A kind of sense making: Daragh Byrne launches ‘Text Messages from the Universe’ by Richard James Allen

Photograph by Karen Pearlman

Text Messages from the Universe by Richard James Allen, Flying Island Books 2022, was launched by Daragh Byrne at the Shop Gallery, Glebe on 4 February 2023

I’d like to start by offering my congratulations to everyone here who is launching a book this evening. And a massive tip of the hat to Five Islands and Kit Kelen for incredible efforts you continue to make to give a home to fresh and exciting Australian literature of all kinds.

 I’m delighted to be given the opportunity to launch Richard James Allen’s latest book Text Messages from the Universe. I’ve known Richard for a few years through the Sydney poetry scene, of which he is a tireless cheerleader. Richard has been kind enough to read twice as a guest at my night, The Sydney Poetry Lounge — in digital and real-life formats. Each time he brought huge energy not just to the performance itself, but to drumming up interest and finding people to bring along for the ride. It’s the same energy he brings to everything he does in the creative sphere — and for that I applaud and commend you, Richard.

When Richard and I first discussed the idea of me launching his book, we talked a lot about the overlap in our creative approaches. Specifically, we’re both writers whose work is framed and informed by a longstanding interest in spiritual practice, specifically Buddhist-grounded meditation and various strands of yoga.

Practitioners of meditation are like poets in a few ways. The meditator spends long periods of time studying the contents of their attention, becoming familiar with the patterns of sensation, feeling, and thought that make up the experience of being human. Through this study, the practitioner builds an anatomy of experience, and learns something of the world they inhabit — a kind of sense making.

This is all familiar territory for the poet, who is equally obsessed with studying human experience. The difference being that the poet does so in order to attempt to capture something of their experience using the flawed apparatus of language (it should be noted that most meditators will tell you how hard it is to be accurate when trying to describe aspects of their practice). The poet also holds out some hope that, in trying to describe reality, they might come to understand it a little better — another kind of sense making.

I set the scene like this because Richard’s new book is deeply rooted in spiritual tradition — specifically the teachings on reincarnation found in the Bardo Thodol, commonly known in the west as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. This text purports to be a guide to the state of being that is said to exist between death and rebirth – a state in which the soul is untethered and has a certain amount of liberty compared with more regular types of existence. It is both a description of such a state and a guide for its navigation. It is typically read to the dying in the time before they pass, and for forty nine days after they die.

 Another of the functions of poetry is retelling, which is a kind of translation across time, in the way translation is a retelling across language. This strand of poetry takes myth, story and wisdom and tells them again in terms the contemporary audience can relate to. Text Messages from the Universe sets out to retell the wisdom of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. It’s laid out in two parts, like the original text. Part 1 opens with a birth that is also a death. The text invites you in through direct address — the “you” being spoken to is clearly an invitation for “you”, the reader to take on the mantle of the protagonist — although the entire book is, in a way, an invitation to consider the nature of that “you”. The “you” at the start is immersed in a shadowy environment of faces, voices, blood, and vertigo. It’s not clear what state, exactly, the protagonist finds themselves in. And yet there’s a clarity that emerges towards the end of this opening that reminds us

Life is the most powerful state in the universe, though
most beings that pass through it never have any idea
of, let alone realise, its potential.

 Part 2 continues the direct address of the reader. It becomes clear that “you” are dead. In the long sequence of fragments that follows, you are invited into a liminal space of waking and sleeping, vision, death and rebirth. This is the space of the Bardo — the state between lives where one’s consciousness is not connected to a physical body. Richard invites us into the mystery of this space with images of backstreets,

 Another function of poetry is to consider questions of existence. Text Messages from the Universe does not seek answers (as per Rilke’s advice) but lays out questions for you to consider. Questions of identity, questions of what it might be like to be dead. In reading this book you’ll encounter questions like:

  • What are you doing here, an unfinished canvas, asleep amidst the artworks?
  • Where do you go when you are lost inside your mind?
  • Where do you go when you sleep?
  • What universe did you wake up in this morning?
  • What if there is no grand conspiracy? What if there is no-one to blame?

 It’s a rollercoaster of compelling reading, infused with Richard’s cinematic instincts. Richard, I commend you for your achievement in this book, and would like to welcome you to the microphone to read for us.

 – Daragh Byrne


Daragh Byrne is a Sydney-based Irish poet. Recently his work has appeared in Poetry Wales, Southword, Crannóg, Abriged, Skylight 47 and One Hand Clapping. In 2022, he won 3rd prize in the Poetry London competition, was shortlisted for the Val Vallis award and was a finalist in the Fool for Poetry International Chapbook Competition. He runs the Sydney Poetry Lounge, a regular open-mic night.


Text Messages from the Universe is available from https://flyingislandspocketpoets.com.au/product/text-messages-from-the-universe-by-richard-james-allen/