Inventive interplay: Mark Seton reviews ‘The short story of you and I’ by Richard James Allen

The short story of you and I by Richard James Allen UWAP 2019

I always get the sense after reading his poetry that Richard James Allen must thrive on human connection. In this latest anthology, a poem could be short as the line of a single sentence (excluding the title for it) or long and potentially unwieldy, filling 17 pages with concepts and riffs far more complex, yet entreating the listener/reader to persist with the seemingly one-sided conversation. I last reviewed Allen’s Fixing the Broken Nightingale (2014) and, upon embarking the reading of this new collection, I was reminded repeatedly about what I enjoy and value in his writing – an ever-deepening gift and capacity to bring together words, phrases, pauses, gaps, alignments, mal-alignments and punctuations that trigger our senses, our memories, our consciences and our consciousness with things we know (which we had forgotten) and things we didn’t know that could be known. 

I also feel that Allen has become even bolder in his exploration and declaration of how he perceives and interprets the simple and the complex things of life – and death – and everything in between. He is also bold in his choice of words, some of which I was certainly compelled to resort to the dictionary. The very sound of the word, and its rhythmic placement provide some clues to meaning – but one senses there’s more yet to be tasted in the intentions of the poet.

The craftpersonship [sic] is evident in particular recurring modes of poetic expression. I found many stylistic similarities in regard to the use of continuous ‘breath’ and a ‘stream of consciousness’ sensibility in poems such as ‘Force Majure’ – an exploration of the apparent overriding of reason over feeling in the process of a breaking relationship – and ‘how life turned out, or Details of the Now’ – in which the speaker analyses and reviews the questionable value of a particular life led by an un-identified person.

By contrast, many of poems in this anthology are highly playful in their sparse, sometimes even terse, outpouring on the page. ‘Under the Sun’, ‘Closing Time for Melancholy’, ‘Winter’s Gift’, ‘Haiku for Futureless Souls’ and ‘Espresso’ are some of the more noteworthy single-sentence works by which Allen both entertains and provokes the reader. The sparseness of these single verses highlights the simple yet profound power of words to trigger images, sounds, tastes and the memories or longings they invoke.

Another poetic style which I’ve always enjoyed across Allen’s last three anthologies is his inventive interplay between the shapes of letters, the shapes of punctuation marks, and the layout across one or more pages for particular poems. ‘*Perspicacious and Precarious*’ offers a delightful journey of reflection, weaving between forward and backward slashes, followed by a torrent of en-dashes as the poem concludes. ‘Quantum Esplanade’ plays with centred formatting for a few brief paragraphs before suddenly two lines of text are tilted towards each other, describing the sense of letters tumbling down and then up again, to conclude with a final two lines, centre formatted again. Most intriguing is his ‘The Wedding Dress’ in which he uses variations of left-justified, centred and right-justified formatting for consecutive lines implying multiple voices. What remains tantalisingly mysterious is whether the voices belong to one or multiple stakeholders invested in attempting to resolve “[w]hy am I so angry at this wedding dress?’

One form that Allen often engages is the use of other literary works as a springboard for his own meditations and mediations. I particular enjoyed ‘13 lines for tape-recorded voice’ which, for me, immediately conjured a melancholic recollection of the play Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett in which Beckett uses the technology of the tape recorder to expose the anomalies of human perception and memory. Allen also offers the reader ‘Lessons from The Divine Comedy’ (riffing off Dante Aligheri’s Divine Comedy, ‘Actually, love’ (a playful twist on the feature film Love, Actually), ‘Longtemps’ (After Proust) [italics in original], ‘The Singing Whirlpool in the Guest Room’ (After Kenneth Slessor & W.B. Yeats) [italics in original] and a 17 page-long ‘The Captain of the Men of Death’, attributed to John Bunyan’s naming of consumption as “the captain of all these men of death” within his own book The Life and Death of Mr Badman (1680).

Above all, I continue to admire Allen’s courage in writing for and about what concerns and engages him as a visceral human being. He honours, equally, the sensual and the intellectual as they overlap and co-mingle with each other, such as in ‘The Braille of Sex’ and ‘In the 24-hour glow’. Many of his poems tackle what may be considered the big philosophical and religious questions of existence and meaning, drawing on his own long-term commitment to and experiences with yoga as a physical-spiritual practice. But he also reveals a delightful, sometimes cheeky sense of humour which is a refreshing antidote should the reader feel the need for rest and reprieve. 

I hope this brief overview and personal, experiential account of my reading of this new, freshly inspiring and engaging anthology of poetry will whet your appetite, literally – because I’m sure Allen would desire that you feast on the banquet of literary ‘tapas’ he has conjured. 

 – Mark Seton

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Dr Mark Seton is an Honorary Research Associate (Department of Theatre and Performance Studies) at The University of Sydney, Australia. His research interests include the psychological wellbeing of performing artists, and ethical teaching and research practices in Higher Education Creative and Performing Arts. He is a  member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Applied Arts and Health.

The short story of you and I is available from https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/the-short-story-of-you-and-i

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