Tuesday, May 22, 2007



A Strange Arrangement: New and Selected Poems by C.J. Allen
(Leafe Press, Nottingham, 2007)

C.J. Allen was born in 1958 in Leeds and lives and works in Nottingham. I’m a transplanted Chicago Jew who’s lived most of his life in Southern California. So I have a few questions:

What’s the difference between color and colour?

Does Takla Makan really signify something like “you’ll get in but you’ll never get out”? Or is the joke (if it is a joke) clear to locals but lost on me?

What does a quatrain signify if you’re writing in Nottingham?

What does rhyme?

How does anyone read anyone? I think this is an ethical question, but …

I’m sure I don’t have any answers.

The earliest work in A Strange Arrangement are from Allen’s The Art of Being Late For Work (1994). The most recent are dated 2006. From the first, Allen’s concerns are love, memory, history and poetry. Technically, these poems are what Ron Silliman would probably label School of Quietude: they posit a reasonably consistent “I”, they are not particularly dialogical, and they are relatively traditional in form.

But: let’s look at that “I”. Allen, in “Sailing Around the World”, calls it “that prince among pronouns, / the simple downstroke” and, lest anyone think he thinks there’s anything else simple about the “I”, the poem continues “Squeezed behind it, the labyrinth of identity.”

And let’s think about whether poems need to be dialogical. Does more dialogical poetry automatically invoke a higher ethics than less dialogical poetry written in relatively “closed” forms? Is less dialogical poetry something that necessarily does some sort of subjugating of the Otherness of the Other?

I can follow the argument. Once again, I’m sure I don’t have any answers. But I do have an opinion: I find myself in emotional agreement with those, e.g. most prominently Levinas and Irigaray, who emphasize that our history is one long subjugating of the Otherness of the Other, and that for us to have any chance to survive, that subjugating has got to stop. But I don’t find myself in emotional agreement with the notion that some poetic procedures automatically further our chances for survival. Neither Lucan nor Virgil could be described as post-avant, though both recognized the nasty side of subjugating behaviors very early on. Whereas several thousand years later Pound, who would have to be described as post-avant in the sense of having created works that only succeed when “completed by a reader” still didn’t get it (that may be too harsh, but he certainly made a botch of his understanding). So, my opinion is that while there is a spectrum of poetic stances/practices, there’s nothing intrinsically ethical about any particular stance or practice.

“Wood Asks” is a good poem to look at in this context. In some ways it is -- or appears to be -- among the most “subjugating”, the most “violent” in the book.

A “response to the photograph ‘Early Morning, January, Commonhill Wood No. 4, The Chilterns, 2004’ by Robert Davies”, “Wood Asks” begins

Do you remember being in this forest
when air was the colour of tracing paper

and trees were brushed on a wash of mist
like x-rayed bones, like a diagram

of the lung?

One could argue that Allen’s use of “you” does appear to implicate the reader in a non-dialogical situation, which subjugates the reader, forces her/him into Commonhill Wood early one January morning without that reader’s consent … until one reaches the last couplet, which reads

Do you remember being in this forest
and what it was you were doing there?

At which point this reader at least realizes that the “you” probably refers to the photographer, with whom Allen (or less believably, the wood) wants to engage in … a dialogue!

It should be added that SoQ vs. post-avant is a really reductive way to look at poetry and that my reduction of the difference between them to dialogical vs. non-dialogical is a further reduction yet. In his The Man Without Content, Giorgio Agamben seems (I emphasize seems; I haven’t finished the book yet) to suggest that the ethics of art doesn’t necessarily involve a dialogical approach, or even a “subject of the aesthetic experience” at all. It may not even involve an ethics (that’s right: an ethical art may not involve an ethics). Art involves an artist. And it does involve an encounter. But ...

At one point early in his argument Agamben invokes Rimbaud and writes

Thus the “embarkation for the island of Cythera” of modern art was to lead the artist … to a competition with the Most Uncanny, with the divine terror that had driven Plato to banish the poets from his city. Only if understood as the final moment of this ongoing process, through which art purifies itself of the spectator to find itself faces by an absolute threat, does Nietzsche’s invocation in the preface to the Gay Science acquire all its enigmatic meaning: “Ah, if you could really understand why we of all people need art …,” but “another kind of art … an art for artists, for artists only!”

If some want to argue that Agamben’s suggestion is more apposite to modern art and that the suggestion that a post-avant vs. SoQ “situation” more befits the postmodern, well, I will only say that T.J. Clark notes somewhere in his Farewell to an Idea that what is called the postmodern is really the triumphant fully-modern-at-last, that the period of “modern” art was the period of the modern’s coming-to be …

All I mean to get at by this whole discussion is that the jury’s still out on how to understand, how to stand in relation to, art. How could it be otherwise while we’re still in the middle of art’s -- and our own -- story?

So, whether these poems are “SoQ” or whether they’re “post-avant”, whether or not those labels really mean anything, just read, just read, and don’t worry … Allen will treat you decently.

And as far as form goes, as far as I’m concerned, Allen’s in control of his. And he’s in control consciously. He writes in “Needs Must”:

… My work for today?
How to be a Difficult Poet without Boring You.

I intend to go right to the edge of the map
but not fall off …

And fall off he doesn’t; he’s in full control of his material. Note: some poets like to fall off the map, some don’t; it’s no big deal. Since I’m the reviewer I get to pronounce: the only “real” rule is the “no bullshit” rule. Allen adheres to it.

