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Review: Arlo Parks’ poetry collection is full of subtle sonic delights

Arlo Parks
Arlo ParksClare Gillen

by Michael Kleber-Diggs

November 28, 2023

Arlo Parks, the British singer, songwriter, and poet, first rose to international prominence after the 2021 release of her debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams. That album begins with the title track, a 51-second ode to love and intimacy voiced by Parks, who recites it as a poem over lovely, melodic plucked strings and light synth chords. The chill vibes, the poetry, and the brilliant lines proceed from there, 12 short, sensational, critically acclaimed songs that won Parks the Mercury Prize for Album of the Year, two Grammy nominations, and legions of fans all over the globe.

Parks’ latest album, My Soft Machine, was released in May. It picks up right where Collapsed in Sunbeams left off — an opening poem as a song, followed by brilliant lyrics paired with Parks’ charming voice. My Soft Machine ramps up the musicianship and the production values, culminating in a worthy follow-up to her celebrated debut.

But there’s more. My Soft Machine is accompanied by a book — a poetry collection no less — that is an enchanting expression of sensibilities and sensations amplified by an insightful, Gen-Z narrator. It is titled The Magic Border: Poetry and Fragments from My Soft Machine (Deyst/Harper Collins). In a prefatory statement to the book, Parks describes the poetry collection as “...a tangled mass of everything that has made me angry or giddy or low or impossibly happy to be alive,” adding “mine is the language of extremes.”

For this reader, it both is and isn’t. I mean that as a compliment. The Magic Border charms with suddens shifts, like these from a poem called “Dream”:

the clearing shudders with field mice

my hair comes out in clumps

Sapporo beer and hypoallergenic lotion.

But it’s also grounded in images, moments, and feelings rooted in the real. As Parks describes scenes from her (thus far) well-spent youth, she covers a lot of diverse emotional terrain. But far from being a tangled mass, I found the collection to be a coherent chronicle of this age for her generation, of romantic love and friendship, of fragility as strength. 

Take this moment from “Lanterns (Outside Parabé),” where fixation yields to images ushering in coping strategies, which then bring new perspective to an inner conflict. (I can practically hear Park realizing that maybe what’s bothering her is not just missing her friend.) And then she proceeds from there:

…I was missing somebody and

once I started, I didn’t know how to stop. My hold on

reality slanted. Orange wine, tarot and provolone.

Walking by myself is the only thing that calms me

down. The record is nowhere near finished and it’s

hurting me. I am what I make and sometimes I wish

things were different. We go to Ginger’s, I go home,

I call my girlfriend and try to come back to my body. 

Good literary art can be transcendent in its ability to allow readers to inhabit another person’s perspective or lived-experience. With The Magic Border, even a jaded Gen Xer would be drawn into Parks’ experiences and reactions. (Trust me on this, I consulted one as part of my research for this review.)

Releasing a poetry collection is not an easy thing to do. Parks acknowledges as much. Songwriting is a distinct practice, and, at the same time, songs, which often comprise a verse, a chorus, and bridge, are similar to poems that are written in form, sonnets, and sestinas and so on. So, if we start with the idea that lyrics and poetry are related arts practices, we are not far from the conclusion that brilliant lyricists (like Parks) tend to be gifted poets (like Parks). And sure, a paid professional poet might have a few small notes on places where Parks deviates from guidances that are often promoted in poetry craft classes — notes on the poetic line and stuff like that — but none of those ideas detract from the art, intelligence, and emotion embedded in this collection. In other words, Parks’ instincts serve her well throughout; her poems are musical, metrically complex, and full of subtle sonic delights.

A stack of Arlo Parks books
Arlo Parks' 'The Magic Border: Poetry and Fragments from My Soft Machine'

By the way, The Magic Border is a beautiful physical object. It’s hardcover and small, about 6-by-8 inches. It’s somewhere between baby blue and Carolina blue, and Parks herself is on the cover, staring off to the middle distance, her lovely face and intelligent eyes illuminated by spots of sunlight. Inside, in addition to poems and lyrics set in a charming sans serif font, there are photos of Parks, her friends, and images in nature, all captured by Daniyel Lowden, a photographer who has worked with Harry Styles and has earned recognition for his soft, candid, and intimate portraits. 

As I read The Magic Border, I listened to My Soft Machine. When the songs in the album came up in the book, I skipped to them or went back to them and read along. The book and the album helped me appreciate both with a greater depth than I might have managed otherwise. The poems helped me see the album in a new way and the artist behind them, too. 

Arlo Parks Unplugged Music & Poetry. With Laamar. 6 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 7, at Fine Line. 18+. Tickets