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Morgan Parker’s “The Book of Exodus”

Morgan Parker’s “The Book of Exodus”
Morgan Parker

Morgan Parker, everybody!

Revisionings is when a writer gives us a glimpse of the unseen phases in the development of a writ prior to publication. In this installment, Brooklyn poet Morgan Parker takes us behind the scenes of “The Book of Exodus,” which appears in There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, coming 2016 from Coconut Books, and was first published at The Offending Adam. Here’s Parker:

I started this poem after writing one called “The Book of Genesis.” I had a grand vision of rewriting the Bible. (In the end, I wrote “The Book of Genesis,” “The Book of Exodus,” “The Book of Revelation,” and “The Book of Negroes.”) The Book of Exodus is a weird book—there’s a lot of magic, proclamations, chasing, slavery, history and dissatisfaction. This draft came out of me thinking of moments of escape, when I desired escape, exploring what forms “exodus” could take—whether true (flirting a bartender into letting me command the speakers all night), historical (picket signs) or magical (“build / ourselves in gold paint”). Each section is a different reflection on place, movement, and plagues.

The Book of Exodus [1]

Amanda said she was going to Harvard. I didn’t know
if I was going anywhere. On the car ride home
I looked down at the flowers on my dress.
The space where my belly would have been
was stuffed with mayonnaise and ham.
If I could have blushed, I would have
and we barreled into the bad side of town.

*

This was before we went
to the Museum of Tolerance
and everyone learned about
Rosa Parks. O picket signs
O terrible bobs and skirts
O firehoses and prayer hands
O life that is not fair
Good thing we’ve all come
so far hairstyle-wise and
behind each other’s backs.
Now we know the way
and I lone brown spot
got hugged by forty greasy
white arms crying sorry.

*

Still it’s like history
is a song my coworker hums
and I can never get out
or someone from back home
who keeps calling. Still
it’s like I want to belong there
wading in water and hoping.
Still it’s like you’ll never
hear me right this is something
I wake up with on schedule
phantom-limb shackles
phantom-limb grandmother
I don’t own a jean skirt I am
always naked in my brown.

*

Painted my doorframe with man’s blood
so they would never leave. Baked
sixteen cupcakes to eat one cupcake.
Tucked myself into a basket
weaved with ganja leaves and sent
myself down a river to be found.
Lied and said my words were magic
until it came true. Blew through a million
bricks burned cigarettes like bushes til I
felt free. I was all the plagues at once.
I whispered them to myself until
I fell asleep: anxiety, stomach ache, wine
teeth, bruised legs, apartment mice,
bad credit, chapped lips, general malaise.

*

I’m thinking of taking a year to cleanse in Bali
or whatever white people are doing these days.

I think I’m going to flirt the bartender
into letting me spin Jay-Z’s first album all night.

I’m like totally a Facebook whore.
I’m like that girl in that movie about that book.

Sobbing in a cab I think I see an ex-lover
glowing behind a tree on Houston.

It feels like I’ve been at work for forty years
and I forgot to pack a lunch or a soul.

Let’s shut off Blackberry Messenger for the weekend
and fly to Miami what the hell.

Let’s write a book with our hands let’s build
ourselves in gold paint and fall asleep in awe.

This draft is a whole different poem. I added a lot and put a lot of different arrows in the poem, trying to get closer to what it wanted to be. I thought by expanding in all directions and exploring language the focus would eventually become clearer.

The Book of Exodus [2]

I’m thinking of taking a year off to juice cleanse in Bali,
or whatever white people are doing these days. Trade in
my bitch heels for boat shoes, learn what it really means
to curse like a sailor. What it means to be bored.
It’s like Sly Stone said: I cannot make it! And like him
I don’t really mean that shit. What I really mean
is floating somewhere beneath the boat, stuck to the sides
of a record sleeve. It’s like history is a hook
the bartender whistles and I can never get out,
or five missed calls from someone back home.

I’m thinking of getting off this barstool and finding myself
well-stirred into another city’s night. What I mean is
I just can’t seem to get comfortable. It’s like I want to belong
there wading in the water with something to make
prayer hands about. It’s like no one ever hears me right
the first time. Look I said simple song not simple fix.
Not simple syrup, simply marvelous or simple-minded.
I know what I want, and how I got here wanting.

I wake knowing: phantom limb shackles, phantom limb
grandmother, scent of the room where I first spun
my heavy skull, realized the skin I’m in. Always naked
in my brown. In this busted sailboat of a body,
I have never feared hovering sea fog.
I have painted my doorframe in man’s spit so they
would never leave, tucked myself into a basket
weaved with ganja leaves and sent myself
down a river to be found. I have been all the plagues
at once, hissed them before sleep: anxiety,
stomach ache, wine teeth, bruised legs, apartment mice,
bad credit, chapped lips, general malaise.

Dear Sly, I still praise them everyday people, raise them
in my gut. My soul’s so old I’m shivering!
O red dirt under fingernails O picket signs O terrible
bobs and skirts O firehoses O life that is not fair!
Good thing we’ve all come so far hairstyle-wise
and behind each other’s backs.

