How to Wear a Skin: Louisa Adjoa Parker, Indigo Dreams
A poignant exploration of identity, loss and the potential of love evolves in the enthralling poems of Louisa Adjoa Parker. Her English and Ghanaian origins merge in a displacing yet enriching cultural perspective that is the point of departure for understanding the world that surrounds her.
She grew up in the south-west of England, in a rural town she calls her home but that also revealed hostilities, casual racism and a rejection of hybridity and diversity. In her complex world, Parker is “someone who is more/than just one thing –/a bit of this, a bit of that” (’What I Have Lost’). This perspective not only allows a wider view of being human and a multi-layered expression but also a clear, profound and disenchanted vision. Her imagery is never flat or predictable and her poems always surprise the reader with fresh portraits of imagined people, of friends and of encounters. Her realities are often surreal, reflecting our fears, and are explicit in describing the socio-political situation we are living in, such as the refugee emergency:
And a man couldn’t take a shit in his own toilet
without finding an immigrant squatting over the bowl
and when he went to work the immigrants had run off with his job.
And when immigrants crawled out of gutters
and when immigrants crawled out of the seas.
(‘Those Wild, Pre-Brexit Days’, after Josephine Corcoran)
Different important themes are explored in Parker’s poems; they are woven together in a constant search for connections and relationships that can make sense of who we are. They affirm the wish to live despite life’s incongruencies, injustices and violence. Women’s condition is under scrutiny in some of the poems. Parker exposes abuse, potential and actual rapes and the diminishing role women are trapped in:
Then, the warm press
of his hand on my head.
I’m not sure if I want this,
yet soon the spill of him
is white; a liquid salt, a sea
that fills my throat before
I spit him on the floor.
(‘I Remember Tasting Salt’)
Sometimes they’d roll around, drunk
and stoned in the road, go home
smelling of sick, hashish and gin.
Chew gum and spray hairspray
To hide the smell. She’d take anything:
drink, drugs, boys (or men)
to lift her up, away
from the life she was living.
(‘The Best Years of Her Life’)
Men chain women to a relationship that does not allow free movement or free thinking but only an addictive sexual and drug-related involvement that enslaves them. ‘Beautiful’, a recurring word in some of the poems, is the word that women are looking for, apparently; it works like a spell, revealing women’s vulnerability and their dependence on men’s judgment and gaze:
they trod towards the bar, a beacon
in the night, full of men who will tell them
they are beautiful.
(‘Girls in High Heels’)
On the other hand, some poems claim a different view in which independent women dream “of running free/and wild, floating like a falling leaf” (‘Beautiful’). Love is a possibility but it also implies loss; it “quickly retracts/– cold water moving over stones”, leaving disappointment and emptiness. Nevertheless, life goes on, as Parker says in ‘I’ll Still Be Me Without You’: “the world won’t stop./Ceilings won’t fall in, houses/won’t crumble to dust”. Women need to gain their autonomy in a process that is a struggle against prescribed roles and the constraints of society.
In the complexity of human relationships, Parker looks for answers that are never definite but remain works in progress; this is reflected in her skilful use of enjambments that link one compelling image to another in multiple refractions. Discrimination and violence are exposed too, for example, in the poems dedicated respectively to George Floyd (‘it ends like this’) and to the killing of Melanie Hall (‘Bones: an end and a beginning’) that is a reminder of the recent murder of Sarah Everard as well. What is left of these women is ‘a bag of bones:/a skull and pelvis, picked clean.’
In this rich, variegated collection, different sides of motherhood are explored too in a controversial, enthralling way, implying abandonment as well as profound love:
Afterwards, I swaddle you in plastic sheets;
yellow and crumpled as an old raincoat,
they will protect you from the rain.
I want someone to find you.
You weigh less than a bag of shopping,
as I lift you into the bin, leave you
suspended in a plastic womb.
… She has
my blood, my history,
my love. She fits
so neatly in my heart.
(‘Cream and Roses’)
Everyday details become universal and reveal a deep understanding of what it means to be human, merging form and content. The process is both displacing and enriching in the descriptions of lost lives, addictions, rites of passage and the duality of dreams and injustices that cause scars. Nevertheless, this process also indicates a richer interior life that is open to the future and implies creativity and participation. It is a thought-provoking perspective that constantly questions the reader about the rights and wrongs of our society and puts at stake our certainties.
The last poem of the collection, ‘An Afternoon in August’, highlights the brightness and hopefulness of a summer’s day when children pick blackberries in a park in a peaceful holiday-like atmosphere. The poem ends in the “happy space” of a garden where the family is gathered in a final reconciliation and celebration of life.