Review by Tony Messenger
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader
In 2016, UWA Publishing launched their new poetry list ‘in response to the reductions in poetry publishing nationally’, and in the three years since the launch they have released thirty-four titles. Established names such as Bruce Dawe, Alan Loney and John Kinsella have been joined by newer voices such as Quinn Eades, Susan Fealy and Shey Marque. As keen literary followers would know, in November 2019, after eighty-five years of operation, the University of Western Australia advised UWAP that they were to be disbanded, and despite a six-month reprieve, the press’s future remains uncertain. Add this to the savage government cuts to literary journals (Verity La, Overland and Island Magazine are just a few who have had all of their funding cut), the Australian literary landscape is slowly becoming devoid of alternative voices, alternate views, and challenging works.
Earlier this year, Richard James Allen’s tenth poetry collection, The short story of you and I, was published by UWAP and marks forty years since his first book, The way out at last & other poems, hit the shelves. Another ‘established name’ to add to their short-lived poetry venture.
Richard James Allen’s latest collection opens with a call-to-arms, an awakening, a demand to ‘be present’. We can be assured that the poet is—but, as he warns, ‘keep an eye on me, / as all my separate pieces / yearn to fold back into the sea’. Stay present, as you are about to enter a poetic short-story, ‘playing hide and seek in the winding corridors and hallways of time’ (‘Schlafwagen und Wunderkammer’).
The second-person ‘you’ is taken on a journey through cities such as Berlin, Vienna, Sydney and London, and the works of writers such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Conrad, Joyce, Dante and Proust. You are ‘pulling up an ancient shipwreck / slowly and in one piece’, dragging the ‘continuous previousness’ into the present, a la Proust’s search for lost time, sparked — not by a madeleine biscuit —but the tinkle of a spoon…
How can we have survived so many generations,
with so much happening in so many directions,
with so much being hidden and so much unsaid,
with so much being forgotten and so much deliberately destroyed,
and yet still come back to the tinkle of a spoon in a china bowl?
Every moment a birth, a death, a failure, a success,
a murder, a creation, a theft, an offering,
an irreparable loss and an inestimable gain,
a banality and a masterpiece,
a revelation and a disappointment —
every moment absolutely complete and the definition of void.
(‘A Party in Small Moments’)
The ‘log line’ in the press release for this collection reads, ’a fractured love story in 57 poems’ and in the hands of the sage poet the collection laments the grander moments of life and plays these bold notes alongside the more subtle melancholy, the collection becoming an appraisal of the ‘I’ as well as an appeal to the memory of the ‘you’. The short story of you and I, a love story…
is the only thing that does last,
beyond the karmic astral space junk
drifting like detritus
from lifetime to lifetime
until it is finally worn into nothingness.
Love travels beyond lifetimes.
It doesn’t just go on for eternity.
It is eternity.
Desire may be its currency,
and sex may be its paydirt,
but love is the purpose of time. (p 55 )
Juxtaposing the insignificance and anonymity of hipster cafés, where a ‘sketch of a moment dashed off on the back of a napkin by some student of life’ aligns with a ‘wall size narrative painting, executed in oils by a maestro’, you become lost in the hubbub and futility of daily existence compared to the grandeur of past art. Dickensian in places, with the poem ‘A Party in Small Moments’ highlighting ‘crowded bazaars’ populated by ‘swarms of merchants and whores’ and ‘beggars and pickpockets’, the blurred love letters between ‘You’ and ‘I’ soar and then plummet. Musings on melancholy sit comfortably alongside meditation practice and contemplation of Karma.
As passion and love overtake the rational and as anger dissipates, the very business of language and words on the page also slowly disintegrates, until you are left with a sparse ‘private / parallel universe’ (‘The Wedding Dress’). The punctuation adds to the structure and depth of the poetic voice, with poems like ‘* Perspicacious and Precarious *’ using symbols / \ | and ~ to enclose the lines, restricting the reader’s thought, and enveloping the relationship between the ‘You and ‘I’.
The laugh-out-loud humour of Richard James Allen’s earlier poems has now shifted to a bleak, dark, wry state as the story of the you and I’s love and interactions move from the metaphysical to the physical, from the passionate to the introspective and contemplative.
In Allen’s first book of poetry he explored —
in the silence
between the end of one line
& the beginning of the next
— and forty years later he is travelling through the silence between one person and the next. A philosophical exploration of relationships, through the eyes of a contemplative writer, whose examination of the minutiae is becoming finer with each publication.
Richard James Allen was kind enough to agree to an interview about his poetic practice, and his latest book. I hope you enjoy our interaction.
