Waterloo Press, 2012; pbk, £10
Ian Parks is primarily known as a love poet. The Exile’s House, however, signals a thematic departure. Although a hint of romance can be read into certain pieces, this collection is primarily about landscape and an exploration of our relationship with place. The Exile’s House considers roots and origins, investigating how perceptions of place are affected by imposed political boundaries, and demonstrating the importance setting has to character and memory.
Born in Yorkshire in 1959 to a mining family, Park witnessed first-hand the effects of the decline of the mining industry. This gives certain poems a fiercely raw energy. A sense of pride and community – of a group of people, connected through their reliance on land resources, empowering themselves to voice a collective political opinion – charges individual pieces with anger and passion. However, as Parks states in his Second World War poem “Grandfather“, like many soldiers, miners “wrote no poems about it, came back home/and kept a stubborn silence”. Parks’ poems lend voice to the silent individuals in such groups, whether on picket lines or down mine-shafts. His poems suggest how individuals felt, what the child observers perceived, or why the anonymous soldier on the front-line kept silent. In Parks’ poetry, we are reminded that the voices of mining families were as one, united through common cause and proximity.
Many of the poems in The Exile’s House take their names from the place they are set; rather than offer picture postcard beauty, they focus instead on the strength of character and the sometimes brutal history of a particular place. “The Angel of the North” explores how the immense, rusting metal angel looming over Newcastle reinforces the identity of the place. The sculpture might not be picturesque, but it is true to its place and purpose – as Park’s own poetry is. In “A Cabin in the Woods”, he admires the silence that haunts a cabin abandoned during a civil war. In “Port Meadow“, he describes his love for a place that is “unfettered and unfenced”, composed as it is of only “scrubland” and “fallen stones”. To find a place which is not defined through social memory is to find somewhere which can be loved for its beauty in and of itself.
The result is two-way; as a landscape is defined by its history, so people define themselves according to their attachment to land. In “Single Room”, a refugee’s new British room is filled with tokens of a place she “couldn’t leave behind”. Despite her move, she still “dreams in her own language”, picturing the place she has left. In “Mill Bank”, the female focus of the poem is described as “the spirit of the place:/encountered, not forgotten, always there”. The images of the woman and the place are dependent upon each other both in the poem and beyond.
The Exile’s House investigates the complex interrelation of place and character in organised, structured verses. However, although each poem contributes to this thematic investigation, the poems are equally strong when read as individual, isolated pieces. Parks is a master of different styles, from lyrical verse with intricate internal half-rhymes, through rhythmic pieces effective when read aloud, to poems which are contemplative in their minimalism. He is a talented poet, with a passionate voice and perceptive outlook. Readers will leave the collection feeling that they have not only heard a distinct voice, but that they have overheard the voices of many previously silent, yet important, characters.
Catriona Ward Sell