Reviewed by Jennifer Wong, Richie McCaffery and Helen Addy
In Ben Parker’s first pamphlet, The Escape Artists, the reader is faced with surreal, postmodern symbols and sublime imagery that expose the fragility of human understanding, longing and loneliness. I like the way Parker combines cinematic imagery with metaphysical symbolism, and how the natural landscape is vested with emotions.
The pamphlet demonstrates an adept play of form and sound. Language is succinct and pared down throughout, the voice confident and observant. For example, in ‘Do you remember’, the poet evokes memory of the “first horse”. Despite the narrator’s attentiveness to the horse, the animal fails him and dies. The rhetorical question appearing at the beginning and end (“do you remember the day we found the first horse?”) and the structure of the prose poem hold the text together, relating the symbolic presence of the horse to the cruelty of memory and the ‘untranslatability’ of feelings:
This was the horse from which all other horses were bred; the horse of cave-paintings and untranslatable mythology.
In most of the poems here, well-controlled form and rhythm help to build a tight-knit, cohesive narrative on the power and complexity of human sympathy and understanding. For example, in ‘Lake’, the idea that one can only access the same experience once – “There is a lake that freezes/ once only in a lifetime” – is repeated twice in the lines: “a place you would not visit twice” and “the freeze will only hold you once”. The variety in word choice, carefully arranged repetition and run-on lines generate a strange texture and momentum, transforming the lake into something full of beauty and prophecy.
In some poems, however, I found the imagery too deliberate in its elusiveness, while the impersonality of the omniscient voice becomes somewhat formulaic. For example, in ‘The Way’, there is a want of subtlety in the refrain on the reverberation of sound, and the significance of the road trip. In ‘Cinema of the Drowned’, there is similarly an indulgent arrangement of lines and ending that takes away the poignancy of that loneliness.
Overall, though, I find The Escape Artists a provocative, intelligent and ambitious collection.
It’s clear from the first prose-poem of this journey-making collection that artistic escapism and fable will play a big part. We are asked if we remember the “first horse” from which “all other horses were bred” that looks like a dog to everyone else. It is only the speaker and his partner in this slightly Gothic and altered world who remain convinced the horse is indeed a horse. This has many implications, not least the un-soundness of language and identity, and it makes for off-key and sometimes estranging effects.
At the core of this pamphlet is the motif of the journey and the unspoken. Parker shows us the way to somewhere – suggesting escape – but we are never quite sure of this because of the way the work is recurrently framed within negation. In ‘The Way’ and ‘Painting Your Voice’ we are told that “sound is not the shifting of the continents . . . that sound is not your lover’s breath” and that “your voice” is “not the actual words”. Parker impishly raises questions that were never there, but isn’t forthcoming with answers. We are teasingly brought close to the place of escape in ‘One Place’, only to be told it is “forbidden to you both”. We’re never even sure if we’re being shown the way to Erewhon or to Hades, or more likely neither.
At times it seems Parker is making an existential point, that he is among the circus freaks in ‘Sideshow’ as “The Amazing Lost Man” and that he’s playing the ringmaster rounding up choice specimens of the lost or dispossessed. However, the image of the journey comes back repeatedly to remind the reader of the way both poetry and communication are outstripped by the imagination.
In ‘Path’ the road frequently taken “is only as wide/ as two horses side by side/ and thin/ from many months of walking”. No matter how slippery and elusive Parker’s destination may be, sound above language always finds its way. The Shogun in ‘From the Histories II’ has a palace surrounded by bells and within this clamour he can sense intruders by one bell ringing out of time with the wind. The Shogun’s ingenuity and ear, nonetheless, are forms of tyranny to his wives and daughters who are forced to develop another layer of communication, “stuff their ears with wax/ and develop the intricate sign-language/ for which their line is justly remembered.”
This beautifully stylish pamphlet, with its black, white and red colour scheme and devilishly interesting photograph of a vintage circus, seems to promise verve and confidence. Parker delivers both with great panache.
I am hugely impressed and absorbed by his energetic style. The often surreal, other-worldly subject matter of the poems is tempered by a physical muscularity that felt wholly original. The words seem to pulse on the page and I find myself looking for where the mastery lies, like looking for the coin up the magician’s sleeve.
In ‘The Lake’, like many of the poems in the pamphlet, Parker’s tone is instructional and conspiratorial. I lean in closer to see what secrets he will impart:
But come when weather warnings
have cleared the paths of weekend walkers
and all the native birds have passed you
on their journey south and you might find
the water fastened down with ice.
The images are crystal clear and cut sharp as ice. I feel I am in trusted hands and wherever the poem leads me, there will be news, something essential I didn’t know I was missing till now. His last line pulses:
The freeze will hold you only once.
I found many of the poems dealt with loss in a very subtle, aslant manner. ‘The Way’, is one of my favourites. It uses a car radio’s shifting stations and static to talk about the pain of loss and its wavering notes, the lines movingly and vibrantly energetic:
And when the closing note
is lost beneath that black scrawl
crank the volume dial clockwise
drop your windows, let your car become
a needle in a groove of infinite diameter.
What feels new and surprising to me is that the physicality of these poems can also contain so much tenderness and compassion. ‘First Inhabitant of the Asylum’ is very much grounded in the reassuring solidity of objects, yet the patient’s unhinged mind cannot be easily pinned down:
The wren that darts from a bush is
as nameless to her as the fists in her pockets;
the stacks of clouds that perform daily
are just shapes against a changing wall.
I enjoyed this pamphlet immensely. Parker’s poetry is both transforming and grounded. Like encountering the best magicians, I want to see more.