changed in a creative writing seminar taught by visiting poet Josh Bell. The class read contemporary poems, not the “horrible” works from her high school syllabus. Parker wrote a poem each week, responding to different prompts. She made jokes and talked about herself — “things I wouldn’t say out loud.” Something opened up for her.

She still talks about the oddness of poetry, but now it’s with affection. It’s clear how much the genre has given her — how it allows her to reach out and self-reveal in a way that’s both extroverted and inclusive. When Parker’s poems are described in interviews or reviews, the word “invitation” recurs. “I’m trying to invite the reader to get to the thing with me … creating a space where they’re feeling what I’m feeling,” she says. She praises poetry’s flexibility and its ability to pinpoint the inexpressible. “A really successful poem — you almost can’t put your finger on what’s so good,” she adds. “You’re not saying the thing, you’re swirling around it.”

The works in her latest book, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Tin House Books, $14.95), combine vivid life observations and pop references from a young New York City woman’s point of view, spiraling them into expressive, emotionally rich designs. Twelve poems about the many-faceted Beyoncé — a celebrity who represents, for Parker, “every black woman” — blend with more personal riffs on love, race, therapy, martinis and music. Parker sees her new book as, ultimately, a “love letter to black women.” Poem after poem depicts their strength, their potential, their fatigue and anger — “everything they have been and are and will be and could be.” As she told New York magazine last spring: “I just want this to be a reminder that, look, you have permission to be as dope, as fly, as beautiful, as naked, as sad, as fucked up as you want to be.”

— Rose Kernochan BC’82

The President Has Never Said the Word Black

To the extent that one begins
to wonder if he is broken.

It is not so difficult to open
teeth and brass taxes.

The president is all like
five on the bleep hand side.

The president be like
we lost a young           boy today.

The pursuit of happiness
is guaranteed for all fellow 	       Americans.

He is nobody special like us.
He says brothers and sisters.

What kind of bodies are moveable
and feasts. What color are visions.

When he opens his mouth
a chameleon is inside, starving.

Another Another Autumn in New York

When I drink anything
out of a martini glass
I feel untouched by
professional and sexual
rejection. I am a dreamer
with empty hands and
I like the chill.
I will not be attending the party
tonight, because I am
microwaving multiple Lean Cuisines
and watching Wife Swap,
which is designed to get back
at fathers, as westernized media
is often wont to do.
I don’t know
when I got so punk rock
but when I catch
myself in the mirror I
feel stronger. So when
at five in the afternoon
something on my TV says
time is not on your side
I don’t give any
shits at all. Instead I smoke
a joint like I’m
a teenager and eat a whole
box of cupcakes.
Stepping on leaves I get
first-night thrill.
Confuse the meanings
of castle and slum, exotic
and erotic. I bless
the dark, tuck
myself into a canyon
of steel. I breathe
dried honeysuckle
and hope. I live somewhere
imaginary.

Lush Life

The most beautiful hearse	I have ever seen
is parked in front of my stoop
Perched           hands folded for six to eight weeks
twinkling like a siren 	        a new idea of love

Trees are planted but don’t exist yet
They are leaning non-existent 	into us
A trough of hearts meets me in the anxious sun
I could rot here

Something like           the holy spirit
pours you over bruised ice
There isn’t anything 	        more to say than holy
Beautiful men never looking upon me

I take music self-stirred 	and sleep
alone               curve into the morning like an almond
My shoulders 	                lush as romantics
You wash up on a barstool
smooth heartache 	        black sand

13 Ways of Looking at a Black Girl

at risk    pretty      Queen Latifah   Nikki Giovanni
    Ma    Tina Turner                 sex
Dyke          ugly    bitch    sex    Mamma     Nene Leakes
  Sally Hemings     t.h.o.t.         Erykah Badu     easy
bipolar          Beyoncé         sex     kitchen          rape
        wifey      Nina Simone                Nicki Minaj
    sex   sex       Whitney Houston
Toni Morrison          I am hungry     Grace Jones
                 for myself     diva   slut
thong    darkie        Michelle Obama
  high yellow      nappy        flawless    Audre Lorde
Lena Horne    lips    Sandra Bland   sex    strong
sex     sister     Wanda Sykes       sassy    witch
low-income          sex     booty
     well-spoken       Issa Rae      less
hotep   beautiful         Hottentot Venus    sex
    chickenhead     thick      Alice Walker    queen
     dead        sex      just a friend
Shonda Rhimes      trouble    sick     sex     mean
   hair             bell hooks    single
dying             tragic
  sex      help     carefree                       chocolate
    special        exotic      sex       ratchet
            Felicia         loud               lost

Please Wait
(Or, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé)

Please wait to record Love Jones at 8:48 Saturday on BET
Until your life is no longer defined by Beyoncé
Ants crawling over fallen leaves and little pieces of dog shit
Empty chicken boxes glowing with the remembrance of grease
There are more beautiful things than Beyoncé: self-awareness,
Leftover mascara in clumps, recognizing a pattern
This is for all the grown women out there
Whose countries hate them and their brothers
Who carry knives in their purses down the street
Maybe they will not get out alive
Maybe they will turn into air or news or brown flower petals
There are more beautiful things than Beyoncé:
Lavender, education, becoming other people,
The fucking sky
It’s so overused because no one’s sure of it
How it floats with flagrant privilege
And feels it can ask any question
Everyday its ego gets bigger and you let that happen
But one day your shit will be unbelievably together
One day you’ll care a whole lot you’ll always take vitamins
And exercise without bragging and words will fit perfectly
Into your mouth like an olive soaked in gin
The glory of an olive soaked in gin & its smooth smallness
A gloss will snowfall onto your cheeks, the top of your lip
The sidewalks will be the same, evidenced
Combing your records you’ll see the past and think OK
Once I was a different kind of person