Richard James Allen, The short story of you and I (UWA Publishing 2019)
Richard James Allen is a mover and shaker in Australian poetry and beyond. He has been Artistic Director of the Poets Union Inc and director of the inaugural Australian Poetry Festival. He has edited – among other things – an anthology of Australian performance texts published by my old employer, Currency Press. He’s also a filmmaker, dancer and choreographer with the Physical TV Company. The short story of you and I is his tenth book of poetry, and my introduction to his work.
Within the first couple of pages of this book I had read a number of poems out to the Emerging Artist – something I rarely do. She didn’t tell me to go away, which, given her generally low tolerance of poetry, is high praise. One of the poems I read to her was ‘Closing time for Melancholy’. Here’s the whole thing:
Bring your adult ears
and your childish hearts –
life is short,
desire is long,
and what the universe wants
the universe gets.
There’s a voice in these early poems that’s attractive, charming, even seductive, even while saying grim or gloomy things, the voice of a lively mind that is drawn to melancholy. Speaking of the word ‘melancholy’, the poem of that name says:
It must be that no other bloom
creates the decadent, fin-de-siècle atmosphere I experience in my soul.
And while there’s a lot of melancholy in the book, there’s also metaphysics, love, lust, loss, illness, art, Buddhism, and pleasure for the reader on pretty much every page. Only when I’d read it all for the first time did it occur to me, what a smarter person might have been on the lookout for, given the book’s title, that there’s an overarching narrative. The speaker is in a despondent state, a ‘maelstrom of gravitational torpor’ (‘The Resurrection and the Life’). There’s a relationship, and there are some wonderful poems about the early stages of physical and emotional rapture – the title of one of them, ‘In the 24-hour glow’, is almost a poem in itself. It’s never spelled out, but it seems the relationship ends after only a short time – there are many poems in which the beloved ‘you’ is a ghost or a memory, and the second last poem, ‘The Captain of the Men of Death’, actually an eighteen-page sequence, is about serious and possibly terminal illness – a note explains that the poem takes its title from an early 20th century nickname for pneumonia. The time line isn’t clear. Perhaps, reading for the narrative, you would take it that the relationship, the love story, is already in the past when the book begins.
But here’s the thing. Even though I’m usually happiest when there’s a narrative line for me to follow, in this case I’m glad I didn’t read looking for a narrative – that would have tied the poems down to a particular context rather than letting them resonate out to who-knows-where. Take the first lines of ‘The Wedding Dress’:
---------------------------Why am I so angry
-------------------------------------at this wedding dress?
It floats through space
like an abandoned satellite,
gliding without sound or friction
Reading these lines, I took it that the poem was a response to an art work. More precisely, I thought of Rosemary Laing’s Bulletproof Glass series of photographs which I had misremembered as featuring a wedding dress exactly as beautifully described here (but Laing’s flying dress is inhabited by a woman who has been shot, a whole other story). I’m pretty sure that the poem is a response – not to Rosemary Laing’s photo, but to an image like it. (You can read the whole poem here. It’s quite long.)
The opening question is asked eight times, each time followed by a number of lines groping for an answer: like the monolith in 2001, the dress ‘stands at the limits, the frontiers of our knowing’; it’s a memento, like ‘golden calves raised to the banality of our happiness’; it’s emblematic of the institution of marriage, which the speaker is at best ambivalent about, and of the deep human impulse that gives rise to the institution.
The fifth time the question is asked, the poem takes a personal turn: ‘I had been dreaming about you.’ If one was reading for the narrative, this is where one would start paying attention, but so much has already happened and the narrative is frustratingly elusive:
I had been dreaming about you.
After a rocky start, I was happy to report that
we had been beginning to get along again.
The next two ‘answers’ stay at the personal level. At the end of the sixth, the relationship between the memory/dream of past love and the image of the flying empty dress in the present can be condensed into two short lines:
I was drowning in love
I am drowning in fury
The seventh answer actually answers the question:
And so now the dress remains.
Not the memories of the lives lived in it.
Not the excitement of the first fitting.
Not the moment when all eyes were turned
because they had to
and then because they wanted to.
Not those early hours
when it was peeled off in tenderness
to reveal, under its skin of beauty,
the skin of love.
Now the dress remains,
with only the air inside it.
The same air I breathe.
It’s still a response to that image, but it has moved decisively from general connotations to intensely personal. The final time the question is asked, the reply is:
for the first time in a long time perhaps I am not
and the question is transformed (including a subtle move to less self-important lower case for the first person pronoun):
---------------------------Why am i so in love
-------------------------------------with this wedding dress?
And the final lines move away from the wedding dress altogether – it has done its work – to address the remembered lover: ‘i started dreaming of you again tonight’. In the exultant final lines, he has found renewed joy in dreaming and remembering, and the poem takes up and transforms the opening image of floating through space:
--------the unspoken sharing of
-----------------------our own private
--------which i feel
----------------i am out there in
------------------------------------some blazing star
I read somewhere that ekphrastic is a wanky word. But I want to use it anyhow: an ekphrastic poem is one that relates to a work of art. And though the work of art this poem relates to may not actually exist, I read this as an ekphrastic poem: spending time with the opening image allows the speaker to move from grim anger at loss to joy in what he once had. (How’s that for a reductive paraphrase? Sorry, Richard.)
You might think from my description that this poem was a turning point in the overarching narrative. But I don’t think so. The poem works in its own terms, enacts its own drama in its own five pages. I don’t think there really is a narrative in the way a novel or a movie has a narrative, with clear structural beats. This is one moment in a long process of grieving, and the book contains many such moments. There’s a lot more besides, but that’s what struck me the hardest.
But then, I’m back to my first reading of the book as a whole: the ‘you’ of the title isn’t just one person, the one who has died and is being remembered and grieved for. It’s also, in other poems and sometimes in the same poem, the reader, which means potentially any other human being:
As much as we have to begin
we have to end
As much as we are magic
we are dust
('An Aria, before the Requiem')
Now I want to go on quoting. You can take it that that means I recommend the book.
My copy of The Short Story of You and I was a gift from the author.