(REVIEW) Strange Appetites: Supermarket Poetics in Max Parnell’s And No More Being Outdoors (...)
Text and illustrations by Maria Rose Sledmere (Review first appeared in Gilded Dirt issue #2, ‘Supermarket Verse’)
>In Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Jack Gladney meets his friend Murray at the supermarket and takes note of the items in his basket. Murray describes the unbranded, plain-packaged items with typically extravagant grandeur as ‘the last avant-garde. Bold new forms. The power to shock’. There’s a sparsity to Max Parnell’s pamphlet, And no more being outdoors, And no more rain that echoes this call of bold new forms. The plainness of language as language; as both material semiotics and evocative form. There’s everyday discourse stripped to its purer roots; a tone of childlike, sweeping sincerity (‘She loved the Western World’), contrasting with the ‘inscrutable meagreness’ of its subject: the meal deal.
>If material culture is a term we want to use, then Parnell practises it quite literally. He bought a selection of favourite meal deal items from a local Tesco Express, opened the packaging and slipped fragments of his poetry inside among the foodstuff, little white strips of text resting like sleepy insects upon a pasta salad or slices of apple. By some clever feat, he sealed the packaging up again and surreptitiously replaced the products on the shelves of the same supermarket, garnering undoubtedly a few bemused looks for so directly flaunting the rules of consumption in restocking the shelves from his bag. The result is a beautiful pamphlet, each spread a sparse balance of image and text–a gallery of raw, unedited photographs accompanied almost whimsically by a poem on the opposite page. The whimsy, however, does not undercut the compelling freshness of the language, its deceptive simplicity resonant with hidden depths of meaning, an implicit critique and celebration of contemporary supermarket consumption.
>The new sincerity and austerity often go hand-in-hand in the poems of writers whose work might be described as metamodern. Sam Riviere’s 81 Austerities reworks the casual quotidian of a New York poet to engage with the affective facets of contemporary Britain: a world overloaded with information; a world of pornography, abandoned picnics, knitwear and unlit cigarettes. A world of welfare cuts, jump-cuts and startling contrasts. The semiotics of consumer capitalism are somehow melted as each Riviere poem makes surreal juxtapositions of images, tricks of irony or incongruous reference, leading us somewhere unexpectedly profound: ‘this will probably sound cheesy and weird / but maybe we’re a couple of cartoons’ (‘What Do You Think About That’). Perhaps there is something about a childlike paucity of text that feels more sincere than an epic screed. Nevertheless, the self-awareness of such poetics grounds them in a certain wary irony, the ubiquitous awareness of self-presentation instilled in anyone raised on the internet.
>We might think of the supermarket meal deal (even as its supposed cheapness deceives us of value), as the poor man’s lunch (recalling that nostalgic phrase, the Po’ Boy’s Lunch, which is making its round of the hipster bars right now, harking back to the labourer’s working day of yore, or baby yuppies navigating through a pre-Starbucks universe). It’s perhaps the most everyday of supermarket purchases for some, representing the relinquishment of creative choice for a narrow decision between coronation chicken, egg cress or ham and cheese. The rule of the meal deal, of course, is that you get to pick three items: a sandwich/salad, a snack and a drink. Like a slot machine, you hope for the perfect combination. Many people stick to what works and eat the same thing every day, bearing their triplet of joy to yesterday’s identikit self-service checkout. Perhaps only some play the meta-game, listening to a hypnagogic James Ferraro number in their head as suitable soundtrack. Only when something is missing–out of stock already–is one forced to confront the meal deal as thing, to weigh up the relative value of different products. Parnell’s pamphlet takes this a step further, deconstructing the semiotics of product even as his poems supplement the food stuff with the trace of an art object.
>Food and paper, mixed together. You can peel the label off an apple and eat it just fine, but would you do the same with a strip of poem? Does Parnell’s sly, perhaps Situationist intervention in everyday commodity culture make the meal deal products inedible? As with Heidegger’s broken hammer, it is the object, the system’s failure, that reminds us that consumer goods are things in themselves. We confront them, suddenly, as present-at-hand. Imagine someone opening that pack of McCoys and finding their crisps coated in white paint with words stuck to them. You are forced to situate their presence in a manner beyond the normal. Foodstuffs no longer coexist as simple fuel–the ordinary objects that mark the time of day, the regulation of appetite. Their mode of being flashes before us and demands to be repaired, to be re-transformed back into the seamless product we expected. The point about meal deals is they are supposed to be the same on a daily basis; you know what you are getting when you peel away the plastic on your pasta salad.
