The Impossibility of Nearness:
A Review of Star Things by Jess L. Parker
By Brian Clifton
Jess L. Parker
Dynamo Verlag Books (2021) 69 pages
Any act of perception implies distance. When we see the stars, we understand they are far away. But what about a memory, a lover, a past self? How does the (re)experience of these things confirm their distance from our current selves? Jess L. Parker, in her debut Star Things, asks this question repeatedly. Her poems look not just at objects near and far, but rather at the act of looking and what the space between the looker and looked at means. Part magnifying glass and part telescope, Star Things brings distant things close and close things closer, grappling with what it means to be the part of the universe that observes the universe.
Parker begins these contemplations with “Saturn Rising.” The poem deftly bounces between the near and the distant—often in the same line. The sky is sliced open like a radish, a satellite orbits onto a tongue, the rocks comprising Saturn’s rings are a reflection of the pebbles at the bottom of a nearby pond. In “Saturn Rising,” one image constantly blends with the next, not only mimicking the experience of walking uphill at night to observe the heavens but also the book’s overarching project of interrogating the meaning of space between subject and object. The poem ends with an image that seems to be at the heart of Star Things:
Their reflection, a Morse code city,
paging constellations with their
This image, like so much of Parker’s book, plays a little sleight of hand. On the surface, many of the poems seem concerned with finding patterns and their possible meanings, but underneath there is something more existential. In the above image, “Morse code” isn’t just untranslated: it is untranslatable—all cipher and no decipher. In looking for codes without decoding them, Parker’s speakers ask not what they mean but rather what does it mean to look for patterns. In this mode of inquiry, her poems shift from cataloguing the routine to longing for meaning within the cataloguing. After almost two years of quarantining and social-distancing, many of us have similar questions. How do we find meaning in the day-to-day when so much of our lives blend together? Star Things takes these invitations for existential dread and turns them into something luminous and dazzling.
A poem that serves as a microcosm of this transformation is “Tongues and Laces.” The poem spends much of its time cataloguing the mundane objects and activities that surround the speaker—sneakers, chores, mud, and moonlight—before turning, in the final couplet, to a lament for someone no longer there. In this respect, the form does double work. “Tongues and Laces” is an “American ghazal” (think Spencer Reece’s “Ghazals for Spring” from A Clerk’s Tale). Eschewing the constraints of the form’s traditional repeated phrase, “Tongues and Laces” uses the form’s penchant for fragmentation to get at the various and often conflicting feelings around absence. The speaker’s shoes are ruined from falling into mud some night before, but in their dirtiness, they remind the speaker of the person that had accompanied them through this seemingly meaningful experience. The objects and actions the speaker highlights act as stepping stones between the viewer and the viewed; each gets the speaker closer but never close enough to overcome their longing. In doing so, it is apparent that Parker is less interested in the things she catalogues and more in their ability to triangulate the distance between lover and loved, in seeing the pattern for what it is: a reminder of what was and can no longer be.
“Tongues and Laces” is also an ideal example of Parker’s love of sound. Ghazals, with their initial rhyme and repeated phrase, are certainly a sonically driven form. In this poem and throughout Star Things, Parker plays up sound through rhyme and melody. From phrases like “but that’s not the half. You see, I did the math” to the sonic backflipping in poems like “Like This” (which chimes and rhymes its way from staring to confession, from cushion to occasion), Parker’s sound-driven poetics can dazzle with their subtly but also overwhelm.
Even at their most cloying, Parker’s rhymes serve her book’s purpose. For instance, in an early poem, “Lunar tic,” Parker riffs on the nursery rhyme “Star Light Star Bright.” Though the rhyme hits the reader like a supernova, the familiar melody recalls the distance of memory. It recalls the pleasure of learning the sound of language without the worry of meaning, and this recollection, wedged between a eulogy for a fruit and an elegy, acts as light to chiaroscuro to the heaviness of its neighbors. Further, the sing-song quality of it lends the poem an air of remembering something past despite the present-ness of the poem.
But Star Things refuses to merely hit one note. Replacing sound play for wordplay, the book’s final poem, “Starry-eyed,” wraps up the collection with a bit of melancholy. In a barrage of space puns, Parker breathes distance into her contemplations of close mundanity. The conflation of space entities like red giants, planets, the milky way, and shooting stars with friends and lovers troubles the simple binary of near and far. “Starry-eyed” seems to argue that even those closest to us can be as far away as a distant planet in times of grief, that the echoes of our cries can measure the distance between our past and our current, silent selves. In its final three lines, which mimic the call and response of an echo, the poem fades away (an act that implies distance), leaving its reader with the impossibility of nearness.
Beginning and ending in different resonances of wonder, Star Things is at once elegy and aubade, meditation and participation, playful and serious. By looking at the act of looking and the physical and metaphysical distances the action makes, Parker creates a universe that both “exists in a seashell” and infinitely expands “spilling over the edge” of what we can know. Whether she is describing the absence of a lost tooth or the vanishing of a shooting star, Parker’s ability to focus on the luminous and the darkness implied therein gives Star Things a depth that demands rereading.