Jan Allen’s poetry juxtaposes technical and psychological jargon with original language and metaphoric abstractions. Much of her imagery is geometric and abstract, full of shapes and patterns. There are colours, there is motion and understated emotion in her work.
This chapbook is part of Stanzas, an occasional magazine for long poem/sequences put out by above/ground press. Jan Allen is a writer, visual artist and curator in Kingston, Ontario. The poems published in this series tend to be unconventional, breaking with tradition, breaking rules. Allen’s is no exception. Does she use clichés? Yes. Does she end lines with function words? Yes. And it works. Stanzas and Allen’s own poetry is part of publisher/poet rob mclennan’s on-going mission to expose readers to poetry that'll "blow yr colon" (and your semi-colon too).
It’s hard not to just quote most of the poems line by line as I find just taking out excerpts really minimizes the power and beauty of her poems, but here goes:
PP01 aesthetic alignment unit
Allen presents a snapshot of geometric images coming together: “a sudden rectangle/behind tangerine curtains”. She accurately and creatively reproduces the sounds and sights of a summer’s day in a pool by blending senses: “pounding ears brim/with light filled/densities”
PP02 anger management module
There’s lots of colour in Allen’s poems, but the colour does not feel arbitrary.
green core/gray lines/ white plastic plunger
The movement “long needles slide under the skin” is an image that stays with you; it’s haunting, sad.
PP03 anticipation modulator
more blending of senses: “I hear the tilt/in your voice.”
original language: “unexpected oranges/roll and scatter/with the logic of fruit.” This is exactly right. It’s one of those observations that just makes sense, but no one thinks of fruit as being logical.
metaphoric abstraction: “the jagged stammer of living/gives way/to the fragile/metronome of hope.”
PP04 antiprocrastination switching system (which my spell checker wants to change to ant procrastination)
Poem is strong due to its understatement; she’s talking about bombs dropping and yet the whole thing is subdued. The image of spiraling down is threaded through the poem. She has a new spin on mortality: “riding/the white shuffling/calculus of time.” It feels like your high school math teacher took art and then wrote poems. Allen’s stuff is such a mixture of art and science; logic and heart. Often when people write issue poems, they hammer it heavy into us, but not Allen. She has something to say, but she does it through understatement and imagery and this abstract language. While the titles depersonalize in some way, the content of the poems makes this very personal: “we know too much/ and too little/and still/sleek improbable jets/are dropping bombs/on distant towns.” There’s no lecturing here, which makes it all the more potent.
PP07 arousal modulator
Allen exhibits a facility with scientific language: “an infinite regression,” but places it within the context of humanity, of feeling. In this poem we have both the physical and the metaphysical. There’s beauty in her words, in the act she describes; here's the whole poem because it's my favourite:
I am close enough to see it now
the wide black pool in each eye
an infinite regression
shining back at me
I never miss the involuntary
flare of nostrils or the trace of
moisture across your brow as
flesh gathers itself
like an arsenal of angels
too long deprived of flight
PP08 bonding capacitator A [1-3]
Allen often uses repetition as a device in her poems. In this poem, the repetition works as a form of meditation: “of time alone/our time together/flows together.”
PP09 bonding capacitator B [group applications]
“some quiet/parking lot future.” You know what she means. It’s short and to the point, very little is described, yet it works.
PP010 charisma chip
Once more there is movement: circling and return, a voice’s vibrations into the “listening earth.” In many of the poems, it feels like the speaker senses something the rest of us are missing and is trying to describe it in terms we humans can understand. “don’t kid/yourself that it’s/ just physical/a charged presence/radiant/we warm ourselves/before it.”
PP011 commitment regulator
A simple description; this is another example of the juxtaposition of cold, laboratory titles juxtaposed with warm human activity, in this case the nursing of a baby. Allen uses some stock imagery: rosebud lips, tiny fists, but then gives us “the tingling release of/the white circuit of milk.” The stock images act like a lullaby of the familiar and then we are awoken by her unusual descriptions that seem so fitting to the circumstance.
PP013 credulity suppressor
A gentle lament about poets “the fibrous network/that is the act of beauty/grows brittle with misuse.” And this is what Allen is doing in her work, she’s making sure that this network does not grow brittle; she’s incorporating fresh ways of seeing the world into the old and tired, the technical and the abstract, the cold and brittle.
PP014 crisis compiler
Yet Allen is not all about the abstract, she is adept at describing the physical: “pavements sticky/with ancient circles/of chewing gum…” In this poem there is some fairly traditional sound play: sticky/brick/fix/conviction/quickly—to give this poem its sticky staccato crisis feel. She also uses the occasional simile and hers are original and fitting: “stale piss days and nights/pass into one another/like playing cards dealt/too quickly/in a tired place/where every kindness/feels like failure.”
PP015 didactic intake amplifier
More simile here and a very tight rhythm and strict diction: “sensory funnels suck/information sheaves like/layers of pressed grass/that compost quickly/in the humid convolutions/of cranial space.”
PP020 full reverse trigger
In this poem, the speaker addresses the reader directly with a command, a kind of philosophical plea: “eliminate/the bridal path/circuitry of present pursuits.” Once more we have the image of a circle, which crops up often in Allen’s poems.
I found Allen’s strongest poems to be at the beginning. There are so many poems here, with lots of original language and odd juxtapositions, ways of looking at things. In PP025 induction device for conflict resolution, Allen continues to play with sound and resorts to a play on Eliot’s “April is the cruelest month": “winter is the kindest season.” There’s lots of attention to sound in this very short poem: “kindest/kindling/culled” “flames/flicking/fingers.
PP026 inhibition override unit
This is the most surrealistic poem with strong imagery: “the yawning cries of trains” and “the blister packs/of unspent intuition.” Once more we have motion, this time it is rising: “hydrogen bubbles/rise glorious/and luminous fractals/release the white barking/elegance of thought.” Much of the poems seem to be encouraging readers to let go, to live in the moment, to override convention.
Again in PP027 lapse reducer, Allen sounds a warning: “planetary wars/are going unnoticed.” There’s another strong image “alphabet teething rings/in landfill sites/…spell out a…lament/for the supine drift/of inattention.” All the way through these poems, not paying attention, not living in the moment, letting things happen unawares, seems to be the biggest danger.
PP029 miasma lifting device
There’s hope: “the judges are growing impatient/they take their daughters/out of school and/teach them how to sing/you can hear them now/…swaying and swinging their feet/in the sloping light of afternoon.”
In the final poem, PP030 misdirected passion terminator, Allen ends with “I am considering the wisdom/of border planting/and taking/long overdue/measures against/invasive perennials.” This poem is sharp and to the point. None of Allen’s poems are long, and none of them ramble. There’s clear imagery, the carving out of concrete image from abstract metaphor and a heart that shows itself sympathetic and gently impatient with mankind. These are not sappy poems, but they are the poems of someone who cares.
I feel dissatisfied with what I’ve written here; it’s such a superficial treatment of some excellent poetry that one needs to return to again and again. My own pale purple copy is dog eared and mangled. The best thing to do is read for yourself:
rob mclennan, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or above/ground press c/o rr#1 maxville ontario Canada k9x 1t0 $20 for 5 issues or sample $4 (or large s.a.s.e) payable to rob mclennan. you can also pay $30 and get the chapbooks and little mags rob publishes that year in small brown envelopes discreetly passed to you at readings or mailed to you. I find this is a wonderful way to be exposed to the new, the now of poetry.