Is poetry ‘the truth and revelation business’?
That line appears ironically in the poem ‘The Resurrection and the Life’, but in lots of ways, yes, I think so. Truth not so much in a ‘confessional’ way, but in the sense of getting to something fundamental about our experience, and revelation in the sense that this might be surprising, invigorating, unsettling, not what one normally expects. But poetry can be so many things, I wouldn’t want to limit the definition for others.
Your book draws on Buddhist precepts, for example karma, meditation, re-incarnation, the causes of suffering. Is this deeper contemplation part of your poetic practice?
My poetry practice has seeped into my spiritual practice and my spiritual practice has seeped into my poetry practice. I have gone into this question in some depth in my doctoral thesis, Out Of The Labyrinth Of The Mind: Manifesting A Spiritual Art Beyond Dualism (UTS, 2004). It would be nice to find a way to publish this.
In the context of this interview, I could give a complicated or simple answer. The simple answer is that they are deeply entangled.
Time and ‘the present moment’ appear in a number of your works (for example in ‘The Air Dolphin Brigade,’ where you write: ‘You have finally reached the present moment, the moment of choice, which is heavily laden with the past and the future, in a constantly evolving relationship with the past and the future’). Has this been an ongoing obsession? Time?
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Time is a fixation perhaps more than an obsession. I am constantly aware of the way time frames our every move, opening and closing our windows of possibility. And, in this context, writing is a race against time.
I think I have always seen poetry as a kind of writing in the face of death, an attempt to capture and preserve the fleeting moments of life, love and beauty in the face of their inevitable ephemerality.
I remember reading the Dutch philosopher Samuel Ijsseling’s Rhetoric and Philosophy in Conflict: An Historical Survey, and being very struck by his articulation of this, using the example of Scheherazade staying alive by telling the tale of the One Thousand and One Nights.
Inspired by this, I wrote a 1001-line poem called ‘Scheherazade’, and that struggle to stave off death echoes thirty years later into the longest poem in The short story of you and I, ‘The Captain of the Men of Death’.
In addition, picking up on your previous question, practices of experiencing ‘the present moment’, attempting to transcend or see beyond the flux of time, are richly embedded in Buddhist and Yogic spiritual philosophies.
In ‘disposable’, a poem in your first collection, you write ‘there was no tomorrow / to replace today’, and in your latest book you write ‘you only understand time’s presence / by the savage silence left in its wake’. Over this forty-year period, how do you think you’ve matured as a poet?
I think that you have to keep working to improve but also to respect the work you do at different times in your life. At each period of time, you create things that are unique to that time, and couldn’t be replicated, which doesn’t mean that some central themes, ideas and preoccupations don’t recur, getting pulled apart and put back together in different ways.
Also from your first book, The Way Out At Last & Other Poems, in the poem ‘Hommage a Duchamp, etc’, you became ‘not just a modern / artist but a hungry modern artist’. Are you still hungry? Modern?
Again, that was said with irony. But again, very much so, I feel I am just beginning. And there are so many discoveries yet to be made, challenges yet to be undertaken.
As a person who has had pneumonia, I could really relate to the line in ‘The Captain of the Men of Death’ where the illness is described as ‘Contaminating not just your mind but your will’. Was this written from personal experience? Tell us more…
Yes, I got very ill a couple of winters ago and this was written from the point of view of my altered mind state at that time.
This is a very personal collection of poems, with a number of them having a second person address. Using this form heightens the personal impact. Was it a difficult decision to address a number of the poems to the anonymous ‘you’?
It became easier when I realised that The short story of you and I in its overall structure is ‘a fractured love story in 57 poems’. A few people in the proofreading stage suggested that the title was ungrammatical, but, in fact, if you understand that in this case ‘you’ and ‘I’ are both fictional — an idealised, not actual ‘you the reader’, or ‘me the writer’ — then it isn’t ungrammatical. ‘You’ and ‘I’ are the characters’ names.
In your books The Kamikaze Mind and Fixing the Broken Nightingale there is mention that these books formed part of The Way Out At Last Cycle. Can you explain a little more about that cycle. Has it concluded?
