When I saw some of the early headlines around Morgan Parker’s excellent new book of poems, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, I was initially excited. Then my heart sank, because it was jarring to see a complex, expansive work housed in facile garbage clickbait like this: “There’s Poetry About Beyoncé Now—And It’s Amazing,” gushed Mother Jones, blithely ignoring both that the book is a multilayered document of Black womanhood, and that pop culture conceits have made their way into poetry since Frank O’Hara, and possibly before.
I had O’Hara on the brain reading Parker’s words. He might not seem like an obvious touchstone, but there’s a certain breeziness in her poems that makes a space for an undercurrent of pain, a dichotomy that evokes O’Hara’s occasional turns from New York School swagger to misery to a stiff drink and back again.
But yeah, we’re going to have to talk about Beyoncé. Because one of the pleasures of Parker’s book is her use of persona. There are so many Beyoncés in this book—Beyoncé “on a Shrink’s Couch,” “White Beyoncé,” Beyoncé mashed up with Yeats, Beyoncé assembling her will—and so many appearances of Black womanhood and identity throughout pop culture and history. Parker dives into Barack Obama’s inability to use the word “Black,” imagines Michelle Obama wondering if Beyoncé is “who she says she is,” and imagines a future self who “[cares] a whole lot always [takes] vitamins.” She writes a catalog of “99 Problems” in which numbers 16-19 are “Oppression” and 80-84 start with the word “Men.” And her take on Saartjie Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus,” makes for particularly resonant/depressing reading in the wake of Comme des Garcons’ Paris Fashion Week show that used body costumes that seemed to appropriate Baartman’s body yet again.
So yeah, these are poems about Beyoncé, but they’re also about the context the real Beyoncé lives in.
When I met Morgan Parker briefly at a dinner party last year, she told me to invest in a bath pillow if I wanted to improve my life, which is possibly the best piece of advice I’ve ever received from a stranger. Baths make many appearances in this book, as rare glimpses into moments of leisure and care. “Self-care” has become such a buzzword that sometimes I think people forget its provenance with Audre Lorde, who considered self-care an act of political warfare for Black women. There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé exists in conversation with that battle for self-preservation and survival. “I do whatever I want because I could die any minute./I don’t mean YOLO I mean they are hunting me,” writes Parker. The book that holds these lines cannot be reduced to discussions about clickbait-y reinventions of poetry. It is not about the poetics of pop culture. It’s about something much more complicated. And much more beautiful.
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé
by Morgan Parker