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The Escape Artists
Ben Parker
Tall-Lighthouse, £4.00

Click here to buy

reviewed by Judi Sutherland

Come to the circus. And make your home in it.

Oxford-based poet Ben Parker ‘s new pamphlet, The Escape Artists, establishes a sense of urgency from the beginning with a reportage style, largely in the present tense. The themes are unsettling; disorientation, journeys to bizarre destinations, misunderstandings and menace. The world Parker creates is uncomfortable and stormy.

Parker’s narratives begin with normality and spiral out into the incredible

The opening poem, ‘Do you remember’ recounts the story of a couple who adopt what is blatantly a dog, but they insist is a horse. The poem is a treatise on wishful thinking, a commentary on a relationship which they want to be one thing but turns out to be another; no amount of wishing can turn that dog into a horse.

As the pamphlet title would suggest, some of the poems are circus-inspired. ‘Sideshow’ introduces the theme; the narrator describes being at the circus after hours, the ground littered with ‘the bones of candyfloss’ and ‘licked sticks’ of ice-lollies. The narrator is trapped there:

Gather round! Watch as he checks a map
He doesn’t have, see him turn on the spot
In the same exact place night after night,

…eventually admitting himself to be ‘The Amazing Lost Man’. The theme of life as a performance before an audience is developed in the title poem, a prose poem, in which the circus has become ‘a cracked and shifting terminal planet’ where ‘two black body-suits drill their way through to the core’ performing a nightmarish surgery in which a planet dies and is reborn:

This is the silence the Escape Artists surf, the held-breath multi-hour gap between vanishing and resurgence. This is the birth-gap, the forever-wait until eternity becomes mortality.

Water performs a central role in several poems, perhaps inspired by recent rain and floods; poems which explore the theme of climate change and other, more psychological forces. ‘House of Rivers’ hints at a metamorphosis from human to fish, as ‘By morning your lungs have shrunk / to stones; your neck flares as you breathe’. In ‘The Lake’, the water is frozen but may not hold your weight. In ‘Church Flatts Farm’, Parker invokes the place in Britain that has been calculated to be farthest from the sea, nevertheless the man who lives there finds the sea is alarmingly close: ‘All night the waves are in his room’ and he wakes to see that ‘salt-blur is glazing the window’.

Some of the more terrestrial poems deal with roads, maps and driving. A few are about interiors. ‘DIY’ is an account of what I’ve recently discovered is called the ‘Droste effect’, the use of mirrors to create an infinite multiplicity of an image, in this case, a lighted lamp. There’s also a tender little love poem, ‘Remembrances’ which catalogues a partner’s possessions in the narrator’s house, most touchingly ‘on the floor those intimate blacks and reds / like crumpled flowers, lying where they fell.’

Parker also tells us fairy tales and urban myths. ‘From the Histories I’ recounts the story of a fabulous city, of which ‘we heard only of wonders: / that wine was drained directly from fruit still / hung on the branch, the rivers ran / with fat and docile fish’ but there is also a sinister element, involving an emperor whose ‘true likeness had its / eyes painted black and the frame /abused in diverse strange manners’. My own favourite is the last poem in the pamphlet, ‘From the Histories II’ which tells the tale of a Shogun who is so frightened of assassins that he surrounds his palace with an intricate web of bells on strings. Here, Parker explores the uneasy position afforded by power and celebrity, and its effect on the Shogun and his family.

Parker’s narratives begin with normality and spiral out into the incredible. A tour de force within this pamphlet is ‘The Restaurant’ which offers a series of vignettes of a restaurant after radical makeovers for jaded palettes:

….When you arrive the cooks
are wearing masks depicting your friends’ faces
and mimic their mannerisms with absurd exaggeration.

On the face of it, Ben Parker’s pamphlet says little about emotions, relationships, or the human condition. It’s a series of poems about places and journeys, disorder, and natural forces. But in its peculiar landscapes and dreamlike narratives, it speaks of our need to make sense of a surreal world, and to find our home in it.