Guest Review: Asbury On Allen

Nick Asbury reviews
by C.J. Allen

I wonder if the Oblivion Tea Rooms are part of the same franchise as Douglas AdamsRestaurant At The End Of The Universe. The latter is a restaurant suspended in space-time at the precise moment the universe ends, providing a spectacular backdrop for time-travelling diners. The Oblivion Tea Rooms are a more sedate affair, but the title suggests a similarly suspended state. Maybe it’s the author’s view of the state poetry has reached: permanently on the point of implosion, but politely soldiering on from one provincial tea room to the next.

The title is a good way to locate the tone of this new collection from C.J. Allen: a deadpan combination of the existential and the everyday, the bleak and the banal. The opening poem is titled ‘A small, unremarkable oil painting of doubtful provenance, labelled Allegory of the artist trapped in an idiot’s career’. It’s an early signal of the wry self-doubt that runs throughout the collection. This is a poet who is half of the mind that poetry is an idiot’s career – not just in the professional sense, but as a linguistic endeavour. From poem to poem, there is a sense of restless search for the right form of words – a foregrounded process of refinement and redrafting, in which the reader is involved. This becomes a signature move for the poet – here are a few examples from the 62-stanza poem ‘Kasparov versus the World’:

a feeling that hangs somewhere near the ceiling, like smoke or the memory of smoke...

The shadows that fill up the corners are weighted with something, stones, perhaps, stories of stones, stones perfected by thought…

There’s a feeling of gasping fatigue, a feeling left floating like petrol in air, a feeling of aimlessness, looseness, of being abashed and abandoned, forlorn and alone.

For a while, this had me mentally reaching for the editor’s pen, yearning for some precision, but the effect is controlled and deliberate. Throughout this collection, there is a sense of meaning building cumulatively, and of things being examined from more than one angle simultaneously.

The book is split into five sections, each loosely uniting around a theme: history, animals, memory, poetry, landscape. The topics sound familiar, but the strategies employed are inventive, playful and defamiliarising. Here you will find prose poems, list poems, and game poems, including one that borrows its form from the moves in a chess match (the earlier mentioned ‘Kasparov versus the World’) – all alongside more conventional demonstrations of craft, from rhyming quatrains to half-rhyming couplets and blank verse.

‘Donkeys’ is a good-bordering-on-excellent example of conventionally crafted verse that nevertheless conjures up something anew:

They hang around like blankets or old sofas
someone has abandoned in a field.
Their voices have archaic cadences
and harmonies we have to strain to catch.

That’s the opening stanza, and this is how it ends:

Shakespearian and Biblical, their faces
stare into the woolly heart of darkness.
They nod their heads like slow machinery,
silently agreeing with themselves.

As an evocation of donkeyness, it’s beautifully done – I haven’t even included the line about them feeling “like a box of cardigans / left in the sun, in an Oxfam shop.” But it doesn’t take too great a leap to read all this as a description of the poet, dolefully plodding the same iambic route, speaking in “archaic cadences” and conversing only with himself.

This is a theme to which the book repeatedly returns, particularly in the fourth section, which starts with ‘Poets’ and its self-mocking opening gambit: “You don’t have to admire them, but you might as well; / they receive so little attention.” Other titles from this section include ‘Hello. Would you like to poetry?’, ‘Great writers and their shirts’, ‘I’m writing a poem and I’d love you to be in it’, and ‘Lines’, which reads as a semi-comical poetic manifesto:

I must not write poems that are vague and dishonest.
I must not write poems that are vague and dishonest no matter how good
they sound.
I must write poems that are charged with originality.
I must write poems that are charged with something.

I can imagine these poems go down well in precisely the kind of tea-room-reading- attended-by-other-poets to which the title alludes. This was the one problem I had with the collection as a whole – not so much with the poetry itself, as with the over-familiarity of the poetic stance. That knowingly self-deprecating, downbeat, ironising tone appears to have become the default position for contemporary British poets, who simultaneously want to be taken seriously, but live in fear of being seen to take themselves seriously. (There may be some self-recognition in my discomfort with this.) I wonder whether, following the collective cultural experience of the Olympic summer, we’ll see a new British voice emerging: more self-confident and less ironically defensive.

But I’m in danger of suggesting this collection is all knowing self-deprecation, when that is just one of many voices playing off against each other in these poems, all of which have a serious intent. The closing poem ‘Wooden boulder’ mirrors the opening poem in the way it takes another work of art as a starting point – in this case a sculpture of that name by David Nash. As noted earlier, the voice is continually searching for precision, correcting and clarifying itself as you read:

If a tree falls or is felled and a man takes a chainsaw
and carves from the trunk what some might consider to be
a boulder-shaped bole which he may or may not plan to use

later for something or other, will this help him to see
who he is or explain what he does to whomever might ask?

You get the sense the poet is searching for an authentic voice that can break through and connect with the world, but has to get there through multiple layers of irony and distancing. The poem concludes:

And as it rocks and sinks and bobs its way along
in the tidal expanse of a salt-marsh and out to sea,

is it part of a larger loneliness travelling through
the landscape, or is its going meant to be
no more than a method and means to set things free?

To read this book is to watch a smart, witty and self-aware poet go in search of that ‘method and means’ – through a combination of craft, playfulness and formal invention. While I hope it’s not the only joint left in town, the Oblivion Tea Rooms is nevertheless an interesting place to be.

Nick Asbury is a freelance writer whose previous work includes Corpoetics. He is editor of WrapperRhymes and recently featured in the collection Split Screen.