Fixing the Broken Nightingale by Richard James Allen. Flying Island Books, published by ASM & Cerberus Press, 2014
Fixing the Broken Nightingale is Allen’s tenth book and is beautiful inside and outside. This pocket book has on its front cover a photograph from an outstanding oil painting by Michelle Hiscock, titled “Evening, Woolloomooloo Bay”. What awaits the reader inside the covers of this book are small gems of poetry.
Allen talks to the readers, he engages them, he captures them with the stories he overtly tells and with those in which one is left guessing their meaning.
His poems go from the mundane to the sacred, from the domestic to the profound, from the nostalgic and sentimental to the carnal and erotic.
His first poem “Birthplace” flags what the reader could expect from the collection, a style which shares with us the mundane, for example: who has never written in a book? A phone or bus number, an address, or like Allen says
a recipe for a fruit cake, the departure and arrival times of the North Coast Mail and
the names of fourteen people who used to be alive.
Then the poet surprises us with the obscure, the abstract, the subsconscious, the personal. Allen completes this poem saying:
& across the back flap
the names of fourteen people
who used to be alive
frozen in a line
like sitting ducks in a shooting gallery.
The reader wonders: who are these dead people? Are they relatives? Friends? Symbols?
Another example of these dichotomies is clear in “how many umbrellas or love letters”. The poem commences wondering how many umbrellas he has lost in his lifetime, which is something that most of us have experienced. Then the poet turns this casual event into a conceit. He says:
……………………………………………..I imagine each of these umbrellas, all dead
and forgotten now of course, as giant origami love letters, which people I don’t know
opened to the plunging sky with delight and relief.
Allen completes the poem with the following heartfelt observation:
………………………………………………………………………..looking back, these
random forgetfulness may have been the major contribution of my life, popping up in
the lives of others like the tips of islands emerging in a world where the sea levels are
actually dropping to save beautiful but bedraggled shipwrecked wayfarers in a lost
play by a man still named Bill.
A lot of Allen’s poems are not only playful and intelligent but also reflective. In “wonderment as a question” he says:
Don’t try to lock down the mysteries
…………or you may find yourself locked up inside one of them.
……………………….Step freely in, like stepping into a waterfall.
Then you will find yourself neither outside nor inside,
underneath nor above, just
Many of his poems muse on life and living, he does this in subtle ways, and he even adds humour. For example, in “Natural Disasters”, Allen commences the poem in a shrewd and serious manner describing himself as a storm, he says:
Here it comes
– oh my God –
like a hurricane
out of nowhere,
the roots of my trees,
jagged-edging my sky,
blowing my topsoil to who knows where.
But he finishes the poem in a humorous tone:
I am one of those places where natural disasters are likely to occur.
If I were to find me on a tourist map,
I would stay on the highway.
But this is my earth, this is my forest, this is my sky.
I am indigenous to this insanity.
The poet takes us from Surry Hills to New York; he shares with us his joy and his angst. He stokes our imagination and indulges us with his words, like in “Making an Appearance”:
You’ve been here all this time?
How did you get in?
I came in the back way.
But there is no back way.
There’s always a back way.
Where were you?
I was in my dungeon.
But there is no dungeon.
There’s always a dungeon.
Who is Allen talking about? Did he allow himself to fall in love? Who is in the dungeon? Is the poet talking about a personality trait? Is he a prisoner or is he holding someone his prisoner? “Making an Appearance” is indeed a poem that is intriguing and invites the reader to ponder.
Some of his pages seep sadness, others passion, others tell us of a man sure of himself who sometimes, not very often, lets his guard down like in the poem “The Time Machine in the Old House”. He says in the first six stanzas:
It’s a little frightening how the years have passed
And here we are in this same old bed.
We don’t seem to have aged at all
But the world has shifted around us.
I am a little afraid to get out
For fear of what I might find.
Allen’s poetry speaks the language of love and pain and we learn lessons hidden in his words. A very poignant poem is “what I did on my nervous breakdown”:
if I had been a lesser man
I might have become an alcoholic
a drug addict, a bum
I might have trawled the streets –
the memories of dead fish
smelling in my hold
if I had been a lesser man
I might have really
fucked up my life
but all I did was fuck up yours.
This poet is not scared of experimenting with structure, shape or form. He plays with words, as, for example, in the “testing how much” section of “Armistice”. He also has, in most of his poems, an incredible rhythm, a rhythm which contains movement. This made me think that “Allen the dancer” has embedded movement in some of his poems. His words dance on the page doing arabesques, pirouettes and chaines turns.
Deconstruction is another of Allen’s tools, he ‘deconstructs relationships’, emotions, experiences. He enters the very essence of life and analyses it, as he says in “The Optics of Relationships, or With this Poem I Thee Wed”:
Who I was in the past,
Who I will be in the future –
What distractions these are
From who I am now.
The finality of life also confronts the reader. Is the poet courting death? Imagining death? Waiting for it? Death is a neighbour, he proclaims in this poem titled “The Neighbour”:
Death has started visiting me of late,
lingering in the corners, and sometimes
butting obtrusively into conversations,
like an angry neighbour you had forgotten about
whose moods never change.
Yet there is life in his poetry, because living is suffering, living is loving, living is experiencing the everyday, the passions, the lovers, poetry … and as Allen affirms in “Flickering Enlightenment”:
The question is not how to die but how to live
Allen’s Fixing the Broken Nightingale is a treasure chest of poetry.
– Beatriz Copello
Dr Beatriz Copello’s is a Psychologist, poet and fiction writer, her poetry book Women Souls and Shadows, Bemac Publishing, 1992 received excellent reviews and was highly commended in the Wild and Wooley, 1993 Awards. Her novel Forbidden Steps Under the Wisteria (1999) was published by Abbott Bentley in Sydney, and A Call to the Stars (1999) by Crown Publisher. Her book of poetry Meditations At the Edge of a Dream, (2001) was published by Interactive Publications -Glasshouse Books and Under the Gums’ Long Shade, Bemac Publication, (2009).
Fixing the Broken Nightingale is available from http://www.fixingthebrokennightingale.com/