REVIEW: CALEB PARKIN’S ‘THIS FRUITING BODY’
Reviewed by Stella Backhouse
Samantha Walton has already described Caleb Parkin’s 2021 collection This Fruiting Body as “a post-human lyric disco lit with ecological thought”; and as I doubt I can better that, the most dignified course is probably not to try. This queer ecopoetry revels in surreal, eye-popping possibilities such as as the boy-racer hermit crab who “fits his Saab precisely/twitches hairily at junctions/cuts up other crustaceans” and the house reimagined as dog that “panting and hapless…sniffs the crook/of the cul-de-sac like an unwashed crotch”. Parkin’s ecopoetics lie in his exploration of the boundaries, fluidity and connectedness between bodies that seem wildly disparate.
I use the word ‘bodies’ advisedly; one of the fluctuating boundaries interrogated by the collection is the one between ourselves and the world beyond our skin. ‘Terms of Service: Your Fruiting Body’ examines the impacts – for good or ill – of humanity’s increasingly enmeshed relationship with the online world. Imagery from nature is used to warn that “as your brain begins/to be reformatted, no such national labels apply/now you’re incorporated into our filamentous network”. ‘Shrinking Violets’ meanwhile describes in excruciating detail a changing room scene where a queer man’s self-consciousness takes over his body, which swells to fill the entire space: “i start to become spherical disproportionate my head/abdomen limbs distending outwards”.
Another area of interest is the impacts on the environment of human waste. ‘How to Preserve a Fatberg’ explores both the embodiedness and disembodiedness of waste – how it is at once a continuation of ourselves and a disowning of ourselves. Displayed in a museum, the fatberg is “a face, perhaps -/a figure. You’re going to need to save/just a bit of it, or nobody will believe you;/even though every cotton bud, every moist/wipe, every tampon is evidence of/some body”. This is a collection that embraces messiness.
And that goes for messiness in human identities as well. Parkin is thoroughly contemporary in his celebration of identity in all its multiplicity. ‘If Earth is My Mother’ riffs on a carnival of mother identities, all of them equally valid: “Earth will mother you all, if you’ll let her (or even if you won’t). If the Earth/is any kind of step-, in-law, drag, foster, second, adopted, convoluted, maddening mother/to you, then it’s time you called her”.
This blending of queer poetics with ecopoetics certainly creates fascinating possibilities – but it also raises less comfortable questions of where acceptance ends; should we, for example, artistically celebrate an environmentally degraded earth? ‘By the Writing Shed at Laugharne’ addresses poetry’s responsibilities in time of environmental crisis. Considering the period Dylan Thomas spent “mining the poetics/of petrochemicals” while working for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Parkin concedes that Thomas himself “could not know these layers of ghosts/from the ground would come back to haunt us”. His scorn is instead directed at the museum, disconnecting itself from this aspect of Thomas’s life, displaying “a staged desk, scraps of phoney drafts,/an aptly tattered rug”. The visitor needs to look out to sea to observe a jellyfish/plastic bag drifting “through its flotsam afterlife, its skyward shadow/iridescent as a slick”.
Paired with this, ‘Voice Over: the Carrier Bag’ is one of two poems about discarded plastic bags. (To appreciate it fully, read it in your best David Attenborough.) It takes us below the sea, where the bag “tries/to commit to this wafty choreography/among the weeded aisles/the barcoded umbra”. In a dimly lit, tidally-unstable no-man’s land, it’s as if the boundary (again) between commercial detritus and the natural world is becoming so blurred that we risk being unable to distinguish one from the other. Yet on the whole, the collection’s tone is not angry. So, should we just accept that this is how things are now?
Actually, I don’t think so. The third last poem, ‘After the Section 14’ describes a walk through central London the day after Extinction Rebellion protestors were forcibly removed from Trafalgar Square. Recalling both William Blake’s despairing ‘London’ and George Orwell’s 1984, this poem ends on a boundary, an intimidatingly enigmatic question that demands a straight yes/no: “Are you affiliated? Then again: Are you affiliated? It’s a simple question. A simple question”. At some point we will have to decide. Do we let this go on? Or do we take action?
This Fruiting Body is available for purchase online direct from publisher Nine Arches Press, as well as other book retailers.