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On Rachael AllenMatthew Bevis
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Vol. 42 No. 5 · 5 March 2020

On Rachael Allen

Matthew Bevis

1643 words

When i sawKingdomland (Faber, £10.99) up in lights on its yellow-orange cover, the word conjured up visions of a travelling fairground, dodgily yet enticingly going to seed. Even after I learned that the term is an old name for Rachael Allen’s home county of Cornwall, I didn’t feel my first impressions were wholly misplaced. Kingdomland is Allen’s first collection and its opening lines set the tone for a volume preoccupied with spectatorship: ‘Watch the forest burn/with granular heat’. To watch – not merely to see – is to elongate and think through the act of looking. In Kingdomland the wish to look is both duty and danger, pleasure and predation. ‘I see/a burning child on the stove,’ one speaker confesses; then, batting away the desire to escape: ‘No, I watch her burn.’ Elsewhere the reader is warned that if you watch ‘you will be exposed.’

Allen sometimes appears to be conducting an experiment in the sexual politics of ekphrasis. Her earlier, uncollected, poems – written in response to paintings by Vera Iliatova – feature girls ‘watched through the trees’ while men ‘bang on the windows, lick the glass’; elements of landscape come into view ‘the way a body inches up/seductive like a crone/ready to be blamed’. In Kingdomland, a woman ‘is framed/cherubic against glass’, the line-end allowing the dual meanings of the verb to catch the light. Women are looked at over and over again, but they are also caught in the act of looking:

What is she watching come in over the shore
from the corner of her eye
as she sulks lazily by the large bay window?
A haunted old body, the one she’ll inhabit
that drags up and down the coast.

It’s as though the silent addressee of Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ – the lady who was told to ‘Come to the window’ so that the coastal landscape, and her place in it, might be explained to her – is being given space to sketch her own picture. The opening poem features a girl with ‘no tongue’, which raises the ghost of Philomela; later, feminine trees hark back to Daphne; and there are sirens, naiads, fallen women who drown in watery graves. Some of this is reminiscent of early Plath – think ‘Virgin in a Tree’ meets ‘Lorelei’ – but any attempt to place Allen evades the challenge of her writing, softening the blow of its disturbances. The power of her poems inheres in the difficulty of knowing what to say about them.

Kingdomland compels and thwarts attention. Allen’s images are evocative and unseeable, focused and hallucinated:

strange feelings overcame me when he left
like the cracking old image of a wave framing a lighthouse
like an octopus crawling on land.

Her similes seem conscious of what can’t be assimilated. ‘The air is touchy, fibreglass,/summer streams through the trees like a long blonde hair.’ Imagine the last line without its smallest word; the indefinite article resists any wish to read the female form tidily alongside the scenery – or to read it as scenery. When another poem begins ‘A landscape unpainted’, you wonder whether it’s about to be painted, or whether Allen seeks to unpaint your expectations.

As the collection progresses, it zeroes in on the way animals, like women, suffer from being spoken for. The painterly makes room for the putrid: ‘in pictures of the quaintest/traditions cream is tugged/into pails/while in the background/pyres burn on’. Links between misogyny and meat are driven home; a girl labelled ‘a meat clown’ wears ‘sausage blush’ on her cheeks and a young woman’s ‘ham-fisted’ sex games are twisted into new contortions when ‘Dad the Pig’ arrives. Sometimes I had the feeling that Allen was trying to appal herself into excellence (and to scandalise her reader into assent). ‘Porcine Armour Thyroid’ has more than a glint of Selima Hill (the only other poet I know who squashes the words ‘glands’, ‘armour’ and ‘pigs’ into the space of a few lines). The glands torn open in a pig’s neck look like ‘droplets of sperm/on the end of your glans’, Allen writes, before moving on to partake of breakfast: oysters, snot, edible eyeballs and other delicacies.

Allen is alive to the zealousness and the allure of disgust. She’s not being ironic in ‘Sweet’n Low’ (‘I am so angry/for the octopus/swallowed in kitsch restaurants’) or when she meditates on a chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey stuffed into a human in ‘Many Bird Roast’: ‘I came in, dandy and present/arguing for a moratorium on meat.’ But she’s after more than just an argument. In Kingdomland, disgust is contagious; the rank and the abject are repeatedly bound up with the sources of one’s own shame. I think this is why Allen keeps gravitating towards porous boundaries, ‘The kind of dark you find inside a body./The kind of darkness you find a body in.’ The poems are nervy and unnerving. If, at times, they read like exorcisms – ‘cut anything out of me that starts to grow in there’ – their on-off romance with renunciation is a compelling work in progress.

