Morgan Parker’s debut collection Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night embodies the discomfort of otherness via social narratives of race, class, and gender. As a black woman combating America’s central dogma of racial anesthesia, her personas and conceits dismantle the machinery of white patriarchy by means of her incisive gaze.
In “White Walls White People,” the speaker interprets black art for a white audience. The audience isn’t interested in art; they’re interested in her. Closely-watched, she navigates the gap that exists between their “cutting-edge / mission statements on white letterhead” and their fearful attention. At first, she feigns a caustic nonchalance toward “the nerds today,” in the gallery in which she holds the power of the interpreter: “see how when I hang black / on my white walls it’s fine.” Gaps of white space between words become more frequent. The divide between speaker and audience grows. Her air of nonchalance chafes. She grasps for her own vision of herself in this space but still holds them up in comparison:
they’re impressed with my work I’ve lived
I am very Afro-centric They make pictures
where lips are faces and in them the dark is what stands out
She is compelled to compare her own perception to others’, fragmenting any self-knowledge with social context that has “framed what I’ve framed.”
Each position Parker’s poems assume, from confessional speaker to reality TV diva to pageant contestant, critiques its own performance in the ever-present light of white male dominance. Her “Miss Black America” series revamps a tired trope with camp and satire drawn from across black history and pop culture. The isolated installments may at first leave a reader wanting, but in total, these short pieces instruct the slow, deliberate ways of seeing the book requires:
On the platform is she for sale
or a raised fist
Is she lathered in cocoa butter
under her swimsuit
Is her body filled up darker
than blue does it shine
There she is, displayed, as a slave. There again, as Angela Davis. Then she becomes a body, devoid of agency, passively “lathered” and “filled up.” This line of argument pushes toward objectification of that body but line breaks and spatial play pace the lines to engage the reader in genuine shock and understanding. With each line of these poems, Parker controls breath and rhythm, creating a distinctive affect that she transforms into protest.