The short story of you and I by Richard James Allen UWAP 2019 was launched by Melinda Smith at Better Read Than Dead, Newtown NSW on 9 Feb 2019
I’ll be brief as this event is for Richard and for the book. Many many thanks to Richard for asking me to launch the book, to Karen Pearlman for her MCing and to Jenny Leong, Stacy Kopas, Luke Fischer and Tug Dumbly for their wonderful readings.
As I have said on the back cover, Richard James Allen’s The short story of you and I is a book-length meditation on time. The poems consider the many mysteries of memory, love, the body, dreams, illness, ghosts, and even occasionally physics. It is a book full of hauntings, ruins, and after-effects. The perspective is philosophical and curious, habitually meta-poetic, by turns panoramic and hyper-focused, and imbued with a quiet mysticism. Allen revels in the paradoxes he finds in examining both present and past lives, and in the work of grieving the gone. This is Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’ as a mandala.
This book has been characterised as ‘a fractured love story in 57 poems’. On one reading, the poems do cohere into an emotional narrative – of finding, loving, losing and mourning (a possible verse novel, if you will) – but what I enjoy about this book is that it is open to the reader to lose themselves in each single poem. If this is a mandala, it is one in which each grain of sand is fascinating in its own right.
Richard is a very interesting thinker who blends philosophy and a deeply engaged spirituality (for want of a less loaded term) in his poems. As such the poems use many of the techniques and gambits of philosophy (both western and eastern traditions). Paradox appears often and to arresting effect – as in the following poem :
Sometimes I think the only thing
holding my particles together
which is precisely
what is pulling them
And also in ‘This is not a love poem’ and, where the poet states “This is not a love poem, as I will write no more love poems, / but I can say, without equivocation, that // this is a poem brimming with the inconsolable, faltering compassion of love”.
These paradoxes are not mere word-games but constitute a reaching after a deeper, illuminating wisdom, which is something that will draw you back into this book again and again. And the wisdom of this passage, from ‘The Braille of Sex’ is undeniable: “what you can know / without words, / what you can see / with your eyes closed /and your body open.”
This is also a deeply compassionate book. One of my favourite moments is the short poem ‘It’s Saturday night in almost any city around the world and in’ which the poet passes in an instant from a Buddhist-style detachment from the claims of the physical world to a sensuous epicurean immersion in them, all thanks to the smell of jonquils. The wry self-observation and suspension of judgement make this poem like a gentle hand on the shoulder.
The short story of you and I is also an extended elegy, with many poems of grief, but it is a grief tempered with curiosity and resignation, often expressed in terms of understated beauty.
The beauty is evident in lines such as this, from ‘a machine to delete the now’ : “it is raining on the world/and the petals of a thousand lives/are falling”
Allen’s questing, philosophical angle on grief appears in the poem ‘In answer to your karma inquiry’:
as much as anybody is anyone
you were someone
as much as anyone is whole
you were perfect
…while the resignation can be seen in this (slightly condensed) passage from ‘A special emptiness’:
You died with the changing of the seasons
Now there is nothing but spring in the air
I see no dark clouds
Feel no rain …
I know that crooked smile of yours
Is waiting …
On the far side of winter
Even though your whereabouts
Can only be found outside of time and space
In the book of non-addresses.
The elegiac poems also spend time contemplating the ways the dead can still be present to us. The poem ‘Visitants’ will be especially resonant to anyone who remembers the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire. The following condensed excerpt will illuminate it as a companionable meditation on the meeting of the seen world and the unseen one:
They come to me in the night,
as real as people. Perhaps
they are thinking they are the ones
keeping me company, …
They are as awake to me
as any persons I have ever met,
even if they are somehow incomplete,
which may be how I appear to them.
… we sit sometimes for eternities,
sometimes for ragged
oddments of time…
I now understand
there is no difference.
Nothing is said. Just the resting
of one head against another,
a palm in a hand.
We huddle together,
perched in the dark imagining,
staring out across
the vast expanse
we have yet to fly,…
unable to divine …
what grace will soften
our eventual fall into a landing
we can call an arrival.
The short story of you and I is, additionally, a self-aware book which constantly questions what it is doing even as it does it. One notable meta-poem of this kind is 13 lines for tape-recorded voice, which also contemplates the mystery and impossibility of human connection:
13 lines for tape-recorded voice
Somebody pressed the button
& the batteries haven’t quite run down
So you can hear my voice
– Booming, squeaky, luscious, foreign –
When I wrote this I had not yet decided.
You are listening & will know already.
Unless you have wandered off
& I am speaking to nobody.
I will never know.
Whoever started this recording has not stopped it.
Perhaps somebody has found in its disembodied voice
Some comfort & company.
There is little else between us.
This book also manages to be very funny in parts as it deals with complex ideas, as in the ambitious ‘Schlafwagen und Wunderkammer’, a poem in which time and memory collapse in on themselves. One of my favourite funny / serious passages is where the narrator of the poem has to promise his bunk-mate on the night train he will set an alarm for her so she won’t miss the morning croissants:
you are sure you are reassuring her that you have
…………and it may be that you have
……………………..but you don’t remember in which country
……………………..…………..or time zone you would have have-have-have done so
……………………..…………..…………..though you like the idea
………..…………..…………..…………..…………..that this act of thoughtfulness may have occurred
…………..…………..…………..…………..…………..…………..and you being the enactor
…………..…………..…………..…………..…………..…………..…………..if not the instigator of it
you are thinking that you may have to be the alarm clock yourself
though your clock hands are wrapped inside your imaginary overcoat
and not a lot about the rest of you resembles
a device for the capture and distribution of time
In conclusion, please join me in welcoming this funny, self-aware, elegiac, compassionate, philosophical book into the world. Richard has said that this book “aims to rebuild the intimate personal relationship that people used to have with the heightened language of poetry.” I wholeheartedly agree with this mission statement. I promise you that however little about you might resemble a device for the capture and distribution of time, the time you spend with this book will be replete with quiet wonder and a heightened sense of all the things we feel deeply but cannot quite manage to say to each other. All that remains is for me to urge you to buy a copy and declare the short story of you and I officially launched.
Melinda Smith has published seven poetry collections, most recently Goodbye, Cruel (Pitt St Poetry, 2017) and the chapbook Listen, bitch (Recent Work Press, 2019). Her work has been widely anthologised and translated into multiple languages and she is a former poetry editor of The Canberra Times . She won the 2014 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award.
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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