Undiscovered constellations


At the Oblivion Tea-Rooms
, C.J. Allen (85pp, 8.99, Nine Arches Press)


C.J. Allen must be unique among British poets in that his work seems to blend the playfulness of New York poets, especially that of Frank O'Hara, with the melancholic irony of a Philip Larkin. He can turn his hand with equal skill to a variety of forms, from the prose poem to hard-rhyming quatrains. Yet as a reader I never felt oppressed by this poet's evident technical skills (though as a writer I did find myself sweating with envy!). Rather, I was engaged by the self-deprecatory humour that runs throughout At the Oblivion Tea-Rooms, as the poems tread their way along a fine line between hope and despair in their quest for meaning and the miraculous in what might be taken by most of us as uninteresting everyday experience. The book begins with a quotation from James Tate: 'He lived in a very tiny world, but he knew how to blow it up.' This pretty much sums up the spirit of Allen's poetry.

The collection begins with a look back at youthful expectations and at what was learnt, or not learnt, from previous generations, who are 'somehow [] not ridiculous'. The prose poem 'Platforms' captures wonderfully a provincial youthful world of the early 1970s:

    Alison Baines put bright yellow highlights in her hair and we called her 'The Wasp'.  
    Paul Simpson bought her an engagement ring with sapphires and diamonds that existed
    only as splinters of light [] Kids from the council estate were forever being caught
    shoplifting eye-liner and glitter from Woolworths and Boots [] We sat in the kitchen
    talking and smoking. George's sister, Betty, came in with her boyfriend, Tony. What
    did we think about his shoes?

What appeals to me about this is not simply the banal, yet telling details, but the just hinted-at quality of the kind of search for a hidden transcendence (the 'splinters of light') that I mentioned earlier. True, the search is conducted with a good deal of irony (how else could we take the poet seriously in this post-postmodern age?), but it is there. If it were not, the poem might collapse into mere sentimental nostalgia. On rare occasions, C.J. Allen does allow himself to be more straightforwardly metaphysical, for example in sections of the long prose poem 'Lemonade':

    No-one said, but this was not what we expected, this was not the place. We had
    imagined somewhere not so brashly somewhere
; not quite so full, nor yet not quite
    so empty. The light, we all agreed, the careless light, was the hardest thing to
    understand.

Allen's concern with the past is to seek to understand how it has informed the present. He admits that we have not grown any wiser, an admission made without bitterness, but with an aphoristic, tongue-in-cheek bite. References to the great (the ones we might aspire to be in our dreams) mingle deliberately and unashamedly with references to those who are in reality much closer to us :

                  Some things you learn;
    some things you never get quite right.
    You were meant to make a list as you
    went along. Now here you are
    deep in the woods with Acteon
    and Dante, Eyeore and the rest []
                                   If you digress
    then it's because you often find
    that getting to the point is not
    the point.
                       (from 'That Was Now')

Although there are regrets, there is never any kind of the 'weeping-for-lost-virginity' that people all too often associate with poetry. Yes, there is, as I have said, a kind of Larkinesque melancholy, but this is offset by a celebratory affection for the mundane, which is never something to be despised.

His portraits of animals, objects and landscapes can have the kind of quality that one finds in the poetry of Wallace Stevens.  For example, donkeys are coaxed into emerging in all their amazing strangeness ('They hang around like blankets or old sofas /  someone has abandoned in a field' - from 'Donkeys'), as are trees ('vast indeterminate drawings, flow-charts and sketches' - from 'Kasparov Versus the World'), and even stones are worthy of our deepest attention, or 'perhaps, stories of stones, stones perfected by thought' (ibid
.).

It is true, admits Allen, that poets are not always the best people to bring astonishment into our experience of the world, for they 'make a fuss over nothing', 'tend to meet in private and read each other to sleep' and 'they are frequently humbled by the need to earn a living' (from 'Poets'). Nevertheless, it is these same poets who can help us see that the cat looks like Dante, and that shirts 'pin-holed with cigarette burns' will 'show maps of as yet undiscovered constellations' (from 'Great Writers and Their Shirts').

                        Ian Seed, 2012