I had heard a great deal of positive excitement regarding Kelli Allen’s first collection of poems, Otherwise, Soft White Ash, which had been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and I found therein a maze glowing with lamplit mythology that speaks to a deep connection to magical realism. The emphasis lies on how the real is magical, as ineffable as a ruby-throated hummingbird, in that however we choose, life tends to answer oft in spooky majesty. Kelli Allen, a professor at St. Louis’s Lindenwood University, expresses the mystery with language, opaque or obtuse, bearing witness to what is real, yet ever liquid, even as the inauthentic and the authentic continually clash in a world in which humans slip into denial that, in both essence and existence, we are always animals. Allen posits that, perceptive equipment notwithstanding, only the physical may lead us into a truth of which we find only hints with the paltry black-and-white language as the thread that may lead us out of the labyrinths, those mazes more often than not of our own making.
Clearing Materials of Exile
Hunter and hermit both dissolve bitter with sugar cubes stolen
from cut glass jars, though neither always remembers the theft.
Each extends then wraps dirt dried fingers around the weak sweet crystals,
mouths diminished in the metal mirror hanging loose in the old barn.
Humiliation is an Easter horse moving directly behind us like some brutal,
selfish child whispering I want my supper while chewing weeds and apples.
We cross one border to move closer to another, as the dark crow
in our coat pocket closes his eyes, and we are allowed to sleep.
The priest ignores the ark in his woods because he is busy absorbing his shadow,...read more (2/4)
and the animals know their work is to hide every egg like dark stones meant for the river.
The personal is a departure point in which we must often choose between trust or fear, even in the most seemingly innocuous instances. As in Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, we must change our lives. Such is the powerful magic of words.
In Otherwise, Soft White Ash, we witness horrific trauma, some of which she describes in the more biographical prose sections which bookend the collection. Indeed, it must have been quite difficult to experience one's mother bleeding to death in one's arms. Others, of course, have experienced exactly as much if not more trauma in their own lives, yet Allen uses adeptly connotation to transcend language limitations while objectifying such trauma, not quite as a means toward healing, but as a way of naming it, capturing it, binding it and thus placing it in an eidetic moment-as-monument.
Implacable change in an uncertain world often leads the less brave to grasp for security or constancy, mainly because it seems easier to cling to expectation or a safety which in reality is mythological, a chimera of the mind. Tragedies such as those Allen recounts in detail, serve to unlock us from personal mythologies that stand between our presence in the world-as-is and an exhilaration of what could be. The collection intersperses prose soliloquies as cleverly-hewn personal history that informs her equally clever lyric poems, as well as cluing readers into possible touchstones that clarify and unite the moment with the momentary. Allen employs a sort of strangeness in her prose that defies conventions of both brevity and clarity, mainly as a way to defocus the spell of that mystery-defying exactitude and supposed objectivity. It helps us break away from what we only think we know.
Convolution may be an inadequate label when applied to Allen’s prose. Her writing may seem at times excessively private or precious to more rough-and-tumble critiques of the conventional wisdom, but hers is an original voice in a world dominated by what could be called The Billboard Top 100 poet’s poetry in a literary fashionista bar.
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The short lyrical pieces point to problematics and even possibilities of a dissolution. There appears here a sort of mosquito net between inauthentic self and authentic world. Much is going to be completely lost in art designed to force the reader into a sense that could be misconstrued as alienation and even neglect. Is magical thinking grounding the tidal wave here? Is this utilization appropriate within an indeterminacy purposely employed to defy the alphabet without question or by filling it full of questioning?
That indeterminacy remains endemic to women worldwide, not to mention problematic to men who themselves are stuck with silly roles that mean nothing. Many women share perhaps a number of frustrations with Allen, learning as they do in approaching midlife they have outgrown previous myths, yet this poet does have a reachability that is often informed by Jungian archetype, mystical beings, spirit familiars, and reminders that we all are essentially animals with delusions of grandeur hung in suspension within a huge contrivance we have blithely pronounced as civilization. We alienate the feminine of the natural world to the point where some seem to have forgotten Nature with a capital N even exists. And Nature, while definitely not spinning on a dime, does remain a slippery liquidity not under human control at all. Nothing in the world is perfectly round. No completely straight lines. Allen seems to know she does not need to out-and-out say this.
The beautiful and ominous commentary could pirate its way into outright thievery once the arrogant and the proud realize that, yep, the firebird has already plumed upwards beyond the ash, that trauma is a beautiful gate into a temple of inscrutable beauty and wonder, and that indeed, rabbits are everywhere. Yes, memory. In Allen’s world, memory manifests as a festival of spotty raindrops on an otherwise clean windowpane, though everyone knows the world outside one's window isn't free.
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Anyone who has been through trauma knows one thing: there is a flaw in reason that delimits entire dictionaries of both arrogance and fear. Sometimes archetypal constellations of repressed emotion obscure so deeply they fool us into believing monkeying with constellation engines is enlightenment. Kelli Allen indicates she is not fooled a bit by that sunny nonsense and her book, Otherwise, Soft White Ash is far too amazing to leave out how darkness tattoos delight and transforming it into a life delectable and lit in pure unadorned clothing of unutterable wonder. The best company of all knows it is welcome here, even should the dark angels come knocking.
Other work in the Books series: