Review by Helena Fornells
That we are in the presence of a strange imagination becomes obvious from the first poem in Rachael Allen’s debut collection. The uncommon use of adjectives – ‘granular heat’, ‘no tongue / flavoured camo’, ‘the black / and emergent pool’, ‘the billowing ceiling’ – and the resistance to straightforward narrative make the subject slippery. In just fourteen lines, we move from a burning forest where a girl in a ditch ‘grips to a dank and / disordered root system’, to an image of ‘bathing in the black / and emergent pool’, and again through ‘the trees on fire’ we arrive at an end, ‘as the girl floats up / to the billowing ceiling’.
In Kingdomland (Faber, 2019), we witness the construction of a world which is not always coherent and resists quick understanding, which falls into pieces as it is being built, page after page. As the darkness of the first poem suggests, the world created by Allen is more often nightmarish than it is dreamy – the terror of nightmares suffuses the everyday as well as the imagination.
Early in the collection, ‘Prawns of Joe’, written after Selima Hill’s ‘Prawns de Jo’, unfolds Allen’s personal brand of gloomy aesthetics, opening with a tense domestic scene:
When I had a husband I found it hard to breathe
I was up early, he’d get home late
to rub the baby, we took it in turns.
The darkness of the scene escalates quickly, three lines later:
In among all the crying, I see
a burning child on the stove.
The same one as before?
The trauma of Selima Hill’s ‘singeing baby’ is relived again and again, in the way that traumatic events come back: ‘Another body found burned in the oval, / purple and mystical’. And if the home is not safe, neither is the outside world. Once the husband leaves, a sinister neighbour moves in: ‘She has a black little finger / and has been watching me for days’. Another domestic scene towards the end calls into question the boundaries of fact and fiction in the poem:
eating cold cream cake on the dimming porch
in the yellow breeze, lonely,
just thinking up these stories.
Whether it has all been imagined or lived by the character, the feeling of unease it leaves in the reader does not disappear easily.
The problematic relationship between men and women, or even men and girls, plays a large role in the unease that builds up poem after poem. A series of anonymous characters, who appear only as ‘man’, ‘girl’, ‘woman’ and ‘baby’, make the relationships even more sinister. The book constructs a mythology where ‘man’ or ‘men’ are auguries of danger, violence, unrest. The word ‘girl’, used more often than ‘woman’, invokes the innocence that is so often disrupted and broken in the poems.
‘The man who loved me / pushed me to the ground’, opens the poem ‘Lunatic Urbaine’, where the pain is inflicted by a supposedly refined cosmopolitan man.
The sequence ‘Nights of Poor Sleep’, addressed to a ‘Former Love’, presents a variety of awkward situations with men: ‘my safe word couldn’t reach him with his head at my tail’; ‘it was the only time I wore a blouse / and he blew his nose all over it’; ‘I’m taped up with masking and broken-hearted / in the end he would barely touch me’. Mixing serious and humorous tones in a broken narrative set in different backgrounds, the sequence makes it hard to decide what is going on in the relationship, or whether it is about the same two people throughout. The juxtaposition of seemingly disconnected images in this sequence does become slightly exasperating and desensitising, but this does not happen in many of the other poems.
‘Beef Cubes’, set in a school, dismantles the idea of innocence in children, as they are also subjects and enforcers of pain. Gendered abuse and shaming (women’s feeling of shame is a persistent topic in the collection) that carry on into adulthood are present from a very young age: ‘Terry felt through her jean shorts / told everyone she was wet’.
These scenes of tension are interspersed with some more casual moments of rest, like the following lines towards the end of ‘Nights of Poor Sleep’:
The men in my life, yes, come and go
while outside the window insects thrum
there are a mass of clovers
tangling up in something
The beautiful ‘Volcano’, quoted here in full, presents a post-utopic volcanic landscape that looks back to a buried world where things may have been different, in the absence of Kingdomland’s main perpetrators. Though, the second line in the poem’s stunning opening stanza seems to hint at the looming darkness:
A bleak and ferrous opening in the sky
a wound the kind that rots to black
rumbling apart, a doctored element of cloud.
