Allen, Richard James. The short story of you and I. Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2019. RRP $22.99, 112pp, ISBN: 9781760800215.
Exploring the nature of existence sounds like something every poet should be doing. And perhaps they are, to varying extents. But Richard James Allen really takes the reader down the rabbit hole when he explores the nature of existence in The short Story of You and I. It is less a story of you and I and more a collection-length tutorial in how life works, how we contradict ourselves, and how we persist in wanting what we can’t have.
This book is a mirror to the soul, simultaneously Allen’s and the reader’s. There is a generosity in this collection, with the open dedication ‘for you’ (np). As if you are being invited on a journey into the subconscious of the writer, underscored with the early depiction of him being roused from sleep in ‘Delicate Awakening’, ‘like arising an ancient shipwreck’ (10).
In The Short Story of You and I the personal subconscious broadens out to become only one part of a greater collective unconscious, where images point towards different life decisions. If you’re someone who doesn’t like to contemplate things or be confronted by deep questions, then this book is probably not for you. But if you’re a thinker who delights in grasping toward meaning, however difficult, then you’re probably going to love The Short Story of You and I.
What makes this book really work is the way that Allen explores abstract questions, finding ways to make the impossible and theoretical tangible. He seems to acknowledge the complexity of his task as a poet in ‘Remembering Time’, where he states:
You cannot remember time.
Remembering time is like seeing wind
Or studying the movement of ghosts. (65)
How can he even attempt to describe such enormous and equally vague notions as life, death, and love? Yet he manages such a feat in poems such as ‘A Party in Small Moments’ where he writes:
Every moment the thought of the cup of tea,
the going to the kitchen, the boiling of the water,
the selection of the teacup, the interruption of the phone call,
the deciding on which teabag, the so on and so on and so on
until the teacup has been through the dishwasher
and is back on the shelf and that whole chain
of almost unconscious activity
has subsided to the perimeters of consciousness. (17)
In this poem the teacup becomes a metaphor for us readers going through life and ‘the thought of a cup of tea’ the intention of conception, the preparations of the kitchen and the water the birthing, ‘the interruption of the phone call’ a sign that things never go according to plan. Then the continuation of life; ‘deciding which teabag’ and the endless menial decisions of life thereafter; ‘the so and so on’ until we reach death. Or perhaps reincarnation, and we as the teacup have been through the ‘whole chain of almost unconscious activity’ we call life, ‘and is back on the shelf’ (17). There is definitely a circular feel to many of Allen’s poems, a nod to the repetition in daily life as well as a meta-repetition. References to reincarnation throughout the collection are implied as well as blatant, as in ‘The Rebirth of Doubt’ where he postulates that the need to tell the whole truth is ‘maybe… why reincarnation was invented’.
There is a confessional tone in many of Allen’s poems, and he openly addresses this topic, making the point that:
to confess is unusual
if by that you mean
to tell the truth,
the whole truth
and nothing but the truth (16)
Allen could be talking about his own work here, although his perspective in the poem ‘Rebirth of Doubt’ is almost certainly broader. Many poets attempt confessional poetry with various results. But to tell the truth and anchor it with exacting everyday detail such as with the tea cup in ‘A Party in Small Moments’ or with the ‘truth-telling daisy chain’ of ‘Rebirth of Doubt’, is a science of poetry that surely few poets have achieved at this level.
‘Rebirth of Doubt’ also seems to allude to the liminal space between a lie and a truth, between the fact and fiction employed by a poet. Yet somehow the collection itself seems to retain a perfection of truth-telling even as it fictionalises biography. Perhaps it is an emotional truth-telling that Allen seeks and that is so needed in poetry in order to cut through the overuse of clever tricks and devices.
This is not to say Allen doesn’t know his way around a well-chosen device, but that he uses them with restraint, creating all the more emphatic effect at such times. He is sometimes playful with his stanza structure, as in ‘Schlafwagen und Wunderkammer’, using it to show the different states of consciousness that the subject strays between.
There is the lightning bolt of originality about his work—he looks at a thing in an unusual way, pleasantly surprising the reader. In ‘Under the Sun’ he knowingly nods to cliché, writing:
Perhaps there is nothing
new under the sun,
but you are looking
under the moon. (15)
May we all look under the moon to find poetry collections so deep, intriguing, surprising and honest as Richard James Allen’s The Short Story of You and I. If you too seek ‘to discover the thousand hidden answers / to your penultimate question, / sit down by the waters of my poetry’ (56) invites Allen, and initiate your journey into The Short Story of You and I.
Gemma White is a poet living in Melbourne, Australia. Her first collection of poetry, Furniture is Disappearing, was published in 2014 by Interactive Publications. She shares her knowledge of poetry at www.gemmawhite.com.au, where she offers a free 5-day email poetry course. Gemma is currently working on a follow-up manuscript.