Body Language by Elizabeth Allen. Vagabond Press 2012
I have been carrying Elizabeth Allen’s first major collection, Body Language, around with me for a number of months. After you have been reviewing for a while you expect to be able to make a decision of a book on a first reading – you can usually make a call on what the direction the review will go in. This was not the case with Body Language. That is not to say I disliked the collection on a first read – far from it. It is that the collection asked a number of questions, opened up a number of possibilities that needed to be explored before I could set pen to paper (or fingers to keys).
One of my first reactions was that I felt there was a ‘confessional’ tone to the collection. This was probably driven by Allen’s use of the first person, the ‘I’, in many poems – and at times it is a very personal I:
I am weaving my life
though all these other lives,
It is an ‘I’ that made me recall Plath and Sexton and sent me to my bookshelf to reread them in the context of Body Language. And so I carried Body Language with me for another week as I dipped into it Ariel and The Awful Rowing Toward God.
Allen is no Plath or Sexton (which is probably a good thing for her poetry). While there is a confessional edge to this collection it is, in the end, understated and assists in her analysis of her identity as a poet and her analysis of her relationship with those around her. This analysis is a detailed one and one which she hints at by her choice of a David Malouf quote at the beginning of the collection:
The place you come from is always the most exotic place
you’ll ever encounter because it is the only place where
you recognise how many secrets and mysteries there are in
Allen has perhaps given us a key here – the personal, confessional nature of much of the poetry in Body Language is, in fact, outward looking. Her analysis then is not as deeply personal as it might first appear. At its best her poetry reaches beyond the personal to the social, to the lives that surround her:
You are reminded again of how many people there are,
how strange a collision of factors determines what we are,
how small this corner of consciousness you keep defending
with each breath.
This poem opens the collection and raises many of the issues that are explored throughout the book. At Winton is written, for the most part, in the second person
Here your body learns the seasons.
She brings you a home-grown pear, slightly bruised.
While there is nothing earth breaking here in the use of the second person in this poem, there is a hint of a little more ambiguity than one expect. Allen’s ‘you’’ is an external observation of the ‘I’, in the context of the collection the ‘you’ is the poet, standing outside of herself, observing, analysising. Suddenly, however, listening to the sound the car engine makes labouring up a hill there is a brief shift:
Underneath the engine runs a clichéd tune:
I miss you I miss you I miss you
The next line moves back to the second person but the intrusion of the ‘I’ in this line centres the poem. This sense of loss – for a relationship, a lover or perhaps a death – provides the driver for the poem, and makes the use of the second person so successful.
This combination of seemingly simple descriptions of everyday events with this undercurrent of loss runs through much of the poems in Body Language. In ‘Venice’, for example, it is death that cuts through the everyday:
lectures about coyotes in Australia
and how one jumped his brother’s fence
the latest kind of mac
We soon sense the undercurrent draining any humour from the opening lines:
the cold drips
like acid rain
Until we learn the reason:
his death has arrived in an email
sent over a week ago
Once again we are not sure whose death – it is enough that there has been a death, a loss felt more keenly due to distance and time.
While ‘Venice’ approaches death slowly, only announcing its presence in the last third of the poem, in other poems it is far more central. ‘Forgetful hands’ opens with a funeral:
Eyes watch your coffin
through delicate patterns
of fire and ash,
But the public sense of loss retreats as the mourners disperse from the funeral. While neighbours might bring food:
After weeks it is just the three of us
with strange food to eat.
still set a place for you at the table.
The strength of this poem is perhaps its understatement. It is full of simple descriptions of everyday things – a funeral, scuffed shoes, a family meal, worn stairs – but Allen builds an intensity of feeling which sustains the poem.
While not all the poems in Body Language deal with death or loss, I did feel that these poems did underpin the success of the collection.There are other poems in this collection which stand out -‘Bent Street, interior’ for example details two people moving around a house. ‘She’ inhabits the first stanza, ‘he’ inhabits the second. There is no connection between them apart form the fact they inhabit the same space – so perhaps there is, even here, a sense of a future loss.
When thinking about Allen’s poetry I keep returning to the term ‘understated’. At her best, however, there is an intensity to her understatement which creeps up on the reader – a loss is hinted at, but the everyday continues for a little longer, or there is an edge to a description that makes you wonder what lies below the surface. This is probably why I carried Body Language around with me for so long – to savour that undertow and wonder at the possibilities.
– Mark Roberts
Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review and P76 Magazine.
Body language is available from http://vagabondpress.net/collections/poetry/products/elizabeth-allen-body-language