I’m thinking I wish I could empty myself.
These days I am always full, and the air smells
spicy as rows of palmettos on the drive home
from fourth grade. I was a lone brown spot in torrid sea.
Maybe it was the day we learned to migrate. The space
where my belly should have been was filled with
white carnations, mayonnaise, ham. If only my body
could not contain but be contained. Maybe I felt my legs
glowing finally under my plaid skirt, and cried in secret
as we barreled into the bad part of town.

I workshopped the last poem at a Cave Canem workshop. It wasn’t a good workshop at all. I wasn’t happy with the poem, but I was drawn to some of the language. Weeks later I went back to it. I shortened the lines and stanzas to see what it would do to the tone and pace. I cut, rewrote, added and moved things around. I liked the new opening I got but still sorta hated the poem.

The Book of Exodus [3]

In this busted
sailboat of a body,
I have never feared
hovering sea fog.

I have painted my doorframe
in man’s spit so they
would never leave, tucked myself
into a basket
weaved with ganja leaves,
sent myself
down a river to be found.

I have been all the plagues
at once, hissed them
before sleep: anxiety,
stomach ache, wine teeth, bruised legs,
apartment mice, bad credit, chapped lips,
general malaise.

I’m thinking of
taking a year off
to juice cleanse in Bali,
or whatever
white people are doing
these days. Trade in
my bitch heels
for boat shoes, learn
what it really means
to curse like a sailor.

What it means to be bored.

What I really mean
is floating somewhere
beneath the boat, stuck to the sides
of a record sleeve.

It’s like history is a hook
the bartender whistles
and I can never get out,
or five missed calls
from someone back home.

I’m thinking of getting
off this barstool and finding myself
well-stirred
into another city’s night.

What I mean is I just can’t
seem to get comfortable.

It’s like I want to belong
there wading in the water
with something to make
prayer hands about.
It’s like no one ever
hears me right
the first time.

I know what I want,
and how I got here wanting.

I wake knowing: phantom limb
shackles, phantom limb grandmother,
scent of the room where I first spun
my heavy skull, realized
the skin I’m in. Always naked
in my brown.

This is a secondary, sister poem made from language I cut when I made the previous draft, as I was trying to focus and steer the poem into one poem. This stuff felt like a totally different poem, and I was interested in reading them side by side.

The Book of Exodus [4]

Dear everyone these days
I praise the everyday people
raise them in my gut

My soul’s so old
I’m shivering

These days I am always
full and the breeze
smells spicy as rows
of palm trees
on the drive home
from fourth grade

Maybe it was the day
we learned to migrate

The space where my belly
should have been
was filled
with white carnations
mayonnaise and ham

If only my body
could not contain
but be
contained

Maybe I felt my legs
glowing finally
under my plaid skirt
cried in secret
as we barreled into
the bad part of town

Months later. After thinking about what kind of pacing I wanted and what stanza and section strength would serve the poem best, I ended up with pairs of couplets. I love couplets, and doubleness has a magical quality that I wanted to reinforce the content. The poem isn’t narrative at all and doesn’t pretend to be, and the sections separate different proclamations of the speaker. I picked it apart, I added a lot, I cut a lot, I added a snake, and I exited the poem somewhere totally different.

The Book of Exodus [final]

1

In this busted sailboat of a body,
I have never feared hovering sea fog.

I never stopped wandering in and out
of mouths, waving future in the air.

2

I am all the plagues at once: anxiety,
wine teeth, bad credit, general malaise.

Sometimes at a party I escape
to watch my lipstick fade in the bathroom mirror.

3

I rub my tongue until it bleeds. I become
a snake. I make you uncomfortable.

It becomes addicting
after a while. I get a taste.

4

Here I am presented in two parts:
a burning omen, a montage of flight.

I’m thinking glossy highway, flowered
scarf trailing the dusty road of tribulation.

5

I’m thinking of taking a year off in Bali,
or whatever white folks are doing these days.

Going on a cleanse. Taking strange words fearlessly
into my pink mouth. Consider this my retirement.

6

Bitch heels for boat shoes I could curse
like a man making promises, write you

in stone with my finger. What is it
deserts are made of? Stomach aches? Desire?

7

I’m thinking of getting off this barstool, finding myself
well-stirred into another city’s night.

How something is moving between chapters
& years, pairs of me merging nuclear.

8

How as a child the breeze smelled spicy
as rows of palm trees between thoughts.

If only my body could not contain, but be contained.
Maybe it was the day I learned to migrate.

9

The space where my belly should have been
was filled with mayonnaise, ham and white carnations.

I thunder mountain peaks in sleep.
My soul’s so old it’s shivering.

Morgan Parker is the author of Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books, 2015) and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Coconut Books 2016). A Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor for Coconut Magazine, she also contributes writing to Weird Sister and co-curates the Poets With Attitude (PWA) reading series with Tommy Pico. She lives in Brooklyn and at www.morgan-parker.com.

Param Anand Singh

Param Anand Singh is a poet and translator who used to be called R.M. O'Brien. A sticker he made might be in a movie.

About The Author

Param Anand Singh

Param Anand Singh is a poet and translator who used to be called R.M. O'Brien. A sticker he made might be in a movie.

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