Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
The Collection Plate
by Kendra Allen
July 2021, $26.99, 96 pages, ISBN: 978-0063048478
As the title of Kendra Allen’s new collection of poems suggests, this book is about “paying dues” but also is presented in the form of religious meditation. The first poem, “Evening Service,” is in fact a baptismal poem, at the age of eight, and introduces the important idea/image of water. The patriarchal image of Our Father, who appears throughout the collection (Five short poems titled “Our Father’s house” appear throughout the book), makes an appearance in the very first line: “when it’s time for the invitation, we say Our Father…” Allen writes:
the pastor is our uncle and our uncle tells me in two weeks imma be saved
in two weeks this a renew
but still he’s so stingy this impatience for assurance leads me back
they get me ready in my come let us adore him mama tell me to take off
The patriarchy is in control throughout (except in the subversive corners). You can feel the girl’s vulnerability, her mother apparently complicit in the betrayal, duped herself. “The many times I failed to defend my mother to Our Father,” though, is a title that expresses sympathy for her mother, just another victim. The penultimate poem, “Sermon notes,” which also places the narrative within the context of a church service, includes the line, “Note: You have to love him even if you don’t.”
The oppressive nature of the patriarchy is on full display in many other poems. “Collection plates” shows us the whole “heads I win, tails you lose” nature of the system. The poem begins:
mornings. The church
pastor will imply
[not] meaning him
are all addicted to pardoning
shit that should be financed
a sanctification that two-steps
in between the art
-eries and thumbprint
“When I eulogize Our Father” fleshes the deal out; the poem seems to address a real flesh and blood father as well as the ethereal figure from scripture.
The reason we have gathered
here today is because I know how it looks
when Our Father loves something
His Cadillac. His bullets. His garden. His weed. His tractor. His dogs.
The scorn is almost palpable. Later in the poem she writes:
Our Father never offered no loyalty to the child
only ultimatums of wildflowers or respect – and I decline both
“If I am the Father” also expresses a demoralized response to the whole patriarchal setup (“& years later I will wonder why I’m deserted”).
The final “Our Father’s house” poem (“Our Father’s house [v]”) conveys the whole sense of resignation expressed throughout but also the glimmer of redemption:
Tell Our Father, please:
fill me with remnants
of my born one
we can mourn
Allen’s verse is literally all over the page. Many of her poems play with line- and word-spacing to emphasize her message. “I’m the note held toward the end” is one example, after Minnie Riperton’s 1975 song, “Inside My Love” (on the Adventures in Paradise album).
it ain’t enough ringing possible to let go
turn into glitter, into powder—here’s to well rounded
The poem, “Let’s leave” is even more of a departure from conventional verse-on-the-page, with words literally overlapping other text (unfortunately, this cannot be reproduced here), presumably suggesting emotional complexity/density, but also for sheer aesthetic effect. “Solace by earl” is another example, and, significantly, this poem highlights another of Allen’s themes, the reverence with which she regards her female elders, womanhood in general. The epigraph is from the rapper Earl Sweatshirt’s “Solace”: “I got my Grandmama’s hands / I start to cry when I see ‘em, ‘cause they remind me of seeing her.” The poem is a memory of her grandmother’s supportive love: “My after-school harbor / my boat to trembling descent.”
“Happy 100th birthday” is another homage to a foremother (great-grandmother?). The poem is located in the cemetery:
is my first time
at your headstone
The poem includes more of Allen’s ironic references to “Our Father” as she looks to her ancestor for inspiration as well as remorse for the shabby way her forebear was treated in life (“they put you / in a nursing home / let the juice spill, down / your chin”).
In her Acknowledgments, Kendra Allen tells the story of her mama and grandmother treating her and her cousins to a feast at a Sonic franchise. “We got whatever we wanted. Chili dogs. Cream slushes. Lemon-berry slushes mixed with peach. Burgers. Just going crazy on the menu.” When they dropped her grandmother off afterward, her mother scolded the children for not thanking their grandmother. “This story is way longer, but just know I never forgot to say thank you again.” Wisdom of the elders, for sure.
As alluded to earlier in the baptismal poem, water is another elemental theme in Allen’s work. “Naked & afraid,” which channels the reality TV show, Survivor, and its companion, “Afraid & naked,” address the issue. The latter begins: “One of the biggest challenges citizens face / is finding drinkable water.” Without specifically naming them, these poems, along with “The water cycle” and others, highlight the injustices in Flint, Michigan, and the pipeline issues on sacred tribal lands elsewhere in the upper Midwest. Allen implicitly highlights the elemental spiritual dimension of water.
The Collection Plate also includes a couple of poems about her anxieties, identified as “the Super Sadness!” “The invention of the Super Sadness! was an accident” and “The Super Sadness! feels like anger which feels like” are the titles; they flesh out her angst.
Crashing. An accessory.Writing what I do & wishing
I felt better. Staying together. I’ll air all this shit out. Thighs
chafing. Losing my life. Gnats in a kitchen.
Cotton candy. The end of “Throw Away.” 635 heading to
Mesquite. Mesquite. Light voices.Black exploitation.
The Collection Plate celebrates Blackness and womanhood in equal measures. This is an important book that should be read widely. Kendra Allen, winner of the 2018 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction for her essay collection, When You Learn the Alphabet, has paid her dues.
About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His latest book, Catastroika, was published in May 2020. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is). Another chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing.