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The Silver Palace Restaurant

by Mark Abley
91 pages,
ISBN: 0773529985

Standing Wave

by Robert Allen
82 pages,
ISBN: 1550651986


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Aw Shucks
by Andrew Vaisius

More than anything else Robert Allen in Standing Wave gives the impression of having a conversation, an intimate conversation with us, whom he regards as old friends. Here's his handle on loneliness:

I am increasingly alright. What would you
want me to say?
I have no grid on which to reckon sure things.
I am talking
and singing to myself at an accelerating rate,

which argues mental problems, or the lonely
recursiveness
of language, when it is directed at no other. I
wish those I think are listening
were here, greedily drinking from the well spring

of my words, like the dead beyond Lethe, who god
knows all have a full slate of problems, and would
love to listen, even talk back, given half a chance.

I have two thousand square feet in which to dance,
but
no one to dance for. Though I paint shapes of feet,
opposing mine, still, the music always ends with me
falling

on a folding chair; an empty floor with a map for
dancing,
and the dust of randomness settling on the wooden
sill.

There you have the sonnet form¨4 X 3 lines + 2 trailers¨Allen uses for about half this volume ("Thirty-eight Sonnets from Jimmie Walker Swamp"), and there you have this man's gentle tone. He's concessive, wishful, full of doubt, discovery and perspective. Allen hints at rhymes, but his hints sound more musical and fluent than the sing-song rhyming schemes becoming fashionable again these days. I hear the whisper of second thought in "still" and in the final word "sill". There's also "chance" and "dance", and "for" and "floor", but in a totally unobtrusive context. Although Allen writes of the "dust of randomness", I suspect he's extremely calculating and bug-eyed aware. These sonnets are meditations not on spiritual puffery, but on the niggling rust in the armour, on war and history, the riot in the garden and George Gershwin. He can even write something mindful of America's mindless game of boredom and statistics-to-death baseball.
His "Aw shucks" tone is deceptive. "Half/ my life has been knowing the dark earth of here,// and not the promised secrets of the universe. I have it/ all here in my head. I don't know what it's worth." He doesn't know what it's worth? Even if Allen is being coy, it is clear he values this "dark earth of here". Likewise, he begs the question about what he has known for the other unaccounted half of his life. One of his successful techniques is having one sonnet borrow insights from another, so they become prolonged meditations. Initial reflections on the Trojan War extend into night thoughts of the military prowess of the USA and post-Cold War impressions until he circles back in the fourth sonnet with these lines:

If the Greeks are building a horse
it's because war has ceased being a joyful game
and they must start killing to go home.

How contemporary! I'd jump at the chance to tattoo Stephen Harper's forehead with these four sonnets, especially the concluding lines: " . . . their frail bodies proof that of all things// that relieve us of the weight of air, those/ that kill us ride into our minds the easiest." He completes the 38 sonnets by coming full circle with an echo of the "dark earth of here". "If I see only order around me/ I will jump, be the childish Lucifer falling."
To write about "The Encantadas", the second half of Standing Wave, I must first plead two-thirds dumb. Represented here is the final third of a long loping poem, first published in Magellan's Clouds (1988) and continued in Ricky Ricardo Suites (2000). According to Allen's notes, the first two-thirds of the poem concerns Jack, an oceanographer, and Jack's body double, Teddy, the tap-dancing turtle. In this final installment Jack is back on the high seas on the urging of Core, his muse, smuggling Greek wine to Northern Europe. It reminds me of the Rheostatics' "Onilley's Strange Dream" for no other reason than its mood¨a kind of world weariness and tense overkill.

. . . No one is original, of course ű but
gets consequence and cause messed up; no wonder we worship arbitrary

gods; the earth's a magical place thereby, with wrung-necked swans and
grave owls; with thought running like blood in our consciousness, with only
a bootstrap segue into afterlife; a roadmap,
a shining negative. Small

time bombers have made the world intolerable for
the smugÓ

Allen claims "Quick cuts are an important formal element of the poem, as are interruptions, discontinuities and abrupt changes in speaker." The cuts, interruptions and discontinuities I can enjoy and savour. Life is thankfully full of interruptions, discontinuities and change. As for that "speaker", I own a pair of Paradigm bookshelf speakers, and they are solely dependent on what signals get pushed through them. Jack, Teddy and Core rely on Allen's wisdom and creativity. He is the one to ultimately opine, "I refuse to think/ of memory as surrender. I think it is all things considered. It is consideration"¨as is this wonderful book.

