THE AMAZING LOST MAN BY BEN PARKER
£9.99/ 70 pages
Reviewed by: Raef Boylan
When it comes to poetry, Ben Parker is amazing. And he’s far from lost. Consequently, he had been receiving a lot of praise and respect on the local poetry circuit, and the HCE team were thrilled to host him as a Fire & Dust headliner – alongside Andrew Button – back in December 2016. It was at this event that I acquired my copy of Parker’s debut poetry collection The Amazing Lost Man, which follows on from his 2012 pamphlet The Escape Artists.
There is much to love about this book. While the memory of Parker’s Fire & Dust performance naturally invokes, for me, a special fondness, you don’t need to have experienced a live recital from the poet to appreciate his work; the writing is designed for the page and speaks confidently for itself there. This collection is effectively arranged into a pleasant, never dull, cruise through a balanced repertoire of recurrent themes: cohesive, yet unpredictable. Visits, discovery and escape feature heavily (and, consequently, an ever-present sense of the unfamiliar) – as do mysteries left behind, customs and secretive behaviours, the nuances of relationships, things beyond our control, and looking back post-change. Likewise, a range of subjects and poetic forms are tackled. The Amazing Lost Man is not a formulaic collection; in terms of how each poem impacts upon the reader, there are no repeats. Each poetic experience is unique.
Examining the front cover, the lurid blur of gold and red strikes me as almost violent, a bad-dream scene that belies the gentle thoughtfulness of the poems within. Yet its enticing vibrancy and intrigue are fitting. Territory is marked quickly by the first few poems: Ben’s speciality is a blend of original imagery, touches of realistic detail and compelling voices, enhanced (in many cases) by quirky humour. Both title and cover illustration are linked to the poem Sideshow, a compelling narrative that makes an early appearance and finishes on the titular phrase.
While there is plenty of variety in form, layout and style, the mastery guiding us through is steadfast. Here we have a poet who clearly takes his craft seriously, a principle mirrored in the documentarian tone of multiple poems in The Amazing Lost Man – but he is also not afraid to be playful. For all the sadness and loss we encounter, there is plenty of joyful consolation. Throughout the book, plenty of seemingly surreal elements could be real or completely invented – the convincing narrators keep us guessing. Much of this collection celebrates absurdity, veiling it with deadpan delivery from an objective distance –
“[…] A large topiary bush
in the shape of a topiary bush is
technically outside, but the kitchen
window is becoming increasingly
difficult to close. In the bathroom
there is little of either now, filled
instead with bonsai trees starting
to belie their name.” (p.9, ‘Things Are Growing Inside His House’)
I can attest to how the book offers something different on each reading: some of these comedic touches went over my head first time around. It is equally refreshing how frequently the poet offers us the freedom to choose whether to be swept along with a story, or to stop and examine the potential metaphors. We are kept on our toes by the surprising swirls of humour. During Parker’s Fire & Dust performance, I stifled my laughter at the hyperbole of ‘Poem Beginning with a Quote from Alan Garner’, in case it wasn’t designed to be funny and my twisted mind was being insensitive. Likewise, I find one of my favourites – ‘Do You Remember’ – amusing at face-value, but suspect that something a little dark and upsetting might lurk beneath the surface.
“[…] That’s a dog, they told us. We
resolved not to speak to them again. We brought our
horse fresh-cut grass every spring and oats throughout
the winter but it grew thin and restless. We asked your
uncle, the vet, to inspect it for us. He took you into a
corner and spoke in a gentle concerned tone, as though
he had forgotten you were an adult.” (p.44, ‘Do You Remember’)
Parker’s Insomnia Postcards, a sequence of fifteen ten-line prose poems interspersed in sections throughout the book, are an appealingly cohesive thread. The narrator of each contemplative ‘postcard’ focuses on recounting a visit to a different place, as if asked, mid-trip, ‘What is it like there?’ However, the poems reach out far beyond typical holiday anecdotes to describe their destinations, and instead fling striking details and fragments of surreal philosophising at the reader.
