Caleb Parkin: This Fruiting Body

Caleb Parkin’s debut This Fruiting Body, is a stimulating, exciting, cerebral collection of poetry, made up of “a queer ecopoetics which divests of purity narratives, inviting a critical, somatic, sensuous re-engagement with environmental and social justice” (in accordance with Parkin’s Poetic Manifesto). Many of the poems focus on the natural world – the environment, plants, trees, animals – through a spectacular use of language, the poet embracing decoration, “as peacock spiders embrace it in their dances, as lyre birds do in their elaborate abodes”.

Five (only) of the poems in the collection made an earlier appearance in Parkin’s tall-lighthouse pamphlet “Wasted Rainbow”, with This Fruiting Body being an expansive collection of 46 poems visiting locations around the world – the East Anglian coast (“All the chipshops I have ever been to”), Taiwan (“Tomb Sweeping Day”), Mallorca (“Eight Kinds of Love” – a poem inspired by a brief meeting with a real octopus), and different museums (the Horniman for “Young Animal” and “Please Do Not Touch the Walrus or Sit on the Iceberg”, the Museum of London for “How to Preserve a Fatberg”).

Parkin approaches his subjects in different ways. “Dear Horticultural Mother-in-law,” is a direct, linear poem using humour and pop culture/media references, addressing the “fifth Beatle” of the Gardeners’ Question Time panel (a group of experts on British radio). The poet is sensitive in both sentiment and language when considering the matter of “beheading the uninvited” (i.e. the insect). The poem thrives on the conflict between a “fuller and more genteel green” garden and the poet’s struggle with execution of the beetles, each letting out “a metallic shriek, before that unequivocal crunch”.

More frequently, the poet takes a less traditional approach to his subjects. “Shrinking Violets” is a Kafkaesque, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory nightmare of alpha males strutting confidently though shower steam and talking about “the bird from that party”. “Ode on a Black Plastic Compost Bin” subverts a “high-brow” ode to consider a lowly subject; the humble compost bin is converted to human form, its lid becomes its scalp, with “squiggled pink inklings/of earthworms” demonstrating a live mind. It’s also elevated through the poetic tone and language, with a “grandiloquent appetite”, and is respected as a demi-god (“Your great cylindrical belly rumbles with remaking!”); we submit to its “writhing depths”.

Nature is often described traditionally in poetry, but Parkin also pushes “Eco” into the futuristic. The inventive poem “The Zone” considers what scientists call the Goldilocks zone, an area in which temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water – a key ingredient for life. The poet imaginatively addresses Goldilocks in what could be a 21st century coffee shop, asking for “a triple-shot polar/cap espresso in torrents/down these glacial cracks”, and later “an Antarctic macchiato/a sprinkle of synthetic penguin”. Elsewhere Ecco the Dolphin, in the poem of the same name, roves “immaculate 16-bit oceans” thanks to the ‘90s Sega Megadrive; “Eight Kinds of Love” brings pollution in to focus through an underwater rave.

Parkin has a genuine love for nature, including the domestic beast. Dog enthusiasts may appreciate “Young Animal” and “Doghouse”, the latter a celebration of all matters canine, including what may be perceived as a negative by some – dog hair clogging up vacuum filters, so that the “whole house becomes dog”. The poem cleverly hints at a dog’s place with man and in nature, with “its double-glazed eyes   full of sky/its roof all ears   alert to the breeze”, and the imagery extended to the dogwood shrub in the garden.

This Fruiting Body addresses eco-political issues in a thought-provoking way. “After the Section 14” evokes claustrophobic, consumeristic city life, as an Extinction Rebellion protest takes place The giant screens at Oxford Circus in London order the poet to “Taste the feeling”, but when he arrives at Trafalgar Square, all he can taste is the “bitter aftermath of extortionate coffee” and “regurgitated water, rushing from the beaks of these dolphins”. “How to Preserve a Fatberg” warns us that we’re going to be dealing with our waste for years to come, “the Lair of the Fatberg, the Realm of the Reek”, where:

everything we wish would vanish
is here – every flush and dump,
every discarded parp, each tissue
and forgotten morning after.

