Graham Allen is the sort of poet who rewards readers who skip right to the end. The eponymous poem of The One That Got Away ends with “By the time it was time to reopen doors and windows / his house was a bank with a security system.” A discourse on reading Shelley and Blake in Italy ends with a meditation on “all the strange hands, in future, / who will open books at cut-price prices / to find well preserved, alien bodies.” One eloquent piece about a poet’s quotidian eating habits, “Indigestion,” ends abruptly with the subject throwing himself off a cliff. Life, post-Philip Larkin, is hard for Blake specialists; a poem needs to pack a punch. Or, put another way, in a world where UK tabloids routinely refer to Salman Rushdie as “Padma Lakshmi’s ex,” the serious intellectual life is kind of under siege. People in Mr. Allen’s poems don’t even bother talking to each other; they sit in groups of one and read. In between lofty doses of Livy and Vico, there’s staring at the lawn furniture, staring at the bugs on the patio, and watching your wife cook lentils for breakfast.
Underlying Mr. Allen’s elegantly dry diction is a bleakly idyllic, richly textured inner world that Harold Bloom considers to be a “throwback to the High Romantics…haunted by Blake, Shelley, and Keats.” Unusual among today’s poets, Mr. Allen’s poetry is only superficially inspired by the real-world experiences of sex, death and real estate. Several poems about dying relationships are, in fact, thinly-veiled ponderings about a grand classical tradition of philosophical and metaphysical thought--one break-up note (“Unrequited”) contemplates “my dark self simply brought a mirror, she literally divided, unfolded,” while another (“Sortilege”) compares the couple’s communications to the ancient occult practice of Virgilian Lots. Under this regime, the nastiest thing you can say to an ex-lover is that “One day I will look at you / as an illustration in a book / I have no intention of purchasing / let alone desire to read”. A surreal, J.G. Ballard-style description of a “to-die-for house” vividly evokes the interplay between sound and silence, call and response: “Maybe, in another part of the house, / a woman is quietly singing, / or filling an ostentatiously large crystal bowl with shiny, black stones.” A meditation on giving up smoking (“The Fags”) quickly spirals into a vision of the speaker’s father, which in turn disintegrates into successive images of disparate texts--crosswords, the Telegraph (or “Torygraph”), Moses, the Promised Land, and the speaker as Telemachus, “an obstacle in [his father’s] singular career.”
Mr. Allen thus bucks a general trend whereby there is a severe shortage of readers and an equally troubling surplus of writers. Any half-literate person clutching a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude can (and does) declaim about the process of writing. It takes significantly more mental overhead to write, as Mr. Allen does, about the process of reading. Aside from Umberto Eco (who, being a professor of semiotics, clearly has some vested intellectual interest in experiments like The Mysterious Flame of Queen Lloana), it’s not clear if the novelistic form can absorb such an enterprise. But, as Mr. Allen shows, the window of opportunity is wide open for poetry.
The most complicated and thoughtful poems in the collection, indeed, are those that refer to the great English Romantic tradition upon which Mr. Allen’s academic career is built. The final section, “Lago Trasimeno,” describes a journey through Umbria, as seen alongside a swirling kaleidoscope of companions: not just Blake, Keats, and Shelley, who were driven by the general English obsession with ancient Rome, but also Dryden, Livy and Vico. Running throughout the Italian adventure is the relatively standard tension between sublime art and disappointing life: specifically, there are a lot of mosquitoes, it rains a lot, and sometimes you drink too much. Reading Livy’s account of the battle of Saguntum, with its “pissed-up elephants” and “demotic omens,” leads to contemplation of a more long-running conflict:
Poetry is at war with history.
It’s sad, but it’s true. It has to be.
. . . .
Knowledge is what gets drunk and eaten.
Carthaginian, Roman, Celto-Iberian,
who are these people to you or me?
Life begins and ends as a wave
sucked up and spit out by the trees.
Mr. Allen’s poems are quaint in that they insist, with an almost Victorian hysteria, on the past continuing to walk with us--guiding us to see the magic in Ireland as a “land mist of mist and newly built houses,” advising generals as they plan the Gulf War (“Storming Norman confessed, / though it’s uncertain he was citing / Livy”), and helping us through a morning hangover where even the moon looks like a “huge, yellowish, headache tablet.” Yet such earnest insistence is tinged with sadness and cynicism, as implied by Mr. Allen’s masterful riffs on the Punic Wars. When he asks, “What did [Hannibal] drink? What smoke? / What dream? What lago did he despair on?”, the question is rhetorical: it’s important that we don’t know, otherwise we should never feel that we know him. There is some hint that the narrator of “Beyond Livy” doesn’t even read the Latin original: Dryden’s translation of Livy is sarcastically described as being “assisted / by eminent hands.” The specter of an unnamed cultural defeat is painfully evident through thirteen iterations on the Rome-Carthage showdown--among them the First Punic War as a precursor to Desert Storm, Hannibal as the “bin Laden of his generation, learning to accept the necessity of love,” Hannibal as the victim of victors writing history, Hannibal as a general almost nonsensically portrayed as a victim of war, Hannibal as the pivotal point in history when war retrospectively ceased to be a sacred fight to the death and became the corporate-technocratic domain of policy wonks and government contractors. The glorious emo defeat hanging over “Beyond Livy” is not that of the Carthaginians, who by all accounts left most of the fighting to the mercenaries; it is the resistance of history to being made into a decent Lifetime movie.
In one of the collection’s most moving tributes (which starts somewhat drily with “William Blake put his foot on it”), Mr. Allen writes with beautiful affection for the major Romantic poet who has, perhaps, weathered the complexities of postmodernism most gracefully:
He never made it to Italy,
the sunny home of barbaric art,
never got himself past Sussex,
made the Messiah walk all that long way home.
But I see him here, sometimes, wandering over the soft, green hills,
talking with angels at Magione,
swimming with children, saving lives,
debating with soldiers on Tuoro’s height,
explaining to Flaminius, in great detail,
why the chickens wouldn’t breakfast that morning,
the reason why the battle was always lost,
lamenting technological inventions:
the chariot, the motorcar, and the shoelace.
A fitting tribute to so many things: to the mythical and sublime lurking alongside the ridiculous, to the (mostly) unsentimental love of Albion, to long walks in the footsteps of your life’s most cherished heroes. Perhaps, however, it’s also a song to how and whom we read, which is in some sense who we truly are.