Beneath that, a geography observed from a ship,
an old great state at the base of an eruption
where only girls lived, carbuncled in dust,
caught mid-play and mid-menses, long arms
chastising or rubbing filth on themselves, arched
over desks and on the swings, illicitly being.
Resisting straightforward storytelling and stable narratives, and avoiding the unity of self characteristic of the lyric mode, Kingdomland does not let us hold on to the logic of subject matter, so we must trust poetic language and its vivid imagery to tell the story.
The power and singularity of the poems indeed relies on Allen’s superb use of poetic images and figures. From her unique similes:
efforts to understand me were lost
like music reverberating under water or a hammock
pinged at one end
to her play with and questioning of metaphor:
Afternoon weather is
generic, like ice on the
steamy road metaphor,
not the eclipsing
I was particularly fond of the presence of two wonderful ‘hair’ similes: ‘The air is touchy, fibreglass, / summer streams through the trees like a long blonde hair’, and ‘evening coming down like hair snipped over shoulders’.
The narrative of the relationship between men and women is partially interrupted by a concern with our relationships with animals, explored in a few poems towards the middle of the book.
In ‘Many Bird Roast’, the already scary Turducken – a dish involving a chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey – is mocked as it changes its form, using birds not usually served as food: ‘one small sparrow in a pigeon in a grouse in a swan’. The poem seems to point out the hypocrisy of our willingness to eat something as disturbing as Turducken while we won’t eat certain other animals. In ‘Sweet’n Low’, the poetic voice takes the side of octopuses, an uncannily intelligent species that some have no problem eating: ‘I am so angry / for the octopus / swallowed in kitsch restaurants’. ‘Cravendale’ highlights the sadness of a ‘purblind fatted cow / waiting in the queue for the contract / made on her behalf’ with some beautifully crafted lines:
a cow in slow and silent
moonlight, grass in her ear
no cow is really a mother
but to milk in the air
or air as milk
or milk in her eye
like a hot blue steam room
holding worlds of fat
mysterious for our benefit
in pictures of the quaintest
traditions cream is tugged
Drawing the reader’s attention back to the cycle of violence perpetrated against women, towards the end of the collection ‘Landscape for a Dead Woman’ confronts the topic more explicitly and thoroughly than any of the previous poems. Images of violence pile up along the poem’s sixteen pages, the horror slowly unfolds and grows powerful:
she visited me once
and told me
men have the upper hand
unbanded her chest
to reveal rows of wounds
Did he mistake her for an animal
when he let blood for the night?
where she will be safer away
from her murderous family
where they murder
each other in kitchens
The fragmentation of narratives previously presented are the training ground for the devastation and brutality of this poem, where the tension is solidified and we are finally allowed to feel the blow of the violence accumulated. The men, girls, women and babies that recurred in earlier poems gain clearer meanings here, making many of the poems from the first half of the collection more disturbing than on a first reading.
‘Landscape for a Dead Woman’ explores the effects of inheriting the trauma of gendered violence through family histories, its transformation into collective suffering. Allen effectively conveys the psychology of collective trauma through landscape and space:
and the sea will obfuscate the shore as she has
obfuscate our lives
She is embedded in the walls
and emerges from the walls
Representing the journey through self-blame, shame and guilt involved in abuse, this sequence becomes the climax of a collection that touches on urgent issues both seriously and imaginatively.
The book is rounded out with a last untitled poem that parallels the first. The burning forest is substituted by ‘sea flames’; the pool is now an ‘emergent pond’; the girl is no longer alone:
as the girls float up
to the billowing ceiling.
Complex and uniquely weird, Kingdomland is an exciting debut.
Helena Fornells is a poet from Barcelona based in Edinburgh. She writes poetry in both English and Catalan. Helena works as a bookseller and freelance translator and is currently a Poetry MFA student at St Andrews.