How to Parallel Park, James Davey
V. Press, 2018 £6.50
The clue is in the title
Let’s imagine you see a pamphlet: yellow cover, black stripes subliminally suggesting road markings. It’s called How to Parallel Park. You’d ignore it, wouldn’t you? Parking is far from exciting and you don’t, really, want to read about it. But if it’s a poetry pamphlet? Ah, that’s different. But why?
Poetry and parking? They don’t sit together easily so there’s already a shiver of comedy here, an unsettling disjunction. The pamphlet’s title is also a poem’s title; curiosity wins. It’s written in two-line stanzas, using the unambiguously flat vocabulary of a driving instructor to his pupil. Even filtered through the first-person voice you can hear the instructor’s admonitions:
I take it steady, work my clutch control.
I rotate the wheel clockwise through both hands.
I draw even with the rear of the first parked car
(a red Clio with a nodding dog on its dash)
This is the point where personal observation slips in, working itself free from the instructor’s commands; the car is red (now, what might ‘red’ signify?) and if this car is parked, why is the dog nodding — or is it? These are almost subliminal details; or are they?
Our interest, along with that of the first-person speaker in the poem, is now focussed on the car, the red Clio. Davey has let language do the work here, unobtrusively. It’s clever. No spoilers, so I’ll skip the action and just quote the final lines:
My instructor insists we abandon the manoeuvre.
I restart my stalled engine. I pull away nice and slow,
making sure to check my mirrors.
Back to the clichés of the mundane driving lesson — ‘nice and slow’. Only when I’d re-read the pamphlet did I realise how cleverly this poem offers parallel parking as a wider image. If you want to write about the past what do you do? You halt at an appropriate point in your life, look back, start to travel backwards carefully, manoeuvring yourself into the perfect space from which to write — and you may be surprised at what you discover.
You also bring your sense of humour along for the ride.
D A Prince