The oyster-catchers are “on strike”, cod are dredged up in silver cages and a tower of bubbling fat casts shadows in “All the chipshops I have ever been to”, a poem commissioned as part of the National Poetry Competition’s 40th anniversary celebrations. Plastic bags struggle to fit in on “Voice Over: the Carrier Bag”; they try to commit to a “wafty choreography”. They have a god-like status in “Witches’ Knickers” as “Plastikos”, sitting on a beer crate throne. Everything in the universe is inter-connected in “i swallow” – we “gulp every moth/as though there were nothing else”.

Although the collection has a clear focus on environmental matters, there are a few notable poems that head in the direction of human politics. Trump’s presence hovers in the space where screams cannot be heard in the deconstructed Spenserian sonnet “from The Mar-a-Lago Resort Website”, and the poet puts himself in the place of refugees with some pathos in “The Channel”.

Parkin writes from a distinct perspective, often “weaponising” camp, clowning and foolishness. “For I Will Consider Gnorma, the Asda Pride Gnome” sends up Christopher Smart’s poem “Jubilate Agno”, replacing Smart’s “Cat Jeoffry” with a gnome dressed in pink and blue “in ironic dismissal of gender binaries”, her cheeks “flushed with the exertion/of generations of activists”. It is a comic success – “praise be to Gnorma”!

“At The Outdoors Store” uses humour to question the “His & Hers” category in a catalogue, to playfully and inventively declare:

Then let’s step out from the pages
collage new ranges of
His & Hises    Hers & Herses    Theirs & Theirses
let’s don waterproof boots in technicolour spots
let’s slide into cagoules in macho shades of cerise
let’s all deck head-to-toe in sparkly fleece

Parkin’s manifesto encourages “experiments in language” and what he is “brave enough to use it for”, and there are some ambitious poems in the collection, with the scientific nature of the subjects leading the poet to technical language. “Chromatophores” begins with a short note of explanation to assist the reader and innovates with form through typography. Similarly, the glossaries of terms for “The Ballad of the Morris Omies” help explain lines like “Behankied fambles! Lallies leap!”.

“Terms of Service: Your Fruiting Body” is a “quasi-erasure” poem inspired by the idea of mycorrhizal fungi as the “Wood-Wide Web”, and takes the form of Google’s terms of service. Terms and conditions can be notoriously tricky, and Parkin apes many of their characteristics: the friendly start (“thanks for choosing to mycorrhiza with us”), the dominant position of service providers (“You must accept any nutrients offered by the network….You may not opt out”), sections dealing with “Modifying and Terminating Mycelium Services”, and the relationship between the contracting parties. It’s a striking poem due to the original inventive idea and use of modern language.

Poet John McCullough has said that the “queer filaments” of the poems in This Fruiting Body “form a compassionate brocade that holds together all living creatures”, and this is a good way of looking at this well themed collection. Many of the poems are distinctly contemporary, with familiar concerns for the modern reader; viruses “birth on cruise ships/continents surrender to fever dreams” as the government struggles for control in “Instead of Smoking After Sex”.

“Watership Down Fugue”, an ominous five page poem written using “Lectio Divina” (viewing film clips on loop and responding through automatic writing) references Richard Adams’ 1972 book Watership Down and ‘80s AIDS public information films. The poem is a stark reminder that disease will always be a terrifying part of nature. In hearty defiance, This Fruiting Body is packed full of zesty poetic nutrients, moments (as per Parkin) “where the mundane flips over and we see the mud under lawns”. We don’t provide medical or legal advice, but understand that rolling around in certain qualifying poetry, as contained here, may boost your immune system and increase resistance against immediate despair.




Publisher: Nine Arches Press
Publication Date: 14 OCT 2021