The Silver Palace Restaurant is Mark Abley's first collection of poetry in eleven years. He writes clear, accessible poems in uncluttered, direct lines, but verges on the trivial when he overlabours an idea. The first part of the collection consists of a long poem called "After Pinocchio" which seems promising in the first run through, but pales with subsequent readings.

I recall the fear.

I recall the green-faced devil
who gripped Pinocchio in a fist
ready for the boiling oil.

"But now it's bedtime," I was told.
"We'll read another chapter
tomorrow. Sweet dreams, my dear."

These are sit-up-and-take-notice lines. But the poem's conclusion devolves to oversimplification, both in syntax and thought.

How would I rewrite the story?
Ó
Allow him his raucous innocence,
his rude brand of fun.
Allow him to keep his father
If Gepetto accepts a son

who may not follow orders
and won't be whittled away
by anyone who sees pleasure
as the herald of decay.
The intrigue of the first seven lines¨their high octane moralistic "fear"¨dissipates utterly in the sing-song ending. Demons and torture, ironically, get PC-scrubbed by a too-easy and too-overt acceptance of Pinocchio's rude fun and pleasure. What's missing is tension: the delicious frisson "bad" has with pleasure. Tension, although on very different terms, is provided in a poem like "Cancer". Nothing in the poem overtly states the pain and fear of hearing the diagnosis no one wants to hear, but by subtle imagery and action the point is made.

The white coat was pressed and terse:
faced with its verdict,
my father straightened his suit . . .

The synecdochical "white coat", answered by his father's action of straightening his suit and making his way by bus to admissions, has the power of a neutron bomb: the city grows invisible as the man makes his way to the hospital in the city "where his daily pleasure/ was mordant complaint." Everything works in this short poem, and it drives its concerns to an almost sublime conclusion.
When Abley's poems miss, they miss by a lot. "Red Letter", is burdened by such clichTd baggage as "courting shadows" and "I stroked the crying air", and gets hamstrung by a stifling abcb rhyme scheme. In "Vas Elegy", a vastectomy operation receives light treatment, but Abley mentions nothing about the loss of potency, either lightly or soberly. (Or doesn't it matter? ) "In Saskatoon The Ghosts", a tribute to three late Saskatchewan writers, Abley gets sentimental and goes for the jugular with these lines: " . . . already hunched from reading/ tales of places he meant to discover,/ never dreaming how much of himself/ I would leave behind, unsatisfied." The sentimentality also derives from his "dreaming" the ghosts in the poem. (What wisdom do the ghosts of the writers impart? "Dread nothing" and "Don't forget to laugh.") Yet on the very next page Abley redeems his excess with a short poem for his daughter called "One Night", a charming piece where the poet is held in thrall by the way "the moon, no longer round,/ glistens from a saltmarsh of the sky".
I find the poems sounding stronger in the last section. When he writes of the damage we inflict on other species, and domestic commonalities, Abley is measured, contemplative, and decent. In "Eurycea Tridentifera", the power of the poem's last lines is devastating as it is eerie.

. . . Just the feeling, I imagine,
that this earth no longer belongs
to the wild things in it
and they vanish one by one,
hour by hour, pale morsels
of flesh that can hardly dream
what the world has swallowed up
since a few intrepid ancestors
made a cave their home.

And there you have it: gone the Labrador Duck, maybe gone the salamander of Honey Creek Cave, and sooner than we care to admit, gone homo sapiens. Spend time with the good poems in this book. They are exceptional. "Birth", a poem contemplating death, is crystalline, hopeful, and strangely joyful. The ticket of admission comes complete with a pass to visions of oblivion. Perhaps not as strongly worded as that, but death is always playing in the background, foreground, and flashing in Abley's eyes. ˛
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