“[…] And the famous delicacy,
two fish kept together in a tank; when the larger
eats the smaller they are roasted immediately,
ungutted and whole. That was when he told me
that it does not pay to overexamine the simple things.” (p.18, ‘Carnival on the Main Street’)
These places are specific yet unspecified – sometimes I was unable to judge whether the locations were real or imagined – a strategy that allows the reader to engage on a more personal level, whilst also challenging us with intrigue. Imagine receiving these postcards through your letter-box from a mate on holiday – it would be half maddening and brilliant, to be told so little and yet so much at the same time. Overall, the postcard concept pays off greatly – it creates a consistency in form, and yet each poem is refreshingly different. They all launch boldly in media res and the narrator(s) communicate a sense of alienation –
to believe that ‘ocean’ is the default mode of this planet,
like a screensaver of almost infinite complex scattered
particles. More slogans are invented daily, often
contradictory. Yes, I have had some encounters I do not
understand. The chemist I was sent to was stocked
mainly with overpriced coloured liquids.” (p.20, ‘Dawn Over the Mountains’)
– yet also a warmth, seemingly charmed and alarmed in equal measure by the various samples of strangeness. About halfway through the book we again return to the Insomnia Postcards, and you’ll likely notice yourself involuntarily smiling in anticipation. Each fleeting detail is placed, with craftsman’s care, in a way that renders them simultaneously connected and disjointed. Much of the humour in The Amazing Lost Man is created this way.
“[…] I’ve heard that it takes more than
two decades to master the local dialect, by which time
most of the words are obsolete anyway. A magician
sits down to smoke. Dust is lifted by passing cars.” (p.41, ‘Outside the Palace’)
It is not only in the Insomnia Postcards that new realities are created; much of Parker’s poetry sidesteps naming the places to which he takes us, even when we are nudged into exploring them in depth. He discourages us from zooming in too close, cleverly hinting at story-worlds that extend beyond the specific settings, which induces us to instead concentrate on and relate to the inhabitants’ concerns and experiences. With a gift for blending universal narratives, mental processes and beautifully realised landscapes, he serves up memorable tales and snapshot scenes that opt to not end neatly, to leave us wondering.
The book closes on the poem ‘How She Remembers’, a haunting lesson in the evasive nature of memory. I like that it deals with the unconventional ways in which kids channel their compassion and secret wishes. Weirdness is sensorily evoked, by temperature in particular, and Ben yet again demonstrates a deft touch with illustrative examples to convince his readers. True to form, this is an unpredictable finish that evades categorisation.
Reflecting on the collection as a whole, I am awed by this poet’s ability to create a powerful range of characters and voices, from the soothing yet stirring Attenborough-esque observers to tongue-in-cheek story-tellers. Throughout, great delight is taken in the subtle effects of sound, where the nuances of phrasing and rhythm –
“[…] winter mornings
have a washed-clean effect
as though in preparation
for the sweat and dust of the year ahead” (p.45, The Meeting)
– are skilfully married to imaginative imagery, introducing us to worlds where “snow sits like a migraine over everything” (p.16, Lehnwort), “each fault-line breaks in sequence and the slow//unstitching gifts its song” (p.43, ‘Ornithology) and “clouds gathered in the east// like a clandestine senate discussing revolution” (p.55, Various Scenes).
It wouldn’t be much of a review if I just kept quoting lines that struck me as brilliant, so I’ll stop. But it’s tricky not to when the poetry is as high-quality as The Amazing Lost Man – Eyewear Press have once again boosted forward an undeniable talent. It is powerful art for the sake of being powerful art. If you want meaningful poetry, but a break from blatant political agendas, this may be the collection for you. If you want writing that is determined to keep its contemporary audience in touch with nature, this could be the collection for you. And if you’re in the mood to engage with both the funny and poignant sides of the human condition, this could be the collection for you.
Although erudite, Parker never forgets to be entertaining, and I would deem this work accessible, with plenty for readers to relate to: if you approach the poems with an open mind and willingness to savour Parker’s images and concepts, you’ll get a lot out of them. There’s no bullshit required when I say I look forward to reading more published work, and attending more live recitals, from Ben in the future. The Amazing Lost Man is a worthwhile read, and the surreal experiences offered within are a must-have addition to your bookshelf.
Ben Parker spent a year as Poet-in-Residence at The Museum of Royal Worcester, and in 2016 was Poet-in-Residence at Worcester’s Swan Theatre. The Escape Artists was published by Tall-Lighthouse in 2012 and shortlisted for the 2013 Michael Marks Award. He is poetry editor of Critical Survey. You can purchase your copy of The Amazing Lost Man from Eyewear Publishing here.