“Viral” and “Local News from Someplace Else” (Reviewed)

Marjorie Maddox
Local News from Someplace Else
WIPF and Stock Publishers (2013)

Suzanne Parker
Viral
Alice James Books (2013)

Reviewed by Valerie Fox

While stylistically different, Local News from Someplace Else, by Marjorie Maddox, and Viral, by Suzanne Parker, share some themes. Both invite the reader to examine the causes and implications of the often violent and tragic signs of our times.

Maddox draws on the headlines (natural disasters, school shootings), honoring the voices of bystanders, family members, various participants. Parker’s book examines the story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who committed suicide after his room-mate broadcast by webcam Clementi’s encounter with another man. Parker also looks at the events using many personae (mother, father, students, Clementi himself). Both poets tell their own stories too.

Gleaned from the headlines, many poems in Local News interpret and comment, going well beyond the usual sound-bites with which most of us are all too familiar, and that create a kind of white noise surrounding us all the time. In the riveting “Pennsylvania September: The Witnesses,” Maddox gives voice to witnesses surrounding United Airlines Flight 93, the plane on September 11, 2001, that went down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It’s a moving poem, combining the voices of cell phones–those “21st-century messengers,” emergency coordinators, a 911 dispatcher, bike-riding witnesses, a photographer, and a service station owner, and lastly, the mother of a victim. The seven sections are ordered to recreate events, chronologically. It’s truly eerie, as well as graphic. Reading the poem you sense the moments passing and leading up to the crash.

Image from WIPF and Stock Publishers website
Image from WIPF and Stock Publishers website

Many of Maddox’s more personal poems explore her natural surroundings and attachment to place. I found many of this type to be satisfying works that contain memorable imagery. Here’s the beginning of a twelve-line poem, “First Snow”:

So provisional, it almost doesn’t
count–uncourageous, afraid
of everything concrete, the frozen closes in
on asphalt, then vanishes
into nostalgia.

“First Snow” highlights Maddox’s ability to make the landscape come alive.

In addition to the references to television, the book contains plenty of references to photographs and photography. “Still Life of House in Late March” features the house as character, as a sort of ghost, emblematic of a proud woman from the past, but not too distant past. The photography poems contribute to the documentary-style effect of the entire book.

Suzanne Parker’s Viral elegizes Tyler Clementi, indeed, the volume is dedicated to him. It makes us consider how the young man got to the point where suicide was his only path. It makes us think about how his parents will have to deal with the loss of their son. It even attempts to somehow understand the cruelty of those who victimized him.

As a series, as a book-length treatment on a theme, it’s extremely successful. I’m guessing most readers will read it front to back in a short time, and then reread and revisit the entire volume. While specific poems do stay with me, I am also left with an over-riding sense of injustice that our society still cannot provide more safety and care for a young person such as Clementi. Despite gains, we cannot underestimate the deep hostility and prejudice out there being directed at young gay people.

Parker does not preach. Rather, she helps us to empathize with Clementi and the others portrayed.

Stylistic variations of many kinds help her to create distinctive voices. In “Viral,” the title poem, Parker lists brief messages (texts or online comments) in which people respond to the invasive video, complete with “OMG” and “LOL.” The comments–petty, hateful, ridiculous–are arranged like a wall of words, the wall that must have surrounded or enveloped Clementi when he later became aware of them.

“Things You Practice” depicts his mother as she goes about a day, confronting the layers of her grief (when she doesn’t “buy a certain kind of ham” or finds one of her son’s shirts in the back of a closet).

Image from Alice James Books website
Image from Alice James Books website

In the final section of the book, Parker’s own voice emerges strongly. Still deeply immersed in Clementi’s story, she is able to express gratitude for her own agency. Like Maddox, Parker looks forward. Both Viral and Local News from Someplace Else subtly challenge all of us to question the status quo, to look beyond the headlines. By including their own stories alongside the stories of others, Maddox and Parker are envisioning a world that can learn from its mistakes.

Posted as part of the Savvy Verse and Wit Dive into Poetry Challenge, Books 1 and 2:
http://savvyverseandwit.com/category/challenges/dive-into-poetry-2014

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