It’s difficult to pin down what exactly it is about a George Shaw that’s so disconcerting. At one level, there’s less going on than there ought to be. Where are the people, the traffic, the litter blowing on the breeze? Shaw often works in Humbrol enamel, and anyone who’s made Airfix kits as a child will associate a hue like Dark Admiralty Grey with the Royal Oak and Himmelblau with the Luftwaffe. To a degree, Shaw’s paintings are like Airfix models: they’re tangible but unreal. Where are the dents, the rust, the idiosyncrasies that differentiate the idea of an aircraft from an actual aircraft? At another level, there’s more going on than there should be. Standing in front of Shaw’s Ash Wednesday: 8.30 am, for example, I gradually realised that where the silhouettes of the railings and the hedge merge, the railings should be invisible, but Shaw’s brushwork renders them in sharp detail, black on black. Texture creates an unnerving second sight and ghosts appear before the eyes.
Ben Parker’s The Escape Artists explores the limits of our perception, opening with an untitled prose poem in which we are invited to make our readerly assumptions: ‘Do you remember that day we found the first horse? It was skittering the dust in a forgotten field adjacent to a farmhouse that must have stood forever if not longer. This was the horse from which all other horses were bred; the horse of cave-paintings and untranslatable mythology’. All’s well so far, except, addressed in the second person, the reader does not remember this day. The power of Parker’s rhetoric and narrative requires our collusion and, suckers for a good story as we are, we are prepared to go along with it, especially for the ur-horse. However, Parker’s narrative denies our pleasure: ‘Undomesticated, rough-haired, and small, it looked like a mongrel dog. We took it to the backyard of our rented ground-floor flat. Our friends came over to see it. That’s a dog, they told us’. As readers, our side of the deal has been betrayed. Who the hell is this narrator, giving us horses and then taking them away? The poem’s second person narrative has us wondering whether we collude in this madness / deception, or is it being imposed upon us? This poem sets the tone for the whole collection: a ‘we’ has been implied but, as helpless readers, we have no way to engage with our silent partner. We are in company, yet absolutely alone. Parker’s universe initially appears to obey natural laws but, on closer inspection, it occupies a cold, lonely, other dimension.
In DIY, Parker presents a stifling world: ‘On the day she left he hung the final mirror, / filling the space where the front door was / and facing inwards. Not a surface remained / that didn’t affirm the infinite regression / of itself. He walked from room to room / and knew, if nothing else, that he was there. / Only the real exists in such profusion’. Robert Browning’s Love in a Life opens with an obsessive ‘Room after room, / I hunt the house through / We inhabit together.’ Here, at least Browning’s philosophy of imperfection presents our attempts to connect with one another and his repetition of ‘room’ suggests the perseverance of a human first person narrator. Parker’s third person narrative is cold and distanced and the parenthetical ‘if nothing else’ renders the walk from room to room pointless. At least Browning has us on a search for others. Parker suggests that the best we can do is to search for ourselves and, in a world of infinite regression, the true source will never be discovered. Parker structures his poem in two septets and the line of reflection is, tellingly, occupied by an empty space.
Parker’s engagement with Browning resurfaces in Remembrances: ‘A silver ring by the kitchen sink, your dress / embracing my jacket on the rail, / and on the floor those intimate blacks and reds / like crumpled flowers, lying where they fell. // By these tokens, and others, you let me know / forgetful as you are, you will return. / No sooner has the door clicked to / than I begin my search from room to room’. This home, unlike DIY’s echo chamber, is humanised with the intimate details of a relationship. However, why have ring, dress and underwear been left like fallen, crumpled flowers? Flowers may wilt or rot but ‘crumpled’ implies the deliberate destruction of something fragile and beautiful. There is a lack of reciprocation here too, as the dress does all of the embracing itself while the jacket just hangs. Why does the absent partner need to communicate through tokens? Why not just use words? Finally, we’re told that we let the speaker know that we’ll return yet, two lines later, the hunt begins, suggesting a breakdown in communication. A disturbing sense of mystery hangs over the collection, notably in One Place, where a whole sequence of potential criminal and unfaithful activity is shared with the narrator, while the ‘one place’ may not be discussed with your wife.
This is a demanding, disturbing, cold collection of poetry. Ben Parker’s deft use of narrative perspective creates a set of relationships which appear to be mysterious, even to their participants. His poems tend to move from one claustrophobic interior to another and, as the characters wait, pace, and importune every alcove, Parker’s excellent collection presents modern life as a place in which we do not even know ourselves, let alone anyone else. Escape is an impossibility.