The title for The Way Out At Last Cycle was inspired by Paul Klee’s painting called ‘L’issue enfin trouvée’ (1935), translated by Marcel Marnat as ‘The Way Out At Last’. The Way Out At Last Cycle is a multi-book poetic cycle that tracks the journey of the development, flourishing, dissolution and transcendence of ego consciousness. Its underlying structure was inspired in part by one of the subjects of my BA Honours History Thesis at Sydney University, A Disappointed Bridge: The Architecture of Historical Knowledge from Bruni to Vico (1982). Giambattista Vico, the first philosopher of history, suggested that there were four stages (birth, life, death and rebirth) through which on a micro level, individuals, and on a macro level, their civilisations, pass in endless cycles. Vico’s brilliant contribution was to see that the structures of consciousness and the vehicles through which consciousness can manifest in its attempt to grasp (or one might say construct) the outside world — our language and its expressive forms — also evolve, in a journey from what he described as ‘the poetry of childhood’ to ‘the prose of old age’.
Drawing on Vico with a mix of Buddhist and Yogic ideas about ‘samsara’, the wheel of life, and a sprinkle of Nietzche’s ‘eternal return’ and Yeats ‘perne in a gyre’ (‘Sailing to Byzantium’), The Way Out At Last Cycle has been a multi-year attempt to inhabit this cycle, at the level of the development of language, consciousness and an array of literary forms, and eventually exit it — to find ‘the way out at last’ of this mind labyrinth.
In terms of a reader approaching this almost forty-year project, I should hasten to add that, while linked by this underlying matrix, each work in the cycle can also be read completely stand-alone, as an examination of consciousness at that moment in the cycle. And for that matter, each work can be excerpted from to find stand-alone poems and meditations in a wide range of styles and forms.
The cycle is not quite complete but I believe I have written its conclusion, which I expect will be the title poem of my next book, ‘Text Messages from the Universe’.
In his review of Thursday’s Fictions, Wal Eastman, in The Mercury, speaks of blending media, of ‘A mind-blowing mix of dance, drama, performance poetry, a radio play and music’. How important is dance, performance, art, music, etc, to your poetic work?
As a creative artist, I draw inspiration from a myriad of experiences and art-forms. I think the simplest way to think about my work is that the poems are the primary sources and the other works are adaptations. While I briefly experimented with it, I don’t consider myself a ‘performance poet’ or a ‘spoken word artist’. My poems are usually born and exist as autonomous poems on the page, but some ask to be reborn in interplay with other art forms, to be liberated from the technology of the book to resonate in other sensory environments.
I ask all my interviewees this, and it is building up a nice reading list: what are you reading at the moment and why?
I grew up looking for poetry wherever I could find it. There were very few live readings or book launches at that time, so I had to content myself with old vinyl records around the house and at the library of British actors reading classic, mostly English, poetry. As time has gone by, despite the internet, I have found it hard to find equivalent recordings of poetry from other cultures and time periods. Therefore, I am reading as widely as I can to find beautiful and sometimes forgotten poems for #RichardReads, an occasional project in which I incrementally attempt to fill that gap by reading great poems from a diverse range of authors across time, location and genre.
Finally, what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?
I mentioned the potentially last work in The Way Out At Last Cycle. I am putting the finishing touches to ‘Text Messages from the Universe’, the long poem that will be the title poem for my next book.
Text Messages from the Universe is also the title of a new form screen-dance and poetry project I have directed. This hour-long work (about the length of a poetry reading) presents the text read live by me, and simultaneously seen moving across the screen with music and dance weaving through it to create a rhythmic, unfolding experience. We are calling it ‘a dancing book on screen’. Here’s a synopsis:
‘Text Messages from the Universe immerses its audience in subjective states of consciousness they might experience when they die. It imagines what they can see and think and hear in a seamless but fragmentary flow of poetic images, words, dance and music. It places the viewer in the position of going through a journey into their own interior world of dreams and projections in which time and space, and cause and effect logic, are turned on their heads. Text Messages from the Universe is 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 also draws on the Yogic idea of the seven ‘chakras’, or psychic energy centres, in visualizing this odyssey of movement, colour and consciousness.’
I am hoping that this work will be able to be shared in a number of incarnations, including, as I say, with me reading the text live at literary festivals as the film is projected.
PS I am happy to report that, since this interview took place, the world premiere of this live reading version of Text Messages from the Universe has been set up. It will take place at the Arc Cinema, at the National Film and Sound Archive, in Canberra, as part of the Art, Not Apart Festival on Saturday March 14 at 1.30pm and 4.30pm.
The short story of you and I can be purchased from UWA Publishing
Tony Messenger is an Australian writer, critic and interviewer who has had works published in many places including Overland Literary Journal, Southerly, Mascara Literary Review, Concrescence and Burning House Press. He blogs about translated fiction and interviews Australian poets at Messenger’s Booker and can be found on Twitter @Messy_tony and on Facebook at Messenger’s Booker.