>Forcing our attention back on the products as objects in themselves is one thing, but what to do next? Parnell’s poetry teases out the affective experiences of daily life in the encountering of things. Sometimes he addresses the supermarket itself, as if in the temple of some deity: ‘You say that everything is very interesting / “New improved flavour” / Yet it makes me feel very simple / (I hate all that crap) / But I am terribly hungry!’. This is a gesture that refutes the ideological hailing performed daily by advertising and branding, the kind that fits us into certain camps (the organically concerned, the cool kids, the Healthy). It admits the seduction of the object, the brand, even as it places its slogans under cool, sardonic erasure. We allow our bodily desires, ultimately, to purchase the product which temporarily will sate the appetite. But of course, being ‘terribly hungry’ is the perpetual state of consumer capitalism, from its constant arousal of insatiable desire to the literal starvation caused by global inequalities, or more localised austerity measures.
>It’s not all negative, however. The beauty of this pamphlet is its metamodern attentiveness to the joyful, affective experience of consumerism at the same time as ironically expressing the shallowness of such common exchanges of capital–the short lifespan of pleasure offered by such goods. Parnell’s poems defamiliarise everyday conventions and ritualistic practices, admitting a certain mystical quality to the products with which we structure our day—or, more specifically, our lunchtimes. There is an emphasis on the things themselves, from the checkout machines to the packet of sushi; Parnell’s poetics evince a very much objected-oriented ontology. These are poems without titles, poems to drift through; their mode of enframing is the image rather than the contrived and anthropocentric literary artifice of a title. The tone is sometimes exuberant, often urgent: ‘Quick! / I have in my hands / Only pennies… / And it were as if / The machines / Heaved a sigh.’ The supermarket experience is suddenly re-orientated from the perspective of the machines themselves, rather than the shoppers. I cannot help but think of Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory here, as every item becomes its own actant in a complex system of relations. Yet often the relations taper away and the things themselves rise, shining, from darkness. Images deliberately obscure the thing itself: ‘I stare / Into the cauldron of hideousness’. Profundity mixes with certain emotional or bodily urges: ‘I wanna stay drunk’, ‘my tired red eyes’. These words aren’t just disembodied, clinical flarf collected from the dust of the empty shelves at the end of the day; they are lyric poems, whose vibrancy arises as much from the speaker’s voice as it does from the matter surrounding him.
>With subtle devastation, everyday encounters with objects become part of a broader emotional framework. ‘Secretly, I shall / go to drink / instant coffee / “Full Rich Taste!” / It’s drawing me in. / Is it the sole heat on earth? / I may freeze to death / Without her.’ Allured by the object, we are not sure if the ‘her’ refers to the coffee itself (anthropomorphism), or an actual woman–another lost ‘object’ in the speaker’s minimal stratosphere. The slippage from ‘it’ to ‘she’ casually equates love with the cheap physical comfort of an instant coffee, while allowing this equation to stand stark with the sadness of any impoverished supplement.
>Moreover, as Daniel Miller reminds us, shopping itself is a kind of ‘making love’. As he puts it, selecting the ingredients for something and choosing one’s food products involves negotiating various value-based implications: from the global resonance of ethical, organic and local to the more ambiguous questions of morality and sensibility; a ‘cosmology’ of daily actions in the public sphere. The ‘she’ of Parnell’s poems–who kookily thinks of ‘adding a little tomato paste’, whose presence is only a projection–is a ghostly thing, the rippling silhouette of desire that eludes the speaker. He is often standing alone, observing: ‘Everyone’s out eating’. We are reminded of our own individualised role as consumers, placed in the position of voyeur who gleans vague scraps of voyeuristic joy from the habits of others. Occasional bursts of frustrated statement–‘It’s so meaningless to eat!’–bring a generalised nihilism to the picture, comprising just one reaction to the sheer excess of signifiers on display when you start teasing apart meal deal semiotics.
>As a rearrangement of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, these poems bear the semblance of fleeting thoughts: the kind of fragmentary, stream-of-consciousness dialogue you might have with yourself while lingering over the meal deal counter on a daily basis. Like O’Hara, Parnell’s speaker is a casual observer whose lines are strewn with bursts of acute insight into the complex, affective relations that structure our everyday experience with material things. There’s an emphasis on time, on the compressed space of a lunch hour (if you are lucky enough to even get an hour; lunch breaks today aren’t quite the boozy extravagance they were in the days of Don Draper). The pamphlet ends with ‘One eats as one walks. / Back to work, I guess.’ The ‘I guess’ is not just the hipster idiom of conversational filler, but a genuine hesitation that leaves us pondering on the threshold of recreational and work time. Has the subject left work at all? Is our daily jaunt to the supermarket merely an offshoot of the work of daily capitalism, the implicit labour of consumer existence? Is the ‘I guess’ in fact a mournful hesitation, a longing for that brief jouissance of excessive choice that unfurled in the space of a moment? Parnell allows for both. Many of these items are reduced, discounted in price, thus implying the collection documents several moments of meal deal purchase across different times in the day. That sense of deferral, a riff on O’Hara’s idle browsing: ‘And the stores stayed open awful late…’.
