Kyra Thomsen reviews “The short story of you and I” by Richard James Allen
The short story of you and I
by Richard James Allen
Reviewed by Kyra Bandte
At first, The short story of you and I by Richard James Allen seems to exist in the liminal space between awake and asleep; the space where your psyche turns the familiar sound and scene around you into something altogether unfamiliar; the space where love and death coexist in the same ghostly breath.
The epigraph to The short story of you and I includes a black and white photograph of the poet, Richard James Allen, along with the imploring words: “My poems are sleeping in these pages, waiting for you to rouse them.” This connection between writer and reader continues throughout the book with Allen’s use of second person “you”. Whoever the poet truly speaks to, the persistent use of second person draws the reader close in a faceless kind of intimacy.
The book’s dedication whispers “for you”, and the first poem of the collection, ‘Delicate Awakening’, shows the poet’s persona vulnerable in sleep like a lover in a bed, needing to be woken “delicately / like raising an ancient shipwreck” (10).
The short story of you and I is, ultimately, a story of love and life (and death) from the moment the book is opened; from the moment the reader rouses the poems, gently awakening the sleeping poet in the opening stanza.
We slip through time and dreams in ‘Schlafwagen und Wunderkammer’, in “the long tail of a tall tale” (12) where “you were fairly certain it would be a normal sleep… but on the contrary” (13). We awaken into poems rich with seemingly everyday moments that Richard James Allen expertly transforms to spin a yarn so familiar it aches. One poem, ‘Espresso’, is a single exquisite line that holds a well of subtext within it: “There is no such thing as an innocent cup of coffee” (38).
But these everyday occurrences converge with the unreality of dreaming in ‘A Party in Small Moments’, which seamlessly slips between the macro and micro of our lives, asking “How can we have survived so many generations… and yet still come back to the tinkle of a spoon in a china bowl?” (17). Allen repeats the words “every moment” and the motif of tea cups and tinkling spoons, bringing the reader home with these everyday domesticities before asking “did you follow your dreams / or did you just fall asleep?” (20).
Using prosaic sentence structure and constantly addressing the “you” in the reader, Allen turns his poems into the little fictions of our lives. “I think maybe you thought your life was going to be a wall-size narrative painting… but somehow it turned out to be a quietly reflective line drawing” (23), Allen writes in ‘how life turned out, or Details of the Now’, making the reader feel quite insignificant for “this miniature of your life” (24).
A beautiful example of the way Allen uses colloquial prose in his poetry is in ‘Central Dreaming’, where the poet’s persona tells the story of how Sydney’s Central Station used to be a cemetary, now filled with ghosts “peering out from their unresolved darknesses / at the relentlessly colourful parade / of generation after generation” (33-34). This poem feels like a conversation, a casual story told from one commuter to another on one of Central’s suffocatingly humid underground platforms.
The poem not only demonstrates Allen’s articulate use of everyday scenes but brings two of the book’s main themes to light: life and death dance together in ‘Central Dreaming’, where the ghosts of the past drift alongside the “newer and newer Australians / right up to the drag queen in the hijab / standing nervously next to you” (34). The reader even becomes a ghost themself in ‘How we met’, where “The taxi stopped to let out its ghosts. / You were among them” (71).
The haunting middle between life and death is most obvious in one of the book’s final poems, ‘The Captain of the Men of Death’; a phrase referring to the sicknesses of consumption and pneumonia. The poem encapsulates the collection’s key themes of life and death while showcasing Allen’s technical poetic skill using language, structure and white space.
Filled with metaphysical, rhetorical questions (“What stands between you / and your dreams? [p93], “What can one patch of blue teach an overcast sky?” , “Who knows anything about souls anyway?” ), the poem is one of the most introspective in the collection. The shroud of everyday moments and conversational prose falls away in this long poem of constant questions, repetition and the grim motifs of body parts, sickness, trees and dreams.
Allen implores “you” to find un/consciousness: “You must understand now. You must understand now. / You must imagine now. You must sleep now. You must remember now, old friend.” (101) Then revives the reader with the state of familiarity that the rest of The short story of you and I presents, telling us to brush our teeth, shower, dress, step outside and “become just another metaphor for incompleteness” (102-103).
The collection shows the variety in Allen’s writing style, with the contast between seemingly simple poems (like ‘Espresso’ or ‘How we met’) and the more complex or sprawling poems like ‘The Captain of the Men of Death’. But more than that, The short story of you and I by Richard James Allen is an exploration of binaries and the ghosts between them; life and death, love and hate, you and I. It all starts with awakening the poet, and slipping into his dream.
KYRA THOMSEN lives and works on Dharawal Country. Her fiction and poetry have been published most recently in Cordite, AntipodeanSF, and Seizure, and she has reviewed books for Mascara, RABBIT Poetry Journal, the NSW Writer’s Centre and Writer’s Edit. Kyra was selected for the ‘Slinkies Under 30s’ program by Spineless Wonders in 2016, and co-won the Questions Writing Prize in 2012.