‘Ground Forces’ by Paul Allen, Salmon Poetry, 2007
So much good poetry to read. I have at last caught up with Paul Allen’s collection ‘Ground Forces’ some eight years after it was published by Salmon Poetry in 2007, and this despite having lodged it on my shelves some time ago. In a book filled with good material it’s hard to separate the sheep from the sheep. The title poem ‘Ground Forces’ signals many of the book’s concerns, especially the idea that despite the daily defeats that life deals us, we just have to get on with things. There are no exceptions:
“…the last shall be first and the first shall be last—but
A recurring feature of Allen’s style is his wry humour. For instance, most of us will be acquainted with the bible story of how Jesus dealt with the evil spirits by casting them into a herd of pigs and then sending the herd headlong over a cliff, but have we ever considered the subsequent plight of the herdsmen and how they tried to explain things to their wives when they got home?—
“A god came along today and threw our herd
into the sea. We may have to tighten our belts.”
There’s no way around it. Like Auden’s Unknown Citizen’, one must become resigned to what can’t be changed:
“When there was peace, he was for peace.
When there was war, he went.”
There is an accessible, colloquial style about poems like ‘Mifford’s Work’ which is reminiscent of the strongly narrative, down-to-earth approach of Robert Frost’s ‘Out, out’. Like Frost’s, many of Allen’s poems are about actual people and ‘real events’. Mifford is an undertaker, whose young assistant is somewhat scornful of his employer’s rather disreputable past (Mifford is an alcoholic and has had six wives). He advises his young assistant:
“ ‘ … I guess you stay married to one too long,
you get attached. That’s a little piece of advice
you can keep.’ ”
To which his assistant’s (unspoken) response is:
“As if I would keep the advice
of a man who couldn’t stay married,
cheated on his wife, drank himself
through four states and a dozen starts…”
And yet, the youngster has a grudging admiration as he watches how the undertaker goes to work on a victim of violence, using a lifetime of expertise to blend together fake with real flesh. The image employed to convey this admiration is startling:
“… right in front of my face
they become the gentlest hands I’ve ever seen
on a man: The hands of a bricklayer, say, changing
the sheets for his brother who is dying of AIDS …”
The poem that follows, ‘The Overwhelmed Samaritan’ opts for what I take to be the ‘prose-poem’ format and because of my own rather conventional style of writing poetry (i.e., strictly linear and metered), I always find it difficult to respond to this form. I am aware it has a long history (Baudelair, Whitman, Ginsberg & etc.) and yet every time I come across it I have to remind myself of its parameters. One definition tells me it is “a brief composition printed as prose but containing the elements of poetry: carefully designed rhythms, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, figures of speech and recurrent images” (1). Another has it that: “Though the name may appear to be a contradiction, the prose poem essentially appears as prose, but reads like poetry… While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition and rhyme.’ (2).
Fine. However, I find that ‘prose-poems’ sit a good deal nearer to prose
than to poetry. As always, it’s all about how well the potential of the language is realized. In many prose-poems that I find the poetic quality (or as it used to be described, that quality of ‘heightened language’) is often lacking. The jugular reach, which is so much a part of poetry’s strength, is often muted or missing entirely. This is not to say that the complete list of rhyme, metre, stanza and all the other poet’s sleights of pen are absolutely essential to the making of a good poem. It is the combination of some or all of them which does the trick of raising the language above the ordinary. However, when I come across ‘prose-poems’ I am often unsure as to whether I am reading good prose or broken-up poetry, especially when one considers that good prose can also rise ‘above the ordinary’. Think of Charles Dickens’ description of the storm at Great Yarmouth in David Copperfield.
In short, I am often unsure as to what I am dealing with when I come across prose-poems. For instance, I am indebted to one reviewer, Newton Smith (3) for designating two pieces in this book as prose-poems. Would I have recognized them as such without this help? Maybe. But that might be because I see that their lines reach the right-hand margin and that there is no discernible ‘poetic structure’ such as stanza’ or rhyme. In other words I’m looking for what is not there.
As to the poems /prose-poems themselves (as designated), the first line of ‘The Overwhelmed Samaritan’
“Not everybody is born, but everybody does die”
talks a truism, but enunciates it with that abrupt delivery of poetry which gives old phrases a new life. The five paragraphs of the piece cascade smoothly and unfold their concerns in an arresting series of images. The language is indeed heightened and the flow of the narrative very gripping. We are given a catalogue of persons in distress, their distresses becoming more and more acute as the poem races inexorably towards its despairing end:
‘They’ve been beaten badly. They are not going to make it. Pick them up. Get them some help. Pray for them, pray for them. And your mother, your children, your hairdresser, the guy who’s trying to help you adjust. On your way to the hospital, stop at city hall; the mayor you didn’t vote for is dying. While you’re at it, load up his staff. Hurry. Hurry. They’re all dying. You might not be in time…’
It is never possible to rise to every occasion, the poet is saying. The sense of being ‘overwhelmed’ is vividly conveyed, as is the desire to clear off and let things take their course, since there is not much that can be done. Beneath a patina of comic description this poem is asking serious questions about the human predicament and our powerlessness in the face other people’s suffering. The reviewer I mentioned above (3) wrote that, in poems like this, and other poems in the book, ‘the spiritual question … is about how to live with perpetual loss, the constant disappointments, unfulfilled ambitions, thwarted hopes, and never measuring up to expectations. The list becomes absurd’.