> Sometimes reading And no more being outdoors, And no more rain feels a bit like looking over a series of old tweets made in the heat of a certain moment. Maybe they don’t make much sense anymore, but when you read them back in a sequence an emotional narrative unfolds. What does it mean to be ‘never […] mentally sober’? If the state we live in is one of constant arousal, wired to our screens and bleeps, flushed with sugar-fuelled brain fog, the supermarket perhaps offers the comforting stasis of quotidian repetition that the rhizomatically endless territory of the internet displaces. Often Parnell’s poetics feel meditative, even haiku-like; they are a deliberate, focused lingering on the object, the moment, the profound possibilities of relational connection both physical and symbolic in the exchange of capital. They restore a certain peace to our day, even as they preserve an unsettled sense of longing, of curiously surreal or impenetrable imagery, of desire misplaced in the webs of perception. Reality shifts. There is something of the Eliotic, confused flaneur in some of the poems; especially the first, with its anaphoric loop, ‘And no more rain’ drawing us endlessly to the supermarket as sheltering temple–the speaker’s ‘perilous steps’ uncannily erased even before we have settled inside. I’m reminded of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, where the street lamps address the speaker with strange nostalgic poetry. Parnell’s speaker treads the laminate floors of the Tesco Express, held in a strip-lit version of Eliot’s ‘lunar synthesis’ as he leaves his identity at the door, ready and open to the world of signs.
>These are poems with a shelf-life, products destined for the trash at the whim of a consumer, or the directive of an employee or use-by date. Like snowflakes, they’ll melt into the generalised excreta of capitalism’s cold waste pile. There is a deliberate beauty here, a rift prised open between subject and object, consciousness and product. Ephemerality, the sense of drifting; disappearing in the condensed rhythms of desire’s abyss, its stunting concatenations of excess, the ‘And / And / And’. Parnell’s artefacts aren’t so much grandly apostrophised as they are collected, pondered over and recirculated into the feedback loops of capitalist relations. They’re found objects, certainly, but not appropriated into art objects. The poems are supplements which draw out the gaps, the secrets of the things in themselves, the strangeness. Here’s Ben Lerner’s narrator from 10:04 , speaking of the minimalist art of Donald Judd’s 100 aluminium boxes:
‘I believed in the things [Judd] wanted to get rid of—the internal compositional relations of a painting, nuances of form. His interest in modularity and industrial fabrication and his desire to overcome the distinction between art and life, an insistence on literal objects in real space—I felt I could get all those things by walking through a Costco’
>The hypermarket, Costco, does all the affective job of an art installation. It’s all about how we perceive things. Lerner’s narrator is able to position himself as this flaneur, open to the impressions objects and their spaces make upon him. Parnell does this too, though in a more condensed and fleeting manner. He subtly unfurls the nuances of form through close-up photographs and fragmentary, sensual details: the ‘glistening peanuts’ and ‘old and dirty’ angels. I can’t help but think of memes when I read these poems: like a meme they are deliberately recirculated into the public sphere, in a very material way. Like many memes there is a re-appropriation of advertising discourse which unpicks the shallow veneer of its message, while exposing the often surprising or even tragic ideological fault-lines within. These poems are compressed, easily digested; written in the tone of pondering over explaining. There are gaps to be filled.
>To use a Barthesian term, the Mythemes of contemporary culture are to be found in the supermarket aisle. A whole mythology of capitalism, identity and weird ontology is to be found if you peel back the packaging and wait for the magic. Happily, Parnell’s pamphlet does that for you, although its surreal array of intransitive words and objects deserves its own space: a metamodern exhibit of a bewildered contemporary whose structure of feeling is as strangely spiritual and sincere as it is ironic or blasé—an art object whose aura flickers with the persistent light of those late-night Tescos. In White Noise, Murray declares that he likes being in the supermarket, because ‘It’s all much clearer here. I can think and see’. In the aisles, with the cool tones of the refrigerators and the bright lighting, the ideologies underpinning the structures of daily life are ripe for the picking.
Text: Maria Sledmere