Jinx: Abigail Parry, Bloodaxe
Abigail Parry’s debut collection introduces Spook, Jack of Hearts, Snake, Goat, Bette Davis and others in a cast of characters fictional, cinematic and historical, threatening and threatened, monstrously attractive, attractively deceptive, ambiguous to a fault. This is a book by a poet whose theme is deception and trickery as an art in itself as well as an endemic part of human life.
Parry’s poetic virtuosity makes her work very rewarding to read aloud as well as on the page. Without conforming to conventional forms she weaves lines in repetitions and refrains so that many of the poems resemble incantations, spells, charms or chants. In ‘Girl to Snake’ an adolescent girl invites “Ropey Joe” to slither upstairs (“thin enough/to slip beneath the door and spill your wicked do-si-do/in curlicues and hoops across the floor”) “There are things I want to know” is her refrain, elaborated from stanza to stanza with “Oh tell me tell me tell me/about absinthe and yahtzee…”; “about lightning and furies…”; “about hellhounds and rubies…” and a catchy, breathless, irregular pattern of internal rhymes, half-rhymes and end-rhymes that binds the whole confection together and is irresistibly addictive when read aloud.
In ‘Love song for a Minotaur’ repetition and rhyme create a formal equivalent to the mythical bull-headed monster’s labyrinth and mirror the emotional state of loss and entrapment: “The road was long and looped around,/ a riddle ran around its rim,/it slid and shut without a sound,/it shut me out, and shut me in.”
The ten subtly convoluted quatrains are like a Moebius strip: “A riddle is a tricksy thing – /it hooks its ending to its start./I don’t know how to work the string/that rigged a bloodknot round your heart.”
In Abigail Parry’s world ‘The Lemures’ haunt the living: “They belong to you/and they will wait for you – in the borders of the wet garden,/the silence behind the beech hedge.” – these “restless spirits of the dead” (Parry’s note) invade the middle-class pursuits of suburban citizens, it seems. Parry endows them with the cuddly, deceptively cute image of the lemur sloth (whose claws, however, are long and sharp). They seem more annoying than distressing: “they hoard rubber balls/and the past and all your lost things, and always want to know/when you’re coming back, when.”
The past indeed inhabits many of these poems, I dare to guess, with ex-lovers thinly or more hermetically disguised, for example in the fabric of ‘The Quilt’ (“the one who didn’t want to be another patch in your fucking quilt …”). The illusions of the cinema screen, where the image of a man can be “winked out/before the eyes of the gathered crowd,” inspire ‘The fuss you made about your wedding veil’. Fairground peepshows and illusions are the inspiration for ‘The Amazing Geraldine’.
The cinema also inspires monsters and monstrous situations: Dario Argento provides the horror of ‘Turn the Blue Iris’ which finishes with typical black-humoured pun: “You’re –/what’s that word? Exposed on celluloid.” In ‘Black Lagoon’ “what else/was struggling, upwards, gagging on the light?”
This is a rich, playful collection, which was shortlisted for the Forward prize for best first collection, with Parry’s preferred images recurring throughout, in the same way that the refrains and rhymes recur with subtle variations within the poems. There are decks of cards; Tarot cards in ‘Olly-olly-oxen’, poker hands in ‘Keeper’ and individual cards to which Parry lends personalites. There are jewels and precious gems. There are hearts, as bloody meat and as relics. The colours of the collection are red and black; most birds are crows, ravens and magpies: carrion eaters, jokers and harbingers of fate and death. Knots and magic charms stud the poems. The Snake, the Goat and the Devil lurk disguised as would-be lovers or ex-lovers. Dominoes are masks or gaming pieces. Puppets are not always within their masters’ control. “Spook” is everywhere up to his tricks, picking pockets, telling lies.
Parry’s vigorous, dynamic poems can be enjoyed without referring to her notes or looking up her literary and cinematic sources, but taking the trouble to do so adds immensely to their imaginative impact, as long as the less erudite reader (among whom I count myself) doesn’t mind occasional trips to consult Google and Wikipedia. This is not a collection to skim-read and put back on your shelf. Hermetic and layered, it offers new interpretations and more extravagant images with each opening of its covers.