Review by Kati Waldrop
When the Wolves Come After You Hang On
Michael Parker & Pris Campbell
GOSS183, February 2017
You will look to the moon to be taught.
You will speak to the ghosts for the meaning of things.
You will read the lost secrets in the pattern of shifting shadows.
So seek the stars for stories upholding you—
(even shepherds used to watch the night sky for portents)
Jung spoke often of the collective unconsciousness, of the power of myth and archetype that weighs heavy in the human mind. These are the things we always come back to: from Odin to Mithras to Christ, from the Morrigan to the Holy Trinity, the stories we tell once recur over and over. They are both anchors in and severances from time, this way.
The grand cycles and the power/recurrence of myth have always been compelling to me, and reading When the Wolves Come After You Hang On invoked that magnetic power. In “The Knight of Wands” (an allusion to the Tarot card representing impulsiveness, action, lust, frustration), Parker dances from Orion, Mercury, and the astrological to the Prince of Egypt following his hidden God. Yet all flows back to the Knight as effortlessly as water: the frustration of unspoken pains, the impulsive search for a future of peace, the denial of a weapon in “an age of weapons”.
Are these discrete things really so separate, Parker asks? The answer is no. In this poem, they are not opposed, but simply facets, coming together full-bodied like wine to comprise a question far too yearning to condense into a single line. In the desert, under the hungry Hunter and Hydra stars and the waning moon, Parker speaks to pain and to humanity’s post-lapsarian state.
Campbell, too, deftly weaves between modes of mythic, from the mermaids of mercy named in “Tango” to the ever-present angels, who, fascinatingly, are no pure thing. In “The Hermit” and “Tango”, the angels are failed ministers, unable to hear the mermaids’ songs of redemption or having managed to lose humanity in its own kingdoms; in “Count Down” the speaker anticipates going to fly with them as a comfort to the afterlife. This impurity of angels was a hook in my brain; it felt like there was a question there in and of itself, laced throughout the book, and I wanted to chase it.
If there is any critique to be made, it’s that much of Parker’s work is highly abstract. It is couched in the concrete, yes, but primarily the concrete of the imagination—the mythic, the allusive. Often it falls to Campbell’s poems to draw the reader back into bodies: to deal with illness, or with weakness, to body forth the suffering dealt with theoretically by “Knight” or “Down with the Devil”. Parker does engage with the physical, however, in poems like “Watersheds”, but on the whole, there is a dichotomy presented by this collaboration. This could be a good or bad thing, depending on an individual’s reading preferences—personally, I like the dichotomy, I like the game of moving between each mode and weaving connections myself, but I also know readers who prefer transcendence cloaked in flesh. It will depend on you.
As a collaboration, this book is magnificent. Again, the physicality/abstraction works for me, but the poems that are collaborative works are my favourites out of the whole selection. When those two modes meet and clash and meld, the result is glorious. “The Hermit” is a prelude to the mythic weights that a reader will pick up along the way: the quote I chose to open this review is a perfect encapsulation of that spirit. “You will,” it says. It is both a warning of life’s inherent search for meaning in the face of pain (a major theme), and a truth about what the poems to come will ask the reader to do. In “Falcons”, the poets offer a deep-felt farewell: “Please do not worry about us, dear friends.” After the pain and suffering dealt with in the middle poems, this is a note of hope iridescent in the sun (to borrow an image from “Living New Words”). It feels complete. As a whole, When the Wolves Come After You Hang On travels its arc like one of Parker’s planets in orbit: naturally, smoothly, without those of us living on its surface even noticing the degrees of change. The wolves come, yes, but so too does grace. And perhaps you cannot have the last without the first.
One final note: the language in this book is gorgeous, both from Campbell and from Parker. It is decadent and lush, and I could roll these words around in my mouth savouring their taste and mouthfeel for a very long time.