I am haunted by waters, wrote Norman Maclean, but that simple declaration could just as easily have been inscribed by poet Kelli Allen. The poems forming the bulk of her new collection, Imagine Not Drowning, may weave multi-threaded motifs throughout but never stray far from the natural world and the basic elements, especially water. Creeks, lakes, rivers, ocean.
There is a unity of tone flowing from poem to poem, a single female voice addressing a single auditor almost always male. In the early poems the narrator is addressing a father, in later poems a lover; and neither is likely actually present as these poems seem to be conversations not exactly recalled from memory, but constructed to further a conversation in the narrator’s mind.
To set aside the question of the material being autobiographical, we know that material is always drawn from life. Here Allen wrote about her father on her facebook page:
“Nothing about his presence in life was simple, and there is little about his absence that feels simple, either. (Facebook 8/30/16)”
And here the narrator speaks to the shade of her father:
It is easy to hide
one father inside
of another, as you have,
my father, so many of you
tucked tight, as nesting
dolls without seams. (“Trebuchet”)
Many people have complicated relations with parents yet here we see that whatever has been lifted from life has been transmogrified for the page, figurative language used to quicken inert fact into vivid metaphor and meaning. Nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea change into something rich and strange.
We are immersed in a world a few removes from our shared sublunary reality, an admixture of rustic homestead allowing the narrator to draw signifiers from the natural world; and a dreamlike arcadia with walk-ons by Baba Yaga and Coyote, and other figments of fairy tale and myth. The poems exude a timeless quality, with nary a mention of the modern world or its techno-doodads.
Recurring emblems, among others, keys, maps, scrolls …
“Market Day in Someone Else’s City”
Some towns are the wing bones we crush
in our hands. Every streets’ turn signifies
what is most hollow in the snap. Yet,
we return again as weasels emerging
from the rough barn, paws and teeth
ahold of the last map, rich cake crumbs
still falling from the scrolls’ edges.
Leaving means we close the garden house
door, maybe too late, and who then will escort
the bride, her two blessed boys, and some
prince to the hall erected as center, as castle?
It’s no longer enough to be the merchant
when rain refuses an audience and the procession
could stop, and there are no dances to sell,
no poppies left in our baskets, the ground dust,
too rough for this white calf, our only meal,
to lead the way ever, closer, nearly home.
A peculiarity of some of the titles which poet Allen tops her texts is their inversion of order. Here is a sampling of five:
“Separations for Fall, for Winter, too”
“Conversation Under Sun In Summer, Late”
“Here Is The Blurry Mark, The Sometimes Love Letter”
“Tart Fruit, How Best to Serve A Mouth”
“Starch Coming First, Filling Hands Before Mouths Met Brine”
It struck me at first to be similar in nature to an index entry or even military nomenclature. “Truck, utility, 1/4 ton” is a jeep by any other name but not in the army. An exacting mind at work finds a method to use the second part of the title to qualify the first as though it were not just expressing an idea, but sketching a map of how it arrived. Meaning, like water, seeks its level.
The title of the collection triggered a memory of Stevie Smith’s oft-anthologized poem “Not Waving But Drowning” with its last two lines:
“I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.”
The poet, it seems, has turned the subject on its ear, topsy-turvy. Not drowning, we take for granted. Only those in extremis imagine drowning, Virginia loading rocks in her pockets, Hart slipping surreptitiously into the ripe waiting sea.
So consider a metaphor where the norm is drowned existence, living a life in a subaqueous demesne.
“Let me show you the Maypole dance constucted underwater.”
In a poem early in the collection the narrator equates drowning with surrender.
"Imagine Not Drowning"
Spiked edged milkweed and one morning
soon the ankle scrapes won’t matter
and you will keep walking, pin dots
blooding-up your bones and shoes
right on past what was a minefield, bulbs
in orbit, neat circles and rows you planted
together. None of this means you are less
Sometimes the leaving is not falling. Like this:
let’s say you have discovered the feathered
starfish, unexpectedly waiting in its tidal pool
and you turn to say look, notice, again, aloneness
as heat escapes your skin and you are fine.
We sew-up the lies we keep inward, thread
colors as insignificant now as before. Hurl your body
up into the rain, head bent back, throat to the clouds.
You escape, you climb, and the crash you hear against
those rocks is not meant for confessions, not now. Kiss
your own fingers; you have carried yourself home.
Escape is a grace.
The sign warns of undercurrent
and as you read the words aloud, against
my ear, against this water rushing hard, elevating
minute hairs with breath, yours, I intend to listen, can’t,
and so exhale sharp, marking the new distance with mint,
with steam, where a warning might have been. (“North Fork”)
Our world inundates. You can fill up your lungs with the too much.
As Robert Frost wrote, “Every poem is a momentary stay against the confusion of the world.” and poet Kelli Allen manages to do that with every poem. A modern-day criticism that might be leveled at this book by those who think themselves feminists is that almost every poem is about a relationship with a man. The point made by the narrator, poem after poem, is not that she is being subsumed by the relationship, or the welter of the world; but that she is finding balance and grace.
There are a lot of poems in this collection and I have but touched on a fraction of the themes the poet has presented. There is so much more. The Jungian abounds in a riot of fecund invention. You will find felicities and misfires, ebbs and flows of interpersonal dynamics and if you are a lover of poetry, this book will be your one stop shop.