September 2017

Back to Issue 2

Fixing the Broken Nightingale

By Richard James Allen

Flying Island Books, 2013.
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit.

Richard James Allen has returned to the form of artistic expression that launched his manifold career almost forty years ago: poetry. The result is an accomplished meditation on love, life, and artistry.

We are welcomed into his world in the Prologue poem. Writer and reader embrace and dance: if the poem is reaching you, Allen tells the reader, then “I have you in my arms / and you have me in yours and for this eternal moment / we are dancing together” (15). Here, Allen acknowledges the mutual meaning-making of poet and reader. The poet leads the dance and we follow his steps, trying to keep time and keep up but, nevertheless, we dance, too.

A poet’s imagery will mean many things to many readers. Allen describes this myriad of meaning when he observes that poetry is “an energy in search of manifestation, an impulse in search of form, a process of becoming which opens up vistas of an unbounded spectrum of potential outcomes” (blurb). The great poem is always “becoming:” meaning both “never complete” until the reader completes it and “beguilingly attractive” to the reader who delights in the meaning-making dance with the poet.

Indeed, these poems are beguilingly attractive. The conversational tone, frank admissions, and comic observations create empathy. Allen’s poetry is so very human: the comedy is closer to tragedy than urbane witticism; the lyricism is personal, even idiosyncratic, rather than confessional. The poems feel kindly, warm, funny, compassionate: as if your best friend wrote them. There are quite a few one-liners and aphorisms in this collection that seem like in-jokes to which the reader is an accomplice: “I can’t keep falling in love with you / every time you change your hairstyle” (40), the speaker tells us in “13 Acts of Unfulfilled Love.”

Seductive, witty, charming, and disarming: this is poetry that is confident enough to dispense with flowery language but not so seasoned as to appear jaded. “Carpe Diem” begins with a “pick-up line” that transmogrifies into a paean for (nearly) lost youth which “won’t endure” (23). The speaker adds: “And we won’t be stepping / into the soft, wet, swishy waters of this moment again in a hurry,” creating a lovely image worthy of a Shakespearean sonnet. And, in an utterly Shakespearean way, as if unable to resist the impulse, he pulls a swift volta: “Of course, I am sure I could have found a more eloquent way of / putting that. Let me see, I could still try… Unless / you want to dispense with words altogether?”

There is an innately human vulnerability laid bare in this work and a recurring theme is the transience of life, or what Allen calls “the passing of all things” in “Two verses found, by a workman whose name is not recorded, in the bottom drawer of an antique desk in an abandoned villa overlooking the sea” (46). Here, a man implores his mistress to “crowd our emotions / into old cinemas, watch them / flicker and dapple like lights / tossed from ancient projectors, / a little out of focus” (46).

Such sustained metaphor is Allen’s forte. In “A Poem For Other People As I Have No Doubts Or Regrets” (82), the speaker asks: “What wakes you in the middle of the night?” Dreams “seem to be constructed of jigsaw / pieces from different puzzles” and cold “draughts … seek out your vulnerabilities / like an ancient swordsman” (82). This rich imagery most readily finds a home in brevity. Spare, short lyrics are among his finest pieces, such as “This poem cost me 24 dollars in cab fare,” about chronic lateness, which concludes with this very fine image: “But something in me finds time, / like a broken string of pearls, / difficult to rethread” (26). The simile registers as both familiar and new in one breath.

Indeed, as most of Allen’s poems can be read in only a few breaths, they become mantra-like. There are few who can write a convincing four-line poem. One of Allen’s masterworks, “31 Years After the Divorce,” is worth quoting in full:

          And so the generations begin again
          And you find your place as a summer grandparent
          The wave of a smile finally breaking across your face
          As the laughter of children echoes up the evening beach (62)

The reader cannot help but be struck by the ripeness and rightness of his words.

By the end of the collection, Allen has returned to his theme of metapoetics. Poets, he says, are artists after all and so they deal with illusions, even delusions. Every poet “lived in this world / under house arrest” (99-100), he remarks in “Aubade,” and so “the only gold / they ever knew was the music // of their imaginations” (100). Poetry usually formed when, for a moment, poets “mistook the prison bars of their minds / for the harpstrings of the heart” (100).

Yet such a disheartening image is not left to stand unchallenged for long. Allen reassures the reader that “great poetry is immortal / it gets lodged / into the texture of our beings” (“Forgotten Nectar in the Sleeper’s Cave” 113). Poetry “becomes part of the fabric / of who we are / and is there when we need it” (113). This concept of “great” poetry is out of vogue in an era hallmarked by relativity but Allen’s assertion nevertheless rings true. So many who read poetry find it a comfort; memorised lines of poetry are the jetsam we shore up against our inevitable ruin. Allen’s work will find a place in the heart, mind, and memory of many readers: a remnant or revenant to be cherished, stored away, then brought out into the light once again many years later.