A review of The Short Story of You and I by Richard James Allen

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Short Story of You and I
By Richard James Allen
UWA Publishing
ISBN: 9781760800215, Paperback, 1 Feb 2019

Richard James Allen is a true polymath. Poet, Actor, dancer, filmmaker, yoga teacher, teacher, performer, former director of the Australian Poetry Festival and Poets Union (now Australian Poetry), his work continually challenges preconceptions, and crosses genres. The poetry in Richard James Allen’s The Short Story of You and I, his eleventh book, has a multimedia quality that, as you might expect, evokes dance, music, and visual imagery. The poems come on softly, inviting the reader in, and teasing gently:

But keep an eye on me,
as all my separate pieces
yearn to fold back into the sea. (“Delicate Awakening”)

Like Allen himself, the poetry is agile. It moves fluidly, encompassing rhythm and repetition (“Crying? Are you still crying? Why can’t you stop? // What is it you cry for?”), concrete structures, narrative progressions, and intellectual conundrums. There is a beautiful balance throughout the book between condensed, koan-like poems such as “Winter’s Gift”:

To her Alaska-pale locks
I send my snow

and epic prosaic works that take the reader on a lengthy journey:

a conspiracy of angels flocking in all directions
at the holy speed of intuition
as you learn to live in the fantastic space (“Shlafwagen and Wunderkammer”)

These dichotomies feel deliberate, like Yin and Yang, as inseparable contradictions – a way of getting to innate, intuitive meaning that encompasses multiple modalities.

Many of the poems pivot around the notion of love (the “purpose of time”), written to an elusive subject that could be the reader, a former partner, an idealised soulmate, a co-dependent adversary, or a lacuna, the subject forever out of the frame:

~every moment is~
~as undependable and tenacious~
~as the memory of a kiss~
~under the moon~
~from a book~
~that was never written~
(“* Perspicacious and Precarious *”)

These are poems that morph and twist back on themselves, shifting pronouns, and moving along plains of despair, celebration, illness and desire, though not without humour:

In the theatre of infinite delirium
You are soap opera’s soulmate
Trying to leap out of your relentlessly finite life (“The Captain of the Men of Death”)

Many of the poems in The Short Story of You and I play with time, concatenating past, present and future (“we are sliding/backwards into birth”) and space (“on the edge of a silent sea”) with quantum entanglement, emotional loss, and Buddhist philosophy:

Our range of possibility is utterly finite
And entirely infinite
We gaze beyond any concept of horizon
Yet blink at the tips of our noses (“Quantum Esplanade”)

Other poems work with domestic details, the clink of a spoon against a bowl during breakfast, commuting, shopping, drinking coffee in a café, lovemaking, walking the dog, or putting out the rubbish. There is freshness in the mindful ‘now’ of these familiar moments, and the poems focus so intensely that they become extraordinary:

Hosannas reaching like fireworks up towards the firmaments
of their own private skies; and last but not least – my special favourite,
and surely sparked off at least in some way by the kerfuffle
of all the goings-on below – the phantom limb of the sound of one hand
finally thunderclapping, sending out code calls for angels in the war on sleep (“A Party in Small Moments”)

Poems are structured into playful, innovative shapes that make effective use of the white space. Words twist, swirl, dance, spread, and shrink so that the overall effect seems like an inward and outward breath. This sensation is also strengthened by the relationship between stark simplicity:

We lay on your internal beach.
Such complicated clouds. (“Haiku for Futureless Souls”)

and the long, linguistically complex line: “We can feel their polysemous dubiety/sliding around the unresolved, secretive, spirals of our DNA.” (“This is not a love poem and,”)

There is an exuberance here; a delight in the word, in the construction of the self, the abnegation of the self, and in the sheer pain and joy of living, losing, and loving, that comes through each of the poems. Life is suffering and in the suffering is joy:

I was awash with love,
it’s waves perturbed me endlessly,
as the ocean continuously bothers
and entertains the shore. (“The Wedding Dress”)

However rooted in the present moment, the poetry in The Short Story of You and I leans towards transcendence. The self is illusionary, time and space are intimately interconnected and truth can only be found in the gaps between contradiction: “People are flawed stories/that unfurl as perfect wisdoms.”  The Short Story of You and I is an exquisite collection of poetry full of the miraculous and the mundane.