Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
Richard James Allen has always been a generous poet, never miserly with his words and wisdom, so it is fitting that The Short Story of You and Iis dedicated, quite simply, “for you.” Most of the poems are written in the first or second person. An abiding sense of inclusivity is achieved and so the poetry is a delight to read in a time that seems so divisive: an era of insta-hate and antisocial media, refugees banished to remote islands, and walls erected. An antidote is offered in Allen’s work – although the reader should be warned that this draught may really be a sleeping potion.
The epilogue to the collection reads: “My poems are sleeping in these pages, / waiting for you to rouse them,” and, indeed, a number of these poems take sleep, and its manifold possibilities, as their theme. For example, “Delicate Awakening” (10), an exercise in brevity, almost aphoristic, tells us that to rouse the speaker from slumber is a delicate process, “like / raising an ancient shipwreck / slowly and in one piece / up from the seabed.” Even when he is awake, the speaker cautions, all his “separate pieces / yearn to fold back into the sea.” Here, the realm of dreams is pure escapism.
By contrast, in the next poem, “Schlafwagen und Wunderkammer” (11-14) (which, we are told, is German for “sleeping car” and “cabinet of curiosities”) dreams are a powerful force for unification. In dreams, there is no tyranny of geography: we can be in three places separated by thousands of kilometres in the one moment, and often there is the urgent drive to be somewhere: for example, I’m in my old apartment in Japan but I’m running late for work in Brisbane and things keep distracting me from reaching my destination. In Allen’s case, “you are on the night train to Vienna / and you have already arrived in Berlin / you are about to walk home in Sydney / and you must dash back out to see / the play that is now more popular than Hamlet/ in London” (11). Here, using the second person and the imperative adds comical urgency and to the familiar situation. The allusion to Hamletpulls its weight, as the reader will be reminded of the Prince of Denmark’s lines: “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams” (2.2.273-275). A dreamer is“the king of infinite space” in that they can be anywhere and everywhere at once in a dream, but, as we cannot control the events in our dreams, they may turn into nightmares.
The next two stanzas play upon the sleeping person’s disorientated confusion over whether they are cold because they are in “a high sleeper bed” on a train, are under the covers, or not under the covers, or “wrapped in an old overcoat” (11). Next, “you are in the long tail of a tall tale / a cat coiled up in itself asleep” (12). The “fantastic space” (14) and “dream of timelessness” (14) evoked are playful, surreal, and amusing, but there may also a serious side to the exuberant imagery and word-play that fill this poem. In dreams, there are no geographical boundaries, so why do we establish them in waking life? This could be a political comment in this age of increased movement and displacement of peoples.
In addition, the poet raises the notion of the atemporal – the “dream of timelessness” – which is explored in another poem in this fine collection, “e-Passport to a Land Which Has Disappeared” (50-51). In this poem, the beloved is lost far, far away – so far away as to be unreachable, as they are not in another land as such, but rather lost in the past. Although “for all these years / you might have been / just a few keystrokes away,” you are for the speaker “on the other side / of an untraversable ocean,” and “galaxies” away, and “at the far end / of an unreadable epic,” and “somewhere hidden / in the last letters / of an indecipherable alphabet” (50). The poem recognises the finality of decisions made in the past and the inability to erase it or reclaim it. And yet, the speaker returns to the image of the cabinet of curiosities: “You have existed for me / as murmurs of the living proof of miracles / and I have become a doctor of strange marvels / chasing after whispers of wonders, / dissecting long-misplaced curiosities” (51). And so, technology makes it possible to revisit – relive? rehash? regret? – the past so that “yesterday becomes today,” and “tomorrow is filled with the possibilities of the new song” (51). Here, if only briefly, technology offers hope and possibility: insta-love and sociable media.
There is so much to explore in this rich and richly-rewarding collection. Each poem is packed with meaning: literary allusions that the reader will long to explore further; exquisite and original imagery so very far from the clichéd; concepts, questions, and assertions to ponder at one’s leisure. The title is apt: this really is The Short Story of You and Iin that the poems are conversational, welcoming, even embracing. Anything challenging about the poetry is intriguing rather than confrontational, making this collection inherently readable. This is comfort poetry: so very palatable and made with skill and love. Allen’s work is both readerly and writerly. Here, there is no “us and them” – only “you and I.”