The short story of you and I by Richard James Allen -Reviewed

Reviewed ByJames Fountain

James Fountain has pamphlets published - Glaciation (Poetry International, 2010) and The Last Stop (original plus, 2018, Runner-Up at Ilkley Literature Festival Pamphlet Competition 2018). Has had individual poems published in The Journal, The Recusant and Dream Catcher. Now based in Leeds as a teacher and freelance journalist.

The Short story of you and I

(Crawley: The University of Western Australia Publishing, 2019)

As its title suggests, this volume of poetry centres around a persona’s reactions to separation from a significant other. As could also be deduced from the title, its poems are obsessive and narcissistic, following the theme of loss and the brevity of love. ‘The Resurrection and the Life’ is one such example:

[…] perhaps words are as good a tool as any
in the truth and revelation business
imagining winches to haul me
out of the imaginary hole in my imaginary head

The persona is imploring himself to forget, but cannot, and as the volume progresses, he is drawn deeper and deeper into obsession.

High modernists Ezra Pound and James Joyce are referenced, and, ironically, the poet mimics some of their experimentation with form and punctuation, but not their use of metaphor. Word-play is present in Allen’s work, but it is dejected and world-weary, in a tone never associated with the great modernists, who would explore highs and lows of mood with psychological fascination. Not so, in ‘Spending a Pound in the Metro for Joyce’:

blah blah blah and then
went down with the ship
to see if anything useful at all
might pop back up 
like cork from a bottle

New to Allen’s work, I was immediately struck by his misanthropic dystopia. Beneath another, laboured title, ‘Metaphysical Meteorology and the Causes of Suffering’, a pit is dug deeper than the middle-aged Coleridge could have managed upon perceiving the non-existence of Unitarianism. The reader will decide if this is palatable or against poetic ideals. It feels over-indulgent, and since he is also referenced several pages before, one wonders what Mr T S Eliot would make of it:

The cause of your suffering is that you think
you exist. But this is an error. You don’t exist.
At all. After all. After all that. Well, you do 
sort of exist, but only in the way that a storm 
exists because certain weather patterns
have come together. And when the weather patterns 
have dissipated, so will you. Leaving behind 
blue sky. And, of course, a few sneaky clouds
      getting ready to confuse someone else
into thinking they are somebody. 

Such preaching has its place, but it crushes the ability for Allen’s poetry to take flight and is left to writhe upon the ground. We want to pick him up, but his lack of Coleridgeian charm deters us, leaving him in a New-Age malaise. 

The persona in this, Allen’s ninth solo collection, is in a permanent state of grieving, self-pitying, backward-looking stasis. The reader is presented with a ‘Winter’s Gift’:

To her Alaska-pale locks
I send my snow.

Pound himself would have been incapable of such abject dejection and bitterness. The past haunts this collection, in gothic undertones. In ‘Quantum Esplanade’, another title which hints, with perhaps intentional irony, of futurism and sci-fi, the persona dreaming of his lost love and himself: ‘rolling inexorably in toward each other/across the four-poster bed of space-time.’ There is an apocalyptic beauty in these lines, but, at this point, the end of the first third of the book, his bitterness starts to jar.

Occasionally, the persona (or is the whole collection biographical?) seems on the brink of a revelation which never really comes to pass, as in ‘Actually, Love’. It is argued love:

is the only thing that does not last.
Love travels beyond lifetimes
It doesn’t just go on for eternity.

It is eternity.

So bold are Allen’s assertions that we are almost inclined to believe him. But they feel somehow forced, uncertain. The result is that the reader is uncertain, also. 

And yet, in some cases, this attitude becomes an enabler for powerful poetry, ‘The Wedding Dress’ one such example. The persona is now grieving his lost love through objects, his dead lovers’: ‘t-shirts for that lost cause,/photos from the pre-digital age of the people we once loved’. These observations are allowed to crystallise:

These objects are like the wedding dress –
golden calves raised to the banality of our happiness,
               sentinels standing over the graves of our inner landscapes. 

The starkness of grief is devastating, and it is through this insistent, desperate persona and an increased articulacy that the second half of this collection begins to take flight.

‘Why we sit’ ruminates upon meditation. ‘why do/we sit’ the persona ponders – ‘we sit/to sit’ the answer, meditation a necessary trial that must be faced: ‘So that the horror/stops with us//is not passed on.’ The persona concludes:

we sit
and think we are sitting

but we are sliding
backwards into birth

This is the strongest poem in the collection, with virtuoso experiments with form, the persona reaching a crushing conclusion, which satisfyingly evades the bounds of self-pity:

we sit to stand in the soul

the horological miasma
convulsing for air

as it evaporates
from our fingertips

Death has caused existence to be meaningless, and those who wish to read a treatise on existential dystopia will not be disappointed. 

The final day before the persona’s void begins, with the death of his beloved, is hammered out in the coda, ‘Code Calls for Angels’:

This was a day that, by the time it finally arrived, had been lived 
a thousand times before.
                   you called off the search to be happy.

For Allen, happiness is not with the living. And it shows.

James Fountain