Véhicule Press - October 09, 2008 - 36 Comments
Standing Wave by Robert Allen
Reviewed by Joanna M. Weston
Allen surfs through life on a catamaran built of dualities. He rides light and dark, life and death, war and peace, with philosophic looks at each. His references favour present culture—including CNN, Tinkerbell, Satie, Billy Collins, Davey Crockett, and the Titanic—over the past. Yet there are echoes of Shakespeare in the repetition of the north-north-westerly wind direction, with traces of nursery rhymes and the Bible.
The first section of the book, “Thirty-eight Sonnets from Jimmie Walker Swamp,” rambles casually through the swamp, never quite drowning but never reaching safety. The sonnets are conversational in tone, moving from subject to subject without connection. If the sonnets were individually titled there would be guidance to the dialogue, but perhaps that is the nature of the swamp: to leap from tussock to tussock seeking sure footing without knowledge of what’s underfoot.
Jimmie Walker appears in the beginning of “Sonnet 1” to be absorbed in thoughts of day and night:
… the sun sank and I was lost in time. Night takes
half my hours, lately, and the reading light burns
the page until I am insensible. What seemed light
is dark, the dark a riot of burning. … (11)
But he moves on, through concerns about how Shakespeare
…was just making a living,
as I am now, with the cheat of useless lyrics
like an afternoon of half-meant words and flirtatious
Does Jimmie Walker, or Allen the poet, mean what he says? Are all his words poses that hide the reality? Does he always “cheat [his] way out of all this”? (16). There is a sense that Allen’s wanderings are in order to reveal that
somehow you get the message that pure chaos
won’t hack it any more; the anarchic thrills
of roaming, and avoiding, and writing poems won’t
get you out of the mortal loop. It makes me recall
running till my lungs burst, to stay ahead … (16)
He is, then, on one mortal’s journey towards understanding who he is as a human being and how he can be “more like [him]self alone” (19). Allen’s contrast of earth and stars, light and dark, is the pursuit of knowledge, an exploration of the place of self in the universe. Such an exploration involves obscurity on occasion, but the pursuit through darkness to clarity is the objective of his musings: “…imagining the world flowing forth / from here, a lava of light too unspeakable / to hold….” (27).
“The Encantadas,” the poem that makes up the second half of the book, is the third section of a story published in two separate previous collections. Hopefully the three parts will, at some point, be published together, because it is difficult to enter a story part-way through, even with an explanatory introduction. “The Encantadas” is written in a form inspired by Wallace Stevens and A.R. Ammons, with a deep background of Melville, but is wholly Allen’s. The long lines, with exciting line and stanza breaks, give a vivid sense of the drunken sailor at the helm. Jack is smuggling wine from Corfu to England and appears to be imbibing as he goes. His ruminations, like Jimmie Walker’s, swing between present and past—
it was explained to me since god went down there's no getting to the server & email piles up unsent & unread. … … like the voice of god out of a scroll inscribed three thousand years ago.
The language in “The Encantadas” flows with the surge of ocean waves, slows in the doldrums, then rises to almost storm level with, always, the feel of the wind on one’s cheek, “…ducking to breathe the air that glanced / off into maelstroms of solar wind, spinning in a hide coracle,…” (77).
The value of Allen’s poetry lies in his explorations of the human condition without, quite rightly, arriving at any conclusion, content to be on the journey and to share his philosophical discoveries.