photo of Morgan Parker by Kwesi Abbensetts
Poetry is language operating at its highest purpose, called through compression and complexity of image to function on an aesthetic level while communicating meaning. What better art form than poetry, then, for Morgan Parker to use in her new book, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé? The book is a tribute to Black American womanhood, an ode to the joys and sorrows and triumphs of being Black and female in this sick, lovely, dangerous world—and every word inside is beautiful, even when they hit you hard like a punch in the chest or make you want to cry. As Parker demonstrates, beauty is not always simple or even pleasurable—sometimes it’s contradictory and confusing. She tells us, “I am a tree and some fruits are good and some are bad.”
Throughout the collection, Parker is in conversation with contemporary pop culture, especially her primary muse, Beyoncé. Beyoncé’s presence is felt throughout—as inspiration, as guide, as an avatar for Parker’s meditations on what it means to be a Black woman today. Readers looking for lighthearted adulation of Beyoncé may be disappointed—although Parker clearly admires Beyoncé, these are not praise poems; instead, they bend the image of Beyoncé to Parker’s purposes and reflect her own personal struggles and preoccupations. At her book launch at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Parker explained Beyoncé’s role in the book by asking, “What do we actually know about Beyoncé, aside from her music?” The answer was “not much,” and that’s why Parker chose her “as a vessel.” In Parker’s poems, even Beyoncé is misunderstood, mistaken, unable to meet the unfair and demanding expectations of the public. “I mouth Free and Home into a crowd/ but they only hear gold extensions,” we are told in “Beyoncé Is Sorry for What She Won’t Feel.” Later, in the book’s shortest poem, “What Beyoncé Won’t Say on a Shrink’s Couch,” she says, “what if I said I’m tired/ and they heard wrong/ said sing it.”
The poems contain a wide range of pop culture references, which Parker seamlessly melds with racial politics. “I’m a moodless seedling/ on the day Jay Z was born/ & Fred Hampton was killed,” she tells us. That day was December 4, 1969, when Hampton, a leader in the Black Panther Party, was murdered in his bed by Chicago police as part of the FBI’s strategic and concerted effort to stamp out the Black liberation movement. In “The Gospel According To Her,” 13 lines invoke the 13 stripes on an American flag: Seven explore a slave’s relationship with the United States, and six question that of a woman, artfully demonstrating the intersecting and sometimes conflicting identities and tensions that Black women in America must navigate. In “Take a Walk on the Wild Side,” she subverts the final lyrics of Lou Reed’s famous song with the lines “Please let me/ And the colored girls go.”
The book is also, as Parker explained, “an archive of the Obama era...a time of looking around and seeing Black people owning everything and getting no support.” She told the crowd at the book launch that she hadn’t realized this until recently; she wrote these poems over the past five years, and she sees them now as depicting a particular moment in time, “a time we were all lucky to live through.” She does engage with Obama’s legacy critically in the book, in the poem “The President Has Never Said the Word Black,” saying “The President be like/ we lost a young boy today.” Although Parker’s criticisms of Obama may not land as well now that we’re faced with such a deeply inadequate and morally reprehensible president in Trump, they’re a necessary part of the complex vision of Blackness she presents. Criticisms of Obama can coexist with an understanding that Trump is a far worse leader—we need not present an oversimplified vision of our values and expectations, or erase the history of where Democratic leadership has fallen short, in order to resist the current administration.
The title of the book is literal: Parker wants to let the world know that Beyoncé is not the only beautiful example of Black womanhood. She highlights and names the myriad forms of Black female beauty that are ignored and forgotten every day in the white supremacist patriarchy we live in. There are poems dedicated to Carrie Mae Weems, Michelle Obama, and Hottentot Venus as well as to the everyday forms of beauty we encounter in our regular lives. In the title poem, “Please Wait (Or, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé),” she says, “This is for all the grown women out there/ Whose countries hate them and their brothers.” Another poem, “Let Me Handle My Business, Damn,” is an anthem, seething with anger, pride, and righteous dignity. “Took me awhile to learn the good words...I’m a patch of grass the stringy roots/ you call home or sister if you want/ I could scratch your eyes make hip-hop die again.”
These words, brilliant, lovely, and sharp like a diamond, cut me deeply and left me in awe of Parker’s writing. This book is an exciting contribution to the rich legacy of Black feminist art, literature, poetry, and music that daily adds more complex representations of Black American womanhood, which mainstream society is severely lacking.