‘The Escape Artists’ by Ben Parker

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-Reviewed by James Webster

Ben Parker’s debut pamphlet from Tall Lighthouse is beautifully and disconcertingly not-quite-familiar. Approaching familiar objects and ideas through a variety of unsettling and alien lenses that make the everyday unfamiliar, it is thoughtful, funny and full of inventive expression.

And no poem in the collection embodies this more than ‘The Restaurant’ where Parker playfully deconstructs and rebuilds the idea of a restaurant with ever increasing oddness. For instance on the walls:

“hang candid photos of your distant relatives
committing petty and archaic crimes”

And the piece is full of other oddities, each distorted from the norm with intelligence and wit, creating a tableaux-like poem of vivid interweaving ideas. The cleverness with which these are put together means there are a lot of unexpected laughs here, while the overwhelming impression the poem leaves is one of exciting unsettlement, like stepping into a parallel worlds where things are just recognisable and all the stranger for it. The final image is one where the alien nature of the scene is created by the diners themselves:

“Sensitive microphones have been fixed
under some of the tables and the sounds
are relayed instantly to speakers set at a volume
just high enough to be heard. Today the first hints
of feedback are creeping into the layered chatter.”

The title poem ‘The Escape Artists’ takes a slightly different tact, using a fantastical idea (planetary geo-exploration) and making a sideshow-spectacle of the wait for the intrepid astronaut-explorers to come out of their dive. At first, the language describing the planet and the descent is verdantly spiky as you “watch them sink into the end-boil”, while language like “chemical churn and kinetic noise of total decay” gives a cool sense of danger. Then Parker leaves the reader hanging,  building that suspense into the very point of the poem. He takes the strange and makes it stranger by making it more recognisable, creating a kind of sci-fi vaudeville.

Shifts in perspective are a primary concern in this pamphlet: the couple who reinvent a mongrel-dog as a majestic proto-horse in ‘Do you remember’; the man lost in a circus who imagines his lost-ness as its star attraction in ‘Sideshow’; the person drawn to watch the “grey saturated flesh of the dead” in ‘Cinema of the Drowned’. In all of these the perspective makes us at home with the strange and surreal, but also almost alien to ourselves.

Possibly the best example of this is ‘House of Rivers’ where the man-made and natural are thrown into unlikely symbiosis, as the house itself becomes river-like:

“The walls are unscrolling from the roof
and going to ground in breaking waves.”

It’s an unsettling image to read and the poem only becomes more so, as Parker leads the reader into the house and describes an eerie metamorphosis:

“By morning your lungs have sunk
to stones; your neck flares as you breathe.”

And thus the viewpoint shifts from outsider to insider, the transformation giving the poem a feel of myth, like a more personal take on Ovid’s Metamorphosis.

Indeed, there’s something mythic about a lot of this pamphlet. The way poems like ‘The Lake and The Way’ weave action into a magic spell that allows you entry into an unknown world, be it a one-way ticket to a mysterious island or immersion into an indescribable moment of sound and strangeness (a hair’s breadth from the familiarity of ‘your lover’s breath’).

‘The Lake’ describes (in language both lush and rough) an island “too distant/ to be seen from the shore although the lake/ is small and could be shouted over”, twisting physics and crafting a primal and remote feel to the poem. The trick is that Parker then draws you into the place’s mythos, offering inviting-but-frightening sentences that lead the reader to the island, but never back:

“And if you choose to make the walk
don’t stop. The surface creaks
and mutters at your back. Speed up,
keep the looming island in your sight.
The freeze will only hold you once.”

It’s tingling and exhilarating to read. I recommend you do that.

Similarly, ‘The Way’ also teases you along a journey, giving that same blend of remoteness and lone adventure, with an added dollop of heady discord as it tells the reader to “wait for the rising background static/ to mingle with the trumpet’s sombre melody”. I have to say I loved the idea of concocting a new and powerful sound out of music and static, out of structure and void. And Parker defines this sound only ever in the negative:

“That sound is not the shifting of the continents,
not the heaving of the gathered clouds
or stretching of the oak’s dark roots.
That sound is not your lover’s breath
but tonight it’s near enough.”

The poem feels like emotion illuminated by black-light and it is gorgeous.

Or there’s the way ‘Storm Line’ imagines a direct connection to a tempest, marrying the humdrum nature of the ‘beige handset’ with the primal power of storm whose “lightning will sear the sky”. Or ‘Remembrances’ which describes a sweetly domestic mess with tender intricacy, but the urgency with which the narrator searches for the ‘remembrances’ left for him by his partner gives them a touch of the mythic too, as if they’re a nymph-like being he’s unsure will return (did I mention this poem is super-sweet? It is.).

As a whole this is a phenomenal, disturbing, but still very accessible collection. The poems sit very well together, tied by common themes and feelings, but still containing a lot of variety in tone and subject. If your tastes in poetry run to the provoking, the funny, or the speculative, then I recommend you grab a copy from Tall Lighthouse.

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