Parker, Pat 1944–1989
Pat Parker 1944–1989
A poet who writes about the world around them is not uncommon. However, when the poet is African American, lesbian and a feminist, their poems follow a decidedly different slant. Pat Parker rose above the stereotypes usually associated with those terms with a gritty honesty that prompted Adrian Oktenberg of Women’s Review of Books to declare Parker, “the poet laureate of the Black and Lesbian peoples.” An anecdotal and autobiographical poet, Parker’s poems are the story of her life, a life which ended much too early when she died of breast cancer in 1989.
Born Patricia Cooks in Houston, Texas in 1944, she was the fourth daughter of Ernest, a tire retreader, and Marie Louise, a domestic. Parker was born two months premature and was hospitalized for three months with pneumonia. She reflected upon this event in an early poem entitled “Goat Child.” “‘You were a mistake’/my mother told me/ever since i’ve been/trying to make up./couldn’t really imagine/her-him in bed &/me coming 4 yrs after/the last sister/& to make things worse/i come blasting in/2 months too soon./maybe the war did it/& to top the whole thing off/i’m the fourth girl/& was my father pissed/caught pneumonia &/got hung up in incubator/for three months/finally made it out,/but the bed was too big/so my sister lost her doll bed./another enemy quickly made.”
The Poet Emerged
Following a poverty-stricken childhood, Parker graduated from high school in 1962 and moved to California to attend Los Angeles City College and later, San Francisco State College. She married Ed Bullins in 1962. They divorced four years later and she married Robert F. Parker. That marriage also ended in divorce and Parker worked a succession of jobs in order to support her two daughters, Cassidy and Anastasia. She settled near Oakland, California and worked as a proofreader, waitress, clerk, and creative writing instructor. In the late 1960s, Parker became immersed in the civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights movements. An impassioned activist, Parker was also beginning to find her voice as a poet.
Parker published her first volume of poetry, Child of Myself, in 1972. In the title poem, Parker rebuts the Biblical notion that the woman is the second sex, “To think second/to believe first/a mistake/erased by the motion of years./i, woman, i/can no longer claim/a mother of flesh/a father of marrow/I Woman must be/the child of myself.” With the release of Child of Myself Parker, who had been known solely among the Lesbian Tide Collective, a group of poets in Northern California, began to reach a wider audience.
Movement in Black
Parker’s second volume of poetry, Pit Stop, was released in 1973 and focused on a variety of issues. The title poem of the collection dealt with the subject of alcoholism and was told in the vernacular of any corner
At a Glance…
Born Patricia Cooks, January 20, 1944 in Houston, Texas; died June 4, 1989, in Oakland, California; daughter of Ernest Nathaniel and Marie Louise Cooks; married Ed Bullins, June 20, 1962 (divorced, January 17, 1966); married Robert F. Parker, January 20, 1966 (divorced); children: Cassidy Brown, Anastasia Dunham-Parker. Education: Attended Los Angeles City College and San Francisco State University.
Career: Poet, activist; published Child of Myself, 1972; published Pit Stop: Words, 1974; released the recording Where Would I Be Without You: The Poetry of Pat Parker and Judy Grahn, 1976; appointed director of Feminist Women’s Health Center in Oakland, CA, 1978; published Movement in Black: The Collected Poetry of Pat Parker, 1961-1978 and Womanslaughter, 1978; founded Black Women’s Revolutionary Council, 1980; published Jonestown and Other Madness, 1985.
bar. “Let us drink to your new lover/Let us drink to your lover—gone/Let us drink to my lover/Let us drink to my lover—gone/Hey, let’s drink to the good people/Let’s drink to the nearest holiday/Let’s drink to our ability to drink.” In her introduction to Parker’s poetry anthology, poet Judy Grahn called “Pit Stop,” “the first poem I know of dealing with the subject of alcoholism among women, a serious debilitator of minority communities.” Parker later recorded an album with Grahn entitled Where Would I Be Without You: The Poetry of Pat Parker and Judy Grahn, which was released in 1976.