Whether his focus is the present or the past, in many of these poems Allen shares himself with the reader (and no, I won’t write “shares a persona”, because if there is a persona, if feels very close to the bone). If we want to invoke an ethics: How can an I be with an other if an I doesn’t give its self away (even if the “I” is “a bourgeois artefact”? )

Here’s a poem in which he invokes memory. It’s memory he can’t really have, at least not as presented (can he?):

‘So What’
(the Miles Davis group, 1959)

A kind of falling away;
a phrase as clear as a photographic negative
held to the light then replaced on the relative
obscurity of the tabletop. A stray

beat trapped on a dimpled snare-skin
with a fly-swat snap.
Miles is on top
floating notes on the thinnest of thin

air. Who cares that one of the tape machines
is running a semitone slow? Not me.
I’m still in the milky haze

of the crib, soaking up my father’s besotted gaze
when Coltrane’s
solo starts to set everything free.

I think this is interesting because it conflates two consciousnesses: his baby consciousness and his current consciousness. Obviously, when he was in the crib he wasn’t aware that he was listening to Coltrane, etc. etc. But as an adult he can look back and see that in some senses Trane’s work in the late 50s was indeed a giant step (forgive me …) towards setting “everything” (well, at least some things) free, which his work a few years later certainly well, hey, I was a suburban teenager and even I had some of those Impulse! albums … So, though Allen didn’t know it was happening when it was happening it was happening … and now he knows it, and now he can say it was happening … and this makes the first stanza come clear, as the release of a hidden understanding. Which probably helps him -- and the reader -- understand a bit the course his -- and our -- later 20th century life.

Allen must have had pretty terrific parents, by the way, if they were saturating their baby in Miles and Trane.

“Bicycles Round a Tree in West Yorkshire” in another poem in which he invokes memory; this time it’s a conscious memory. In this poem, three boys from three different villages meet. The first six tercets describe the boy’s bikes, but this is no nostalgia-trip: “We’re talking different kinds of class-distinction here.” These boys seem to have been born with an awareness of “social hierarchy” and that it’s inescapable. So there’s a little irony in the poem’s conclusion. After they’ve ridden to the top of the hill where they must part, and each ride off to their separate classes and homes:

… what farewells we have
[blow] back and away over our innocent shoulders.

This is a very aware poetry.

I’ve read enough English poetry to be able to say with (some) certainty that Allen’s poetry is quite English. I can’t quite tell you exactly what that means, though. I remind myself of a man I once worked with, who, upon picking up an old book and hefting it a few times, said, “South German monastic binding, about 1520.” I asked him how he knew. All he could say, “When you’ve handled as many of these things as I have … well … you just know.” I wish I could be more definitive. In part, it’s an attachment to the local, to place. There are poems here with names such as “A Hill in Lincolnshire”, “The Galloway Field at Ashington Colliery”, and those I’ve already mentioned, “Bicycles Round a Tree in West Yorkshire” and “Wood Asks”, a poem that concerns itself with a photo of Commonhill Wood.

It’s not that poets from other places don’t concern themselves with their places, sometimes quite specifically and in depth. But it’s the sense that here we find almost every place invested with the significance and weight of a people’s history. That seems particularly English to me.

This poem, while it’s “after Martial” seems particularly English in a different way:

after Martial

Happiness? A steady income
from a steady job; an agreeable hearth;
no correspondence with solicitors;
not too much work in town; a chilled
mind in a well-filled body; old saws
and cherished friends; a healthy appetite;
good, plain food; quiet evenings;
a loyal partner with a sense of adventure;
sufficient sleep but not too much;
acceptance of whatever’s yours;
side-stepping sarcasm and power games;
no fear of the end and no desire for it.

One obvious tip off is “solicitors”, of course; perhaps “agreeable hearth” is another. But it’s not just the details. It’s not just the details. Perhaps it’s the movement of ideas … (ideas but not in things?). Perhaps it’s the tone: low key, conversational …,

I like this book. I enjoy these poems. I like Allen’s POV. I wouldn’t mind meeting him. Perhaps what I like most is that Allen takes his work, his craft, seriously. He takes it seriously enough to know that what he’s doing, what all poets are doing (regardless of whether they’re “post-avant” or “SoQ”) is indefinable. In a sense, though Allen intends to go right to the edge of the map but not fall off … there is no map. One last poem, which I quote in full (and which reminds me, probably not by accident, of Bunting’s “What the Chairman Told Tom”), obliquely makes this point:

Advice from Parnassus

Literature is a fine career for a young person.
It’s so straightforward. You just write
down your deepest feelings. In fact
they don’t even have to be deep, any feelings
will do. The media can’t get enough.
Everyone knows this.
If you want to you can describe mountains
or sex scenes, what people say, the way
they stare into each other’s eyes
as if desperately trying to decode secret messages.

There’s so much scope. You slide your coin
in the slot, take a swing at the horizon
and see what comes up. It’s a breeze.
Don’t waste your time on cybernetics,
the greasy corporate pole. That sort of thing
is strictly for numps and loobies. Drop by
any time, and remember, when you enter a room
carry yourself magnificently, especially your head,
which you should think of as a vase of lilacs,
preferably painted by Chardin.

Finally, it should be noted that A Strange Arrangement is the first full-length offering from Leafe Press, which has concentrated on chapbooks in the past. This book has good production values. And a great cover photograph, by one Jean Schweitzer. Not only will I keep my eyes open for new work from C.J. Allen, I’ll be looking for Schweitzer’s work as well.


John Bloomberg-Rissman’s most recent publication is OTAGES; a new chapbook from Bamboo Books, WORLD ZERO, is in press; and later this year, with any luck, NO SOUNDS OF MY OWN MAKING, a 200 pp. hay(na)ku, which in fact includes very few sounds of his own making, will be published by Leafe Press. Recently, he has begun to incorporate photos into his work, which certainly wasn't expected.


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