Poetry Journal

Latest writing / 25 Nov, 2014

Review: Fixing the Broken Nightingale by Richard James Allen

Mark Seton

Richard James Allen.
Fixing the Broken Nightingale.
ISBN 9789996542589. Macao: Flying Island & Maxwell NSW: Cerberus.
RRP $10

It’s almost seven years since Allen’s last published collection of poetry and, though he does note in the Acknowledgements that a few of the included poems – some in earlier form – have appeared in other poetry publications or on radio broadcasts, I was delighted to hear his voice once more. This present collection explores five themes, framed by prologue and epilogue poems. The overarching title and framing for this collection immediately evokes creative tension and expectation, as did his last collection The Kamikaze Mind (Brandl & Schlesinger, 2006). It could be that Allen offers a passing homage to John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale that many regard as Keats’ significant literary ‘turn’ from the pursuit of pleasure to the acceptance of transience and mortality. Does Allen offer the reader a means of experiencing both pleasure and mortality in a single breath?

Certainly, the Prologue invites the reader into a relational pact in which the poet promises a never-ending intentionality towards contact that transcends mortality and transience. Yet, he concludes with a paradox that while the relationship remains eternal, the individual participants in that pact will not last forever. Having set the stage for such a mystery, Allen offers his first collection of poems under the theme entitled ‘Natural Disasters’ that, unlike what is implied, comprises several humorous encounters between the poet and life circumstances, or creativity, or both. The tone is playful and exploits our expectations of what we might first consider genuinely natural or disastrous. What I enjoy about Allen’s writing is the way he draws upon a wide range of both sensory and autobiographical experiences from his dance and filmmaking background, tempered by a kinaesthetic and visually imaginative approach to the craft of poetry. These qualities certainly add substance to his claim that his poetry ‘performs’– by evoking in the reader a sense of breath and rhythm, contemplation and movement – various aspects of the contemporary understanding of cross-platform story-telling.

I experienced a strong sense of the predominant maleness of the voices that Allen invokes in his second collection entitled ‘Unanswered Questions’. This collection, in an explicit and yet veiled way, explores various sexual encounters and relational insights and puzzlements emergent from intercourse – which, in past ages, did actually refer to conversation rather than a biological act. But through these poems we may experience a blurring and overlapping of these two activities, leaving us with an unresolved yet strangely satisfying sense of mystery. Just like sex.

The third collection marks a different tone altogether as it brings the reader into various encounters with mortality. The presence or absence of breath is crucial to several of these poems, especially a particularly moving piece called ‘KOKODA’ which uses the rhythm of breath itself to take us deep into a remembrance of the experience of those who died on the Kokoda Track during World War II. The theme title for this collection is ‘Occasional Truths’, which again invites us into imaginative interpretation of his intentions. Are these poetic accounts only truths that emerge now and then, or are they truths that mark particular, never-to-be-repeated moments that should be recorded and treasured?

‘Flickering Enlightenment’, the next themed section, contains poems that take us beyond the mortal to the potentially transcendent and eternal. ‘Grace’, the first of these, locates humanity as already gifted and spoken for – there is no need for striving and no reason to be afraid, even in the face of the mortality that has been positioned as inevitable in the preceding collection of poems. Other poems in this subsequent grouping invite the soul to let go of its resistance and opposition to mortality and enter into a deeper peace, a peace that could be even found in the simplicity of fishing.

Prior to the Epilogue, Allen invites us on a journey through his final theme, ‘A Scheme for Brightness’, which seems to be a re-visitation of his initial musings in the Prologue on the seemingly transitory value of poetry in this contemporary digital ‘cross-platform’ age. I get the sense that even here he asks himself and us, his readers, if there really is something valuable and unique about the human acts of writing and reading poetry. But by the last poem in this final collection, which visually and conceptually widens and narrows its focus from the particular to the universal, he persuades himself and us that there is still the need for poems to be created to transform existence itself through the evocation and articulation of word.

Finally, in the Epilogue, he assures us he will remain faithful to his poetic calling. By his very act of naming the power of words to enter deeply and sensually into our bodies while transcending our mortal, time-bound existence, we know that while this may be the last page, it won’t be his last poem. The ‘broken nightingale’ constantly hovers between pleasure and transience and perhaps, mysteriously, that’s why poetry still needs to be written – and read. Richard Allen’s petite, soft-cover volume Fixing the Broken Nightingale is full of rich, sometimes provocative, frequently evocative poetry and leaves one with a satisfying taste, while looking expectantly to the next course in the banquet of words to follow. I trust that his next collection will emerge soon.