The year of 1978 marked the beginning of an active period for Parker. She was appointed director of the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Oakland and published her third volume of new poetry, Womanslaughter She also published an anthology of her works entitled Movement in Black: The Collected Poetry of Pat Parker 1961-1978. The title poem of Woman-slaughter revolved around the murder of Parker’s sister and Parker’s frustration when the murderer was convicted of manslaughter and released after serving only one year in prison. “One day a quiet man/shot his quiet wife/three times in the back./He shot her friend as well/His wife died.” Parker admitted in the poem that she was weakened by her sister’s death, but made stronger through the passage of time and the support of others. “I have gained many sisters./And if one is beaten,/orraped, or killed,/I will not come in mourning black./I will not pick the right flowers.… I will come with my many sisters/and decorate the streets/with the innards of those/brothers in womanslaughter.… I will come to my sisters,/not dutiful,/I will come strong.”
Silenced Too Soon
In 1985 Parker published her fifth volume, Jonestown and other madness. Taking its title from the 1978 tragedy in Guyana where a self-proclaimed religious leader, Jim Jones, ordered more than 900 people to commit suicide, Adrian Oktenberg of Women’s Review of Books proclaimed it Parker’s best work. “It is a necessity not only for those who care about poetry,” Oktenberg wrote, “but also for those who care about life.” In the foreword of Jonestown, Parker confesses that the book came about, “because we have become too quiet.… We are a nation in great trouble. It is time for those with vision to speak out loudly before the madness consumes us all.”
Rochelle Ratner of Library Journal acknowledged Parker’s role as a black lesbian mother and a political activist. “At times, the poems become rhetorical,” Ratner wrote, “but more often they are saved by Parker’s sharp irony and her ability to relate political issues to events in her own life.” In her poem “Legacy,” which she wrote for her daughter, Anastasia, Parker attempts to dispel the notion that lesbians are ineffective parents who lead their children down the path of depravity. “Take the strength that you may/wage a long battle./Take the pride that you can/never stand small./Take the rage that you can/never settle for less./These be the things I pass/to you my daughter/if this is the result of perversion/let the world stand screaming./You will mute their voices/with your life.”
A year after Parker’s death Lyndie Brimstone, writing in Feminist Review, described Parker as, “this loud and rich-mouthed poet who planted her feet firmly on platforms all over America and demanded that her audiences, whoever they may be, pay attention, was not only working class, she was Black and lesbian: the very first to refuse to compromise and speak openly from her undiluted experience.” In an untitled poem, Parker seems to echo Brimstone’s sentiments, “I am a child of America/a step child/raised in the back room/yet taught/taught how to act/in her front room.” As the poet Audre Lorde wrote in her foreword to Movement in Black, “Even when a line falters, Parker’s poetry maintains, reaches out and does not let go. It is clean and sharp without ever being neat. Yet her images are precise, and the plain accuracy of her visions encourages an honesty that may be uncomfortable as it is compelling. Her words are womanly and uncompromising.”
Coss, Clare, The Arc of Love: An Anthology of Lesbian Love Poems, Scribner, 1996.
Howe, Florence, No More Masks: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets, Harper-Perennial, 1993.
McEwen, Christian, ed., Naming the Waves: Contemporary Lesbian Poetry, The Crossing Press, 1989.
Moraga, Cherrie and Gloria Anzaldua, eds., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983.
Morse, Carl and Joan Larkin, eds., Gay & Lesbian Poetry In Our Time: An Anthology, St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
Whitehead, Kim, The Feminist Poetry Movement, University Press of Mississippi, 1996.
Callaloo, Winter 1986, p. 259.
Colby Library Journal, March 1982, p. 9.
Feminist Review, Spring 1990, p. 4.
Library Journal, July 1986, p. 77.
Women’s Review of Books, April 1986, p. 18.
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