Close Reading: One Place

An occasional series looking in detail at how a poem achieves its effects. This time, Ben Parker‘s “One Place” from 2012’s The Escape Artists, quoted below by kind permission of the author.

One Place (Ben Parker)

Out here the elms echo with the eagle-shout
and sparrow-cry; leaves tune the wind;
the only path is the one your trespass cuts.

Your car is waiting at the forest’s edge
with autumn already falling on its roof.
You bag any bury your mud-clad shoes

before rejoining the nightly homeward grind,
just another commuter locked to a private frequency.
Delay can be explained by deadlines,

accidents or (at a push) affairs. Your wife
would sooner sanction a sexual betrayal
than bless your return here,

the one place still forbidden to you both.

I first met this poem when I bought Parker’s 2012 debut The Escape Artists on the strength of John Field’s review. The entire collection fizzles not just with an energy and freshness of vision, but with an enviable technical control of rhythm, tone and syntax. If the last of these sounds like something that belongs in an English lesson circa 1950 rather than a list of contemporary poetic wow-factors, then “One Place” should be more than enough to convince us otherwise.

But first let’s walk through the poem. The opening stanza is just a few words away from pastoral idyll, but those few words are the difference between bucolic harmony and suppressed menace. Instead of birdsong we get the sounds of aggressor (“shout”) and victim (“cry”), both in compound phrases reminiscent of Anglo Saxon battle poems; instead of rustling or dancing in the wind, the leaves “tune” it (with something oh-so-faintly sinister in that reversal of agency, compounded by the unnatural consecutive stresses of “leaves tune”); instead of our passing, it is our “trespass” that “cuts” a path (that last word setting up a chain of association with the later “bury” and “locked”).

Having introduced the unnamed “you”, the poem then jump-cuts to “your” car in a move reminiscent of a cinematic thriller. This is note-perfect stuff: the commonplace dead metaphor of a car “waiting” somehow regains some of its primary meaning here (causing us to question how a car can have the agency to wait rather than simply having been left); the present continuous “is waiting” conveys less action than the simple alternative “waits”, hinting at stasis and anticipation (ditto the participle “falling” in the next line); and that fabulous assonance-chord of “autumn already falling” boths slows and slightly dislocates us just as the metonym (or reverse synechdoche) of “autumn…falling” distances us from the prosaic reality of what’s being described. None of this hits us consciously; it’s just the way the magician works his misdirection.

When we cut back to “you”, we have skipped a scene and you are now removing the evidence. Evidence of what precisely we don’t know, and much of this poem’s power is in how it avoids telling us the plain facts. We recognize the cultural cues of burial in the woods, precautions against forensics, etc., but the poem isn’t a mystery to be “solved” or resolved into one particular narrative. Rather, the whole point is the build-up and aftermath (something the final line picks up). This might be a poem about a murder, but it might equally be applying the tropes of a murder-story to something altogether more “normal”.

The line “Delay can be explained by deadlines” is universal to a point that would be comical (not “The delay” or “Your delay”, but indefinite “Delay”) if it weren’t for the menace that came before and the escalation of “accidents” and “affairs” that comes after (not just “an accident” or “an affair”). And then the wonderful closing sentence, with its tension between “sanction” and “bless”, with the cryptic implicating of “your wife” in the state of being-forbidden; with that unexplained and unsettling “still”. It would be too easy to say that the poem enacts what it describes (since the “one place” is in fact not seen in the poem), but in reality the whole of it is delightfully slippery, applicable to many situations and none. What matters is the shape, the internal dynamic, the interplay of suggestion and diversion.

To come back to syntax, notice how the poem deploys the syntactic tricks of the thriller-writer: two simple clauses and a short relative clause in the first stanza as we approach the scene; more leisurely subordination for the jump-cut to the car (“with autumn…falling”); a simple clause again for the act of burying, followed by extended subordination (and a suppressed-pronoun relative clause) for the return to normal life; a compound sentence for the proverbial thoughts about delay; then a hypothetical comparative clause followed by another suppressed-pronoun relative clause as the poem veers away from describing or visiting the “one place” itself. Whenever we’re close to the “place” the poem speaks in tense simple clauses; when we cut away to the waiting car or the outside world, it shifts to looser subordination; and when we try to look at the place directly, the poem flings us back out with syntactic misdirection.

It doesn’t matter than we most likely don’t pick up on any of this consciously (in fact it’s more effective that we don’t). It’s the grammatical equivalent of background music – now speeding up your heart-rate with tense short sentences, now temporarily easing off to prolong the suspense. And it’s brilliantly done.

The Escape Artists, Ben Parker, tall-lighthouse, 2012

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