Kingdomland is transfixed by images of growth in the midst of decomposition or stagnation. The future is ‘lousy’, ‘composting from the inside out like a Halloween pumpkin gone bad’. Elsewhere, scum on the water’s surface is ‘sweet … dappled like albumen’, and the sea, as it ‘cannibalises’, ‘manages to forgive itself/every day’. These visions of nature’s tenacity often contain a mixture of envy and aversion, but they also gesture towards other feelings:

The men in my life, yes, come and go
while outside the window insects thrum
there are a mass of clovers
tangling up in something
my cup of bedside water is very still

Shame, anger and even nonchalance might be heard in the gruesome punning on ‘come and go’, but then something else happens. In a previous version of this passage, Allen had ‘hens’ instead of ‘insects’ and ‘is’ (not ‘are’) in the third line. ‘Insects’ is more susceptible to the reproductive possibilities of that thrumming, while ‘are’ is a wrongness that feels right, feels alive to the confusing, generative uncountability of a mass, and is in keeping with a viewpoint that sees those clovers as agents – ‘tangling’, not tangled. I suppose the cup of bedside water might be read as pathetic fallacy, an emblem of the speaker’s exclusion from all this motion, yet the plainness of the precision here is strangely restorative (the water is ‘very’ still; for those who look closely, there are gradations of stillness). Reading these lines, I’m reminded of Rae Armantrout, whose influence can also be felt elsewhere in Kingdomland: ‘Being able to look at water soothes the anxious emptiness between thoughts.’

If the act of noticing offers a momentary distraction from inner turmoil, it also seems to adumbrate links between external and internal states. Writing about one of her favourite poets, Sylvia Legris, Allen described the solace she gets from watching Legris anatomise the workings of human and animal bodies: ‘whatever is going on inside me is going to be as alien to me as outer space.’ Perhaps this is why Allen’s poems don’t seem too concerned about whether you ‘understand’ them. Alienation is her subject. ‘I rescue a hazy insect,’ one of her speakers says, ‘she watches and knows/I have secrets.’ The wry wishfulness of this anthropomorphism is a dream of a certain way of being in the world; to know that someone (or something) has secrets needn’t be to know what they are, or to presume that they know. ‘She can’t tell me hers,’ the poem ends. Allen uses the inscrutability of animal and plant life as a means of exploring – or coming to terms with – the waywardness of her own experience:

played in the long-grassed meadow
and it didn’t feel as good as I thought it might
played at happiness in a night full of unimaginable grief
and it felt better than I thought it could

The idea of ‘play’ as a decoy and resource – a means of hiding from yourself, and tapping your hidden depths – is present throughout the collection.

Allen seems intent – sometimes a little too intent – on leaving herself and us in the dark. The lines above are taken from ‘Nights of Poor Sleep’, a title that may imply that we are reading a product of insomnia, or that the speaker slept fitfully and the poem is a record of what she dreamed. But her poems do not establish narrative patterns of cause and effect. And, as she loiters at the crossroads of Sequence, Portent, Association and some other street whose name we can’t quite read, it becomes hard to know whether the oneiric is a route to insight or a sign of impasse. Yet even impasse has its attractions. The collection’s title poem paints a picture of a dark village on a crooked hill: ‘There is a plot of impassable paths towards it.’ That ‘plot’ is eerie (is it a piece of ground, or a plan, or a conspiracy?), but those ‘impassable paths’, a borrowing from one of Lorca’s moon poems, take us to the heart of the matter. ‘Surely what makes a path a path is its inherent passability?’ Allen has written, adding that Lorca’s phrase stays with her as ‘a little poetic mantra for accepting the unreasonableness of things’. The need for the mantra suggests that acceptance doesn’t come easy, or that the lesson won’t stay learned, and behind the fear and disorientation of Allen’s writing, there is a glimpse of something other than acceptance: a kind of glee, a thrill at being caught in the act of unreasonable making, a commitment to ‘illicitly being’.

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