Each of the poems in Alan Michael Parker’s The Ladder has a twist, moving the reader away from the superficial and into mystery. Each poem sets up a reality and then questions that reality, in a quest for answers or, perhaps, more questions. And though the image of a ladder in the collection’s title might suggest a desire to climb up and away from the world, these poems are all about climbing down into the difficult and complex realities of daily existence.
Parker’s poems are both funny and profound. One of the collection’s most moving poems, “A Poem for Sally,” captures the way he traffics simultaneously in surfaces and sacredness. It opens with the following lines:
He thought he might swallow whole
his youngest daughter, if she didn’t stop
It’s an exasperated and an infinitely compassionate portrayal of a father wanting to do anything possible to protect his daughter. The poem pushes this extended metaphor to the point of absurdity, with the father swallowing whole lakes and rowboats and even a jug of orange juice, all in an effort to recreate the world for his daughter – but as a better, safer place. It’s a way of imagining that he can save his daughter, that he can do something to take away her pain. The world he imagines creating is largely like the old one, just more contained and calm. The final stanza captures this sense of peace that he wishes he could provide: “she would row into the middle of the river, / where there’s never a mirror, / to drift, oars up.”
All of the poems in The Ladder similarly combine humor with depth. “Postcard from Spain,” for instance, is from the point of view of someone who receives a postcard from Spain, with reports of beaches and tourists, and of the recipient’s reports back about Aunt Martha and other goings-on at home. In the last lines of the poem, however, we discover the speaker and listener are the same person, that he had sent a postcard to himself. There’s a small scene at the end when the speaker gives the ruse away, describing his interaction with a hijab-wearing post office clerk:
she liked me,
I could tell: our moment was shared,
irrespective of her politics or mine.
I have been thinking a lot about the light
I glimpsed in her kind irony,
as though I could see
the unflickering living candle of her.
She liked that I was mailing myself a postcard.
In this moment, the poet draws the clerk – and the reader – into his joke. And with the ending’s humorous twist, we see everything that came before differently, in the light of human commonality and connection.
The collection has several poems about Canada Geese, which make small honking appearances here and there between other poems about everyday moments and dramas and struggles. The geese become a kind of comic relief, but it’s a deep comedy, in the way that Parker’s humor always is. The first goose poem, “The Canada Geese,” starts with a question: “Why does a goose honk when a goose flies?” In answer, the speaker says “to understand, I need to fly, / to communicate more politely / with the tops of the trees and their tentative leaves.” He imagines himself as a goose, looking down on his little life. And perhaps, he is like a goose throughout this collection, with both a human and a god’s-eye view on the world.
A later poem, also called “The Canada Geese,” also starts with a question: “What does the goose think I’m doing?” We get a series of images imagining what he looks like to a goose: “a sunflower, one-legged, done. / Maybe I’m a manhole, all face. / Or maybe I’m the tiniest pond.” It’s a comical sequence, playing as it does with height and distance and perspective, and there’s an endearing self-mockery, as well: “Maybe I’m always / a sad emergency, running outside to see, to see.”
With a similar self-deprecating humor, “The Dog Misses You” describes how the speaker’s dog is lonely – like, we come to understand, the speaker himself: “The dog went out to look for you. She wore a big blue ribbon, in / case of a situation. She circumnavigated the yard. She has been / practicing saying I love you in every language.” The poem pushes the image to the extremes of magical realism: “In the afternoon, the dog pulled the leash so hard, she lifted off, / above the trees.” It ends with the following stanza, capturing something of the way the dog’s longing mirrors the speaker’s:
The dog has three wishes left. She wishes she knew where to find
you. She wishes you would come home with a treat. She wishes
you and I were together on the bed, and up she would jump.
It’s a sweet and understated ode to a loved one, an admission both of weakness and of the inability to speak honestly of this weakness.
In “After Love,” the extended metaphor is a recommendation later. The poem starts with the following, spoken to a lover:
I wrote letters of introduction
and sent them to every embassy
of every future
just in case you need something
when you get there.
It’s a sweet and moving sentiment, acknowledging as it does a deep and overwhelming love, which is inevitably accompanied by loss. The speaker shares the couple’s secrets, of arguments and intimate moments, as when the lover rubs his scalp absent-mindedly, “as though my head were your own”: “I put that in a few of the letters. / I hope this is all okay.” He wants, he says, for her to do well in the future, and at the same time he wants all those future people to understand the extent and depth of their love. And though he knows his “first obligation is right here,” he also understands he has an obligation to tell their story, not simply for himself, but for her, for the world. It ends with a lovely, insistent desire to keep telling their story, even as it’s unfolding:
Everyone should know.
I will write more letters.
Those “letters” can, perhaps, be seen as the letters that make up these poems themselves, as the poet’s attempt to capture and narrate and describe, both out of a sense of love and a sense of duty. At the same time, there’s a light-hearted recognition that the whole enterprise is both hopelessly flawed and deeply necessary. He will lose his love, eventually, through moving on or death or all the other many ways we lose each other. But his poems will remain, as poems always have – a testament to the momentary, fleeting nature of love, of existence itself. The poems preserve the sweet, kind voice of the poet, who loves so deeply and so well that he doesn’t presume to keep these moments or his love to himself, but rather he sends them out into the world, into the future.
The collection’s spirit is perhaps most present in its eponymous poem, “The Ladder,” which is made up of two-line stanzas that look like the rungs of a ladder. The poem’s speaker describes the process of aging, and the image of a ladder embodies the desire to move toward a richer, fuller, more meaningful life. We might think this motion would be upward, into the lofty world of poetry and “truth,” but the poem shows us otherwise. To begin with, it starts with horizontal, not vertical, motion:
When I finally made my way across the ice
of my twenties and thirties and forties
and up the mountain through the cedars,
a great sage game me a grass sack
to start my new life.
In the sack he finds “a dull gray stone, / a box that once held a gold locket, / a toy fire truck, and a ladder.” He uses all of these to some degree or another, but the ladder remains a mystery: “I hitched up the ladder to every height, / and still the moon rolls away.” The ladder, in other words, might not be best used to go up toward lofty heights, but rather to go down, back into the grittiness and grace of everyday life:
Teach me to climb
down from ambition.
Beyond my fingertips
rolls the moon.
This poem captures the spirit of this collection, with its unrelenting desire to use poetry to drill down into the messiness of human existence. Poetry, for Parker, doesn’t work as a means to chase the moon, but rather as a technique to climb down into the world, with all of its flaws and losses, its disappointments and imperfections. Parker’s poems tell small stories – of hotel rooms and breakfasts and daughters and postcards – and it’s in this specificity that he reaches toward the universal. Perhaps the only way to speak of the sky, these poems suggest, is to stand firmly on the earth.
Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Narratively, Eyedrum Periodically, Silk Road Review, Stoneboat, and other publications. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel) and a poetry chapbook, The Village (forthcoming from Aldrich Press). Visit her website at www.vivianwagner.net
In addition to his seven books of poems, Alan Michael Parker has published two novels and served as editor of the whimsical anthology, The Imaginary Poets (Tupelo, 2005). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review, Paris Review, The Best American Poetry 2011, and elsewhere. He teaches writing and literature at Davidson College and in the Queens University low-residency M.F.A. program. He lives in Davidson, North Carolina, with the artist Felicia van Bork.