"And no more being outdoors / And no more rain", SPAM Press, 2017
I've always considered the Banksy of contemporary poetry to be Sainsbury's The Bored Baker, although I have to admit to finding the haiku they squeezed into bags of cookies just ever so slightly on the soggy bottom side - while finding the gesture pretty much perfect. That's why I was so delighted to see this new publication by Max Parnell from the brilliant zine - and now pamphlet publisher - SPAM, which I managed to pick up from the equally brilliant zine shop and gallery Good Press this summer. It seemed – from a quick shuffle through its pages - like Parnell was performing a similar gesture, but from a customer’s viewpoint, and with stranger language (its aesthetic is what I think of as a sort of no-fi mumblecore dreich, the electrified hum of fridges and freezers).
Parnell has taken Frank O'Hara's chocolate malted "lunch poems" into Tesco for a working lunch, melted them down so they are plastic and pliable and then reconstituted them along with the poet's own additives and preservatives onto jagged slips (compliment slips?) of printer paper which are then inserted into the display windows of sandwich boxes and recyclable tins of pasta salad.
On page 2 there’s an image of a Tesco Express, its automatic doors half open half closed (but no-one seems to be there to trigger their movement) and there’s a half-stocked bakery shelf dead ahead and a yellow ‘Caution Wet Floor’ sign to the bottom right. There are special offer signs and a bin, and snowflake transfers on the windows. It’s dark in the outside of the photo and the shop is illuminated with half promise / half threat like a hospital.
The language itself is bitesized, nutritionally suspect but thrilling:
"And no more rain
And no more
And no more
There’s no trace of
The perilous steps"
"You say that everything is very interesting
“New improved flavor”
Yet it makes me feel very simple
(I hate all that crap)
But I am terribly hungry!"
By placing these word strings in, around and between foodstuffs the book reveals, negotiates and recalibrates shape, materiality, substance. So the lines in this second example are pasted on to printer-paper coloured ridged crisp-shapes and distributed among salt and vinegar McCoys.They seem to turn the packaged products into talking ornaments, overflowing and wasteful: there’s a triangle of egg and bacon sandwich filling, “my nerves humming”; the seeping on jam into cream “Is this slightly sour cream / or is this love?”; a slice of chopped apple “oh god it’s wonderful”.
For me, while it is a critique, the book becomes about shape and shaping, about a kind of aesthetic reorientation towards these squares of oats, slivers of pepper, instant coffee machines. The curving of “it’s drawing me in” pasted around the rim of the inside of a Costa cup. There’s even a blueberry muffin chopped head to toe down the middle and looking like some scary fungus. The book has a kind of joy in its mischief but it is also heartbreaking – I don’t think he’s being that ironic (he’s actually puncturing the irony of Tesco’s) - Parnell makes us notice what is “reduced”, the “inscrutable meagreness” of shopping in an “express” fashion for sustenance, and the possibilities to activate this experience aesthetically.