from the editor's desk

Review of ‘Text Messages from the Universe’ by Richard James Allen

Allen, Richard James. Text Messages from the Universe. Flying Island Books, 2023. RRP: $10, 113pp, ISBN: 9780645550313.

Gemma White

Richard James Allen’s Text Messages from the Universe ‘was inspired by The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a Buddhist text which guides souls on their 49-day transmigration through the “Bardo”, or intermediate state, between dying and rebirth’. It does indeed feel like the protagonist of this book is the receiver of messages slid between states of consciousness—a feeling which recalls the blurred boundaries of subjectivity found in Allen’s previous work More Lies (Interactive Publications, 2021).

The cover of the book itself, designed by Dylan Jones and featuring a painting by Michelle Hiscock, seems to suggest even the idea that we are dead, and on some giant spiritual conveyer belt in the sky, waiting to be placed where we next need to be as part of a grand cosmic design. The junk in the foreground of Hiscock’s painting, and the blackened buildings on fire outlining a lone figure, are apocalyptic in their symbolism. The choice of second person as the point of view through which the text is received is a well-chosen device, for it eradicates identifiable qualities in the reader, such as gender or race, and works towards making the message more universally relevant.

There are simply-phrased, profound spiritual truths in this text, such as, ‘One day it will occur to you that you don’t have to be lost or found. You can just be’ (91). Add to this spiritual awareness a deep poetic sensibility, and you have lines like, ‘The sunset is so beautiful it looks like sadness smiling’, or ‘Sometimes, quietly, rubbing morning into your eyes, or running alongside a tide-deserted beach, you disappear with the stars’ (89–90). In the personification of the sunset, the Sun becomes human, and in the human disappearing into the stars, the human is enveloped by nature into something much larger than oneself.

Through highlighting strict binary definitions and paranoid patriarchal understandings, Text Messages from the Universe seems to question the tight control we aim to keep over our lives, asking:

What if there is no grand conspiracy? […] No secret society trying to take over the banking system and the government and the armed forces […] What if there are no angels and no demons, no devil and no god (70)

The universe, through Allen, seems to be calling bullshit on the grand overarching narratives that so frighten and threaten us. But, by the same token, Allen does not suggest that all is chaos out there either: a kind of personal sat-nav emerges: ‘your text messages from the universe [which] seem to be happy to take any form and any language they please’—some of them being only ‘whispers inside your head’ (93). Allen focuses in on this idea: that there is some kind of loving universal presence which can talk to us personally—as the book talks to its subject in second person—through life and beyond.

There is a New Age bent to this book, as it talks about scientific theory as ‘a very convenient story […] the comforting, consoling story of cause and effect’ (65). That old New Age ethos around the notion of thoughts constructing reality is touched upon too: ‘Everything is flowing and that slipstream is made up of the manifestations of hundreds and thousands of tiny thoughts, which you clothe with substance and call things’ (71). Whether or not you agree with this line of thinking is up to you, but it would be short-sighted to dismiss Allen’s work on the basis of these theosophical inclusions alone. There are many thought-provoking, beautiful and poetic lines in this text that are worth experiencing in and of themselves.

There are also some dynamic photographs throughout the text. They appear to show dancers dressed in strips of material, wrapped around their bodies in various ways. In ‘message (35)’, it is stated ‘If these are bedclothes, they feel twisted, like a python slowly devouring you from the feet up’ (73). I wonder if this image was front of mind when the dancers’ costumes were created. Is this the symbolic gesture of a primal fear, visiting us from the unconscious state of sleep?  

Text Messages from the Universe is an instructional guide and philosophical journey in the shape of a book that can be easily enjoyed for its poetic flourishes, its spiritual wisdoms and its questioning of the dominant norms that we live by, often in a state of unconsciousness. Allen posits that there is some greater force out there that we are all part of, and that one day ‘You wake up flying. For the last time. This is your sky burial, your sky birth. Your rebirth as sky’ (95).

Gemma White is a poet living in Melbourne/Naarm, Australia. She has had two poetry collections published by Interactive Press; Furniture is Disappearing and Oh My Rapture. She shares her knowledge of poetry at www.gemmawhite.com.au, where she offers a free 5-day email poetry course.

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