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THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY:
Matthew Geden reviews Graham Allen's début poetry collection
Born in England, Matthew Geden moved to Kinsale in 1990 and still lives in the town. He co-founded the SoundEye International Poetry Festival. His poems have appeared in several publications both at home and abroad including Something Beginning with P, Poets of the Millennium, The Backyards of Heaven and Landing Places: Immigrant Poets in Ireland. Lapwing published his Kinsale Poems as well as Autumn: Twenty Poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, translations from the French. His first full length collection, Swimming to Albania, was published by Bradshaw Books in 2009. A new collection, The Place Inside, was published by Dedalus in 2012.
The One That Got Away
(New Binary Press, 2014)
Buy from New Binary Press
Graham Allen is perhaps better known as an academic and critic than as a poet. His impressive critical publications include a book on Mary Shelley, another entitled Intertextuality which explores how a text can only be understood in relation to other texts and the Salt Companion to Harold Bloom. Allen is from England, but moved to Ireland in 1995 and is currently a Professor of Literature at University College Cork where he specialises in Romantic and Victorian literature as well as literary theory. A thorough theoretical knowledge does not, of course, necessarily guarantee good poetry but The One That Got Away, Allen’s debut collection, suggests otherwise. This is a remarkably assured and confident first book of poems with a distinctive and coherent voice. The poet resists the temptation to show-off a broad range of styles and themes, as first-time poets are wont to do, and writes with humour, intelligence and wry regret.
The title poem, which won the 2010 Listowel Poetry Prize, is packed full of strong lines and imagery, but meaning, as the title suggests, is elusive and slips away. Here, the main figure in the poem boards up windows and learns “to find food like a cat in the garden”, he writes poems about Blake and Ceres and “a ballad about Orion as a pin-headed cybot, / then tore it into strips and ate it as pasta”. Poetry in this poem is a “bid for freedom” and yet it seems to be an impossible task with the aim being to write the most original poem that had ever been written. This theme is developed elsewhere in the book and the one that got away is symbolic of lives that might have been lived under different circumstances.
In 'Great Eastern' the poet takes the train north through England and up into Scotland, the “obstinate vistas” outside the window merely remind him of opportunities missed:
I know that this is a world of lost chances
and cannot but regret I did not kiss you
during a half-lit summer night at Ullapool
The chance is gone and illustrated by the lonely figure of Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, stood with outstretched arms outside Newcastle. As the train crosses the Scottish border the poet is reading about gaps and silences in time and it is through such cracks that meaning may or may not slip through. This is analogous to poetry and the way the reader of contemporary literature has to think behind mere language “to reach not the meaning of the words, but the meaning of things themselves” as Roland Barthes puts it in Myth Today.
Many of the early poems in the collection are set in Cork and reflect a city whose fortunes have waxed and waned during Allen’s time there. 'The Elysian' typifies this approach, the tower, well-known in the city as a symbol for the Celtic Tiger era, was built during the boom time but was never really occupied other than a few lone apartments in an otherwise eerie emptiness. The title also refers to the Elysian Fields, a Greek conception of the afterlife, and the few occupants are ghostly figures living in a building full of unfulfilled potential with “unpaced corridors”, “untried locks”, “unopened shopfronts” and an “unviewed garden vista”. It is a place where, and here Allen implicates the modern world, “visionaries have all gone blind” and, in his imagination, if he listens carefully he can hear children “plunging to their early deaths”. The darkness at work here and the lack of vision contrasts with the figure of William Blake, poet and visionary, who appears in several of these poems. In an interview with Dave Lordan, Allen mentions that he reads little contemporary poetry, finding “too much modern stuff influences my own work unduly” and the Romantic poets offer him a distanced perspective on the modern world.
Interestingly, Allen’s poetry largely eschews regular rhyme and rhythm, giving it a contemporary angle to counterbalance the eighteenth and nineteenth century references. Poems such as 'A Prayer' have a prose-like air with long lines and sentences that can, as is the case in 'Oireachtas Report', last for the entire poem. This work recalls Allen’s recent poetry project, Holes, which is an ongoing autobiographical digital poem. In fact, Allen has noted how writing Holes on an iPad has begun to influence his more “conventional poems”, including a “tendency to break through sentential structures” and employing a “different rhythm” to the work.
Both Holes and the more traditional The One That Got Away are published by Cork-based publishers New Binary Press. Both poet and publisher are to be congratulated for their willingness to blend new technology with older formats and consequently both are moving forward with a respectful eye on the past. Allen’s poetry is a fresh and welcome addition to the Irish literary scene, it is an elusive and allusive collection that has much to say about past and present.
©2014 Matthew Geden
Buy Swimming to Albania
Buy The Place Inside
Other work by Matthew Geden in Southword