Ben Parker, The Escape Artists tall-lighthouse, 28pp, £4

This is a very assured debut from Ben Parker. There is a unity of style and theme throughout, a feeling that a keen intelligence has been at work. There is a ‘rightness’ to the cadences and structures that makes these poems exceptionally sure footed. There is also an impressive attention to the sounds of words and a seamless suitability of form to content. This level of craft and apparent ease only comes about, regardless of ‘talent’ or ‘natural ability’, via a lot of study and hard work.

The opening poem sets the tone. Parker addresses the reader ‘Do you remember that day we found the first horse?’  We are drawn in to the mystery and potential magic of this narrative, but quickly   experience the disconcerting mixture of disorientation and familiarity that pervades the collection.

The poem proceeds to describe this ‘first horse’, and we become aware that the animal is in fact a dog. This miss-labelling and the continued refusal of the deluded couple in the poem to believe the corrective comments of friends, a vet, and even the evidence of their own eyes, is disturbing and sinister.

Here, in the ‘welcome mat’ poem of the collection, we encounter an unreliable narrator who clings to a misconception, to an imposed identity which conflicts and disconnects him from ‘reality’. Ultimately, this leads to unhappiness and isolation for both humans and animal. The use of the first person in this poem serves to create an unwanted intimacy, coupled as it is, with the unease brought about by the strangeness of the narrative.                 

This is a darkly lit collection. There are lots of clouds and a lot of rain. Parkers’ themes are dislocation, isolation and metamorphosis. He also writes well on the fragility and unreliability of surfaces, both literal and metaphorical, through which the unsuspecting can fall.

Emotions such as loss, grief, and confusion are not addressed directly but submerged  in narratives which blend the surreal and familiar, the mythic and mundane, to create a menacing hybrid reality, a non-specific  landscape with enough familiar landmarks to keep the reader suspended between recognition and disorientation.

In ‘Sideshow,’ the protagonist wanders through a circus where ‘Pipes play on/though there is no-one around to hear them.’    On the surface this eerie setting is littered with images from a ‘fun’ fair or carnival, a place of pleasure and escape through controlled illusion. But there is dark humour and a strong undercurrent of menace in this poem; ‘The strong-man sleeps in a fug of beer, the dwarves dream of Hollywood’. The narrator ‘checks a map/ he doesn’t have’ and is ultimately lost in a claustrophobic and recurring night-mare.

‘The Path’ has a sense of unresolved mystery, and like many of the poems here, it is otherworldly, elusive and haunting. ‘The Way’ might serve to sum up many of the characteristics of this collection.
The village is ‘rain-shuttered’ the radio is tuned to ‘dead melodies’ the road ahead is ‘dwindling’.

‘Remembrances’ is, at first glance, a short romantic piece, and contains my favourite line in the collection.

‘and on the floor those intimate blacks and reds
like crumpled flowers, lying where they fell.’

But rather than being simply a celebration of lovers’ intimacy, typically for Parker, the speaker is tainted by insecurity. The poem ends on an anxious and almost desperate note; ‘No sooner has the door clicked to/ than I begin my search from room to room.’  

In ‘From Histories I’ Parker utilises an oblique approach, perhaps to comment on recent conquest and conflict, and invokes a farcical world of unreliable propaganda and bizarre heresy. The poem ends with a mix of myth and obscure and tawdry commerce in which ‘the gods/ walked the markets, selling charms/ for a low price and without obligation.’

Similarly, ‘From the Histories II’ which concludes the collection, cynically highlights the absurd. The targets in this case are notions of the heritage and the glorification of a drunken warrior whose wives and daughters ‘stuff their ears with wax/ and develop intricate sign-language/ for which their line is justly remembered.’              

‘The Restaurant’ , in which ‘Most of the walls are black with the juice/ of berries imported for just this purpose’ is a satire on the more extreme pretentions of the modern fine dining experience.
It achieves its goal by evoking an environment full of well-chosen peculiarities to create a portrait both ridiculous and sinister.  Those interested in this sort of absurdist piece, and particularly in the investigation of food and its variety and associated meanings, should check out the poetry of Anthony Rowland, a master of this type of poem and possibly someone Parker is aware of.  I detect positive echoes of Rowland’s work in this and in the title poem of the collection which has the density, implied historical perspective and fine control of the senior poet, and as in Rowland’s work, rewards repeated reading.       

Parker skilfully evokes a world where nothing is as it seems. However, the cumulative effect of this collection is almost unremittingly bleak. I found myself longing for a break from the subdued tension, the ominous and confusing locations, and from the metaphorical and literal heavy weather.

The beautifully accomplished ‘Painting Your Voice’ provides an exception. It is one of the few poems here to come to some sort of conclusion that isn’t loaded with threat. Although here too, we find rain, the tone of this elegantly flowing poem is metaphysical and transcendent. The ‘voice’ of a lover is carried and transformed by weather and in this case ‘The heat will lift it up/ and over mountains it will fall as rain.’   This effect is all the more powerful due to the subtlety and constraint of writing which is not overwrought or excited, but subdued, observant, and controlled. 

I would like to see Parker’s ‘stacks of clouds’ broken, if only in places, by the occasional shaft of reliable sun-light.  I can’t help wondering what colour and vibrancy a spell on a Greek island, for instance, might bring to the work of this accomplished young poet.


Roy Marshall