by Suzanne Parker
80 pages. Alice James Books, 2013
Reviewed by Melissa Adamo
Viral, Suzanne Parker’s debut poetry collection—a 2014 finalist for the Lambda Award— focuses on the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University in September 2010. Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, and hallmate, Molly Wei, set up a webcam to record him in his dorm while in the act of kissing another man. Before the filming of a second encounter, Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge and drowned.
Parker’s book confronts the various voices in this story head on: Clementi himself, Ravi, Wei, Clementi’s parents, students viewing and tweeting about the webcam recording, as well as the writer herself. In an email exchange, Parker explained to me, “Each section was intended to open up the context and ‘lens.’ Section 1 focuses tightly on Tyler. Section 2 opens up the lens, pulls back a bit, and looks at those around him and speaks in their voices. Section 3 pulls back farther. The personal I/authorial is written in and the poems look to broader concerns within the culture.” Her empathy for all involved in this story, evident in each section, renders the collection a painful but necessary read. Although poets have written about Clementi before—such as Randall Mann in his poem “September Elegies”— Parker’s is the first book-length response. Because of its depth and shift in perspective, her poems haunt readers long after they have been read.
Viral dares us to make the national personal and the personal national. In the author’s note at the end of the collection, Parker writes, “Although research shaped these poems, I did not know Tyler Clementi nor anyone involved in the tragedy, and I did not have access to any information other than that which was revealed through news coverage. These poems are a response to his and other similar tragedies and should not be read as fact.” Here and throughout the book, she exposes how much public knowledge exists on this topic and how much access we have into the lives of others through the internet in general. Artists have long grappled with the question of what topics are permissible to discuss in their work, but today, due to the accessibility of information, this question becomes ever more present. Is Parker allowed to write about this tragedy because she drives over the George Washington for work each day? Can she compose such a collection as a member of the LGBT community? Can she investigate the topic because she saw it on the news or a Facebook newsfeed? Or is the question simply about any poet’s duty to explore truth? Because Viral elicits such queries, Parker not only raises a conversation about cyber bullying and society’s continual struggle with homosexuality and difference, but also a discussion on poetry—one of which all readers and writers must be conscious.
Thomas Lux writes of Viral, “I admire poems that quarrel—without preaching or redundancy—with social injustice, with injustice, period. Part outrage, part elegy, these spare and exact poems move me deeply.” Parker tackles an incredibly tough subject, one that could easily move into sentimentality or melodrama if permitted; yet her succinct, precise poems are anything but theatrical. The opening poem, “If the Body Could Live without Desire,” is only five lines:
I would be as song
hands as in air.
I’d kiss you softly on the ear’s rim
The title presents a simple conditional, which is then answered in the body of the poem through an understated combination of the corporeal (“hands,” a kiss on the ear) and the ethereal (“song,” “flowing,” “air”). Here, Parker’s use of such concrete language and uncomplicated syntax—as well as straightforward voice, diction, and image—provides readers with a vivid, tactile illustration of an otherwise abstract set of emotions.
In the title poem, “Viral,” Parker’s use of the prose form, as well as social media vernacular, turns questions on the page into a building barrage of whispers: “Did u see it? Did u? See it? See? See? See? See it? When? Now? See it! Saw it…OMG. Die. Die. Die. Would die.” We can almost hear the echoes and giggles, see the hands cupped to ears. In these choppy, repetitive sentences, readers get a glimpse of how rumors and gossip replicate, fragment, and mutate in their dissemination. Words in the poem even morph (“Dare you. Dare u. Dareya”) to show how stories get lost in translation like a game of telephone, and the prose form itself provides a visual: a block of words with no room to breathe or to pause. Parker’s seemingly simple poem reminds us that spreading stories or posting hurtful comments result in drastic and vast consequences. This message, further exemplified in the chilling final line that could be read as scream or laugh (“yayayayaahahahahaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa—?“), forces us to reflect on our own ideas of gossip a little longer than perhaps we are comfortable.
Throughout the collection’s three sections, Parker strives to portray all sides, allowing the reader to consider every angle. Two poems under the same title—“Practice I” and “Practice II”— give voice to Clementi’s father and Clementi himself, employing juxtaposition to create a realistic portrait of a family struggling with difference. In “Practice I,” the father contemplates his son’s violin lessons: “‘It is something else,’ the man says, / ‘when your own son chooses violin/ over football.’ Nothing another’s / sons would do.” “No, you are supportive, of course,” reflects the father, but support does not come easily. We see a man longing for connection with a son he does not understand, eventually trading in his fantasy of the ideal father-son relationship for a newfound understanding and respect for his son’s talents. By contrast, “Practice II” opens with an epigraph of Clementi’s post on a “gay meet-up site” in which he writes, “I’m practically asexual” and adopts a cold, even defensive tone:
Do you think it’s easy,
to touch? Subways, check-out lines,
even the passing
Thus, we move from violin practice to the father’s practice of acceptance, to a young man’s practice of remaining distant and detached. The uses of this small, ordinary word illustrate the various layers of meaning for not only that word, but also for the diverse perspectives utilizing it.
The second section of the collection focuses on Clementi’s mother’s bereavement. Her mourning becomes tangible to readers in poems like “Phone Call,” “Waiting,” and “Belief.” And in “Things You Practice,” the reader observes the mother’s own distinct use of the word “practice:”
Not answering the phone or questions.
Not buying milk.
Not pausing at the door.
Not sharing that you’d found his ghost
in a discarded shirt crumpled at the closet’s back.
Resembling a to-do list or grocery list, the poem’s form helps reveal that the hardest moments of grief surface in the ordinary. Mundane choices, such as buying or not buying milk, depict a heartbreaking practice of elegiac avoidance.
In section three, the final poem, “An Essential Language,” portrays the authorial voice’s own struggle with desire and practice. “I could not kiss / her tumbled hair, / touch her hand.” Once again, direct lines paint a clear image for readers; we can almost see the speaker’s longing in her standstill. These lines echo Tyler’s own practice of not touching, but the tone here is not quite as urgent. There are no questions to be answered or to propel us from line to line. Instead, this poem continues with a second section, providing readers with an after, a present: “When finally there is / permission.” Now, readers get to experience both the longing and the fulfillment. “My mouth / on the lips she opens / to say my name.” This moment of consummation becomes even more poignant after reading the previous sections and experiencing their weight. The poem concludes:
the city splits,
surges around us,
for a moment stopping.
The evocative verbs “splits” and “surges” enact the force of this desire, rushing toward the end of the poem. By ending on the word “stopping,” the poem pulls us further into motion. This present participle reminds us that these conflicts regarding desire and difference all still occur today—never for a moment stopping.
Amy King recently wrote in the Boston Review that “poets continue to locate new angles to look from and language to look through…still actively surprising [them]selves and others.” Suzanne Parker’s Viral achieves this fresh outlook by pushing the boundaries of form and syntax, by insightful prodding juxtapositions. Her poems constantly search for unspoken perspectives; and in doing so, they help us to both understand and to question the intricacy of Clementi’s case. Ultimately, Parker engages the specifics of one individual’s story in order to create a universal sense of empathy in her readers: challenging us to see ourselves in each poem, to see the people in this narrative as more real—more whole, more fractured, more human—than any news story.
Melissa Adamo graduated from Rutgers-Newark with her MFA in 2012. Her poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in journals such as Able Muse, Per Contra, Hypothetical Review, Mezzo Cammin, Plath Profiles, and Modern Language Studies. She currently works as an adjunct instructor teaching composition, literature, and creative writing at Ramapo College and Rutgers University. She also tutors writing at Brookdale Community College.