Paul Allen's poems whisper in your ear
Sunday, July 13, 2008
In the early 1900s, poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a series of letters to a young poet in which he described the need for great patience and a life lived richly and intensely to create verse.
According to Rilke, a poet must first ripen like a tree. Rilke was describing the wisdom acquired through experience, and wisdom is something we expect from poetry. Whether it's love poetry or eulogies, there is great joy in reading a poem that seems to connect to our own lives. American poet Billy Collins likens this phenomenon to having someone whisper in your ear. It can feel that intimate. This powerful connection between writer and reader is critical.
Paul Allen's poems embody the kind of wisdom I search for when I read. Allen, a professor at the College of Charleston, where he has been teaching poetry and song-writing for many years, is one of Charleston's most revered writers. His new book of poems, "Ground Forces," is filled with humor although the subject matter often is deadly serious. Whether he is writing about the terrors of childhood, divorce, war or more ordinary day-to-day occurrences such as teaching or looking at a painting, the voice in Allen's poems is truly original. He is always self-aware, sometimes self-mocking, and I admire the humility of these poems.
The title poem is an excellent choice to introduce the collection. "Ground Forces" explores central stories from the Bible through contemporary experience. Allen provides his own spin on what can be learned, particularly when we make bad choices:
So each goes home, pulls his hewn stool
to table, not sad or afraid anymore, says:
A god came along today and threw our herd
into the sea. We may have to tighten our belts.
See? Winners aren't blessed because they win
nor win because they're blessed.
There's a distinctly Southern quality to this collection, with titles such as "True Story: Selma, Alabama" and "Bubba's Discomfort," and religious themes characterize many of the poems. There's even a poem with a Flannery O'Connor short story in the title, "He Loses Focus in His Lecture on 'A Good Man is Hard to Find.' "
Of course, there are love poems. "The Drive Home After the Hearing" (divorce hearing) is a tender meditation on marriage.
Back when one road led to another,
clover-leafed to this or that place
matched on a map on our long road trips,
however lost or turned around we were,
each road had another road to end on,
the last one always getting us home.
But dead ends go on forever:
There's the mound of slag, pile of limbs,
woods, field, town, towns, state, sates ...
How do the cloistered mystics have it?
Desire to leave this world is a sign of progress
in this world? The ache in the absence of Christ
thrills them as proof He is there?
Well, let's see: According to that, Old Girl,
What with this world of settles differences
between us, we must be madly in love.
Poetry is so often about a state of mind or an ineffable feeling that would be impossible to characterize in any other way. A great example of how this works in a poem is in the last poem of "Ground Forces." "What Is Required" is composed of six parts, that pull together themes from previous poems in a kind of affirmation.
Call it prayer, then,
the moments where I'm not aware
even of how lovely the moment is -
not aware there is the moment at all
until I'm back to consciousness
and remember it, construct it
in my mind as having been beautiful.
"What Is Required" ends with a description of watching two butterflies while picking crops in a field in the heat. It reminds of us our capacity to find spiritual peace in the natural world. More than anything, it tells us to take the time to let that peace into our lives.
Over and over again, Paul Allen reminds us that our lives are filled with innumerable moments of joy. The trick is learning to pay attention and understanding acceptance in the deepest possible way.
I know that something from this moment
will come to me through the heat,
the sweat in my eyes: will come to me
as my hands reach out to the next green crop.
Perhaps that's all the faith I want, or need.
Perhaps it's all the faith I am allowed.
(Poems excerpted with permission of the author from "Ground Forces" by Paul Allen, Salmon Poetry, 2008.)
Marjory Wentworth is South Carolina's poet laureate.
Review by Ron Cooper, author of Hume's Fork
For years Paul Allen has pried up the dark folds of the human heart and tried to show us how to accept the detritus hidden within. Those worst bits of us cannot be swept or hosed out but, with a little hope and pain, perhaps exorcized through poetic rites.
The three dozen poems here cover the range of this poet's gifts, from a meditation on the theological function of losers to a reunion attendee reviewing his sorry life to a series of reflections on how we define ourselves by our shortcomings, personified by the obvious male insecurity.
Despite the seriousness of such dismal themes, Allen may be the funniest poet in America. He makes the best of self-deprecating humor: his poetic personas (and many of the poems are told in first person) realize that if they are to find some sort of redemption, they must among other things learn to laugh at themselves. Some of the personas don't quite make it to a redemptive level of self-knowledge, but we know that they are, even in their desperation, somehow better off than they were at the start of the poem, at least for recognizing the "little glorious ugliness in our lives."
The brilliance here lies in those glorious uglinesses that are indeed little. Allen's personas do not have grand epiphanies and turn their lives around; they long for but do not have blinding mystical experiences in which the whole world makes sense. They see that they have sunk into the world of inauthenticity, have lost themselves in increments, and must pull themselves up incrementally. One character working in a field says "I know that something from this moment/ will come to me through the heat,/ the sweat in my eyes . . . ."
Allen does not preach in these poems, but he certainly believes in the edifying power of poetry. You'll see much of yourself here, especially in those embarrassments that we all share and all need to laugh at. In one poem we readers are reassured with, "You are not a cliche./ You are not a cliche./ Well, you are,/ but one that works, somehow."
Don't buy this book, however, just because of its themes and its humor. Buy it because it is the best collection of American poems of the year.