Similarly, in the other prose-poem ‘Silences’, which concerns Rwanda children who have suffered through war, there are lines that go beyond a mere prose factual re-telling: ‘they cannot speak or hear because of what they saw and heard’. Again, there is a compression here which lifts the language above standard prose. Is it the case that it is this type of ‘compressed’ language that turns a good prose piece into a poem? It seems to me to be as good a criterion as any other, given the absence of the usual poetic structures and devices.
These two pieces are very successful for me, whatever definition of form one uses. Everything is working, although they look and read like prose. I feel they might have been even more successful if they had been wrought under the more demanding disciplines of linear poetry. There is too much going on in too many large chunks of writing and the prose-poem format severely limits the use of the weighted word or line, while many style features (such as enjambment) are not possible. It is true that the poet here avoids much of the verbosity and lack of focus that can often be a part of the prose-poem and certainly these two poems do appeal to me because, in venturing into the prose-prose, Allen, as a good poet, cannot help leaning heavily to the ‘poetic’ side of writing. However, I cannot shake off the feeling that they might well have been even better should they have been written as either prose, OR poetry,
The middle section of the book, ‘His Longing:The Small Penis Oratorio’ was apparently issued previously as a chapbook and contains poems in which the motif of a small penis is employed to explore the idea of human inadequacy. The poems indulge in a somewhat obvious humor which, because it is obvious, does not work as well as the understated humour which runs through other of his poems. They have the feel of material which would work really well when performed live, but which do not quite lift off as page poems. This is of course a personal view and is qualified by pieces like ‘Repent’, a poignant poem about that personal history we all accumulate and the which, past a certain point in our lives, transforms into ‘baggage’, which we would dearly love to be rid of. Like the possessions that clutter up our house as we grow older, we would like to jettison at least some of this history and start furnishing anew. Your wife demands
“‘Why can’t you throw anything away? Why the Hell can’t you just get rid of stuff?’
What you do not say back, standing at the toilet, shaking your bud, is that you do not know, and oh how you wish you could.”
As I said at the start, trying to separate sheep from sheep is nonsense and so is trying to pin down a ‘best poem’ in a strong collection. However, it is an exercise that concentrates the mind (rather like Dr Johnson and hanging) and it very often comes down to something in a particular poem that ‘hits the spot’ for the reader. And so it is with Allen’s ‘Reunion’ down the end of the book. All poems are poems of personal response, indeed all writing is (even writing perhaps in the area of mathematical aero-dynamic equations?). Occasionally, however, one comes across a poem that speaks immediately and directly to the reader because it links to his/her own personal experience, ‘mirror poems’ if you like, because reading them is indeed like looking into a mirror of yourself and seeing yourself moving around between the lines. Sometimes these poems are in themselves are not very good and owe their impact almost wholly to the shared experience, but ‘Reunion’ is a very good poem. Not quite the best poem in the book, but it appeals to me because, here in all its pathos is that peculiar ambience which attaches to those get-togethers of former colleagues, that mix of forced camaraderie, inward melancholy and, after a few late-night drinks, maudlin nostalgia and yes, I’ve been there a few times, opting out when I realised it was bad for my mental health.
I most definitely have ridden that elevator the poet takes, midway through the poem. I have seen it fill up at each floor with my somewhat overweight companions (of yore), keeping my eye all the time on the weight restriction sign, as he does (”MAXIMUM LOAD THIS CAR: 2400 LBS”). There is of course worse to come when we at last reach the top floor bar:
“Alright everybody, here we go:
Who has the most children?
Who has changed the least?
Who remembers all the verses to our old song?”
The three shorter stanzas lay the groundwork for the final, extended one. This gift of seeing clearly past the scars and marks left by the world and its ways and plunging down into the concealed worth of the person is a frequent theme in this collection. A reaffirmation that even ’the least of these’ has qualities worth valuing, like Mifford, who is, in Thomas Kinsella’s words, “… not young, and not renewable, but man”.
Read this collection. It could make you a better person and more understanding of the faults of others. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing.
(1) Literary Terms: A Dictionary. Karl Beckson and Arthur Ganz, Noonday Press, a Division of Farrar, Struas and Giroux, New York, 1989.