For Day 8 of #thesealeychallenge I read Kingdomland by Rachel Allen. For fear of sounding like the type of person who loves everything she reads, I loved this collection. I guess that is a symptom of only buying books that I think I will like. But still, I really loved this collection. I love when poems get weird, which I think I have mentioned about 10,000 times since starting #thesealeychallenge but it is true. Kingdomland is clever in technique and content, and it definitely gets weird.
When I started reading poetry of my choosing, as opposed to what was assigned to me in school, I found abstract, heavily metaphorical, and open-form poetry confusing. When we are taught to read as children, we are told that the purpose of reading is comprehension. When we read something that doesn’t make sense it can easily make us feel like we have read it incorrectly or that it was written incorrectly. It is similar to abstract art, which is often brushed off as equal to children’s artwork, as though there is no ‘point’ to the work. It was hard for me to find joy in reading something just for the images or the sound of the words or even the way the words look on the page. But I got there eventually and now I actively seek out weird and surreal poetry.
I prefer it when poems don’t make sense. I love maximalism and surreality. I love when poets paint in abstractions and give me different ways of thinking. Allen will insert strange images like in ‘Promenade,’ the second poem in the book, when she writes, “you could push back/ my cuticles with want.” What. I spent a long time thinking about this within the context of the poem and the more I did the more and less sense it made at once. Not all of the poems in this book are this way. Some are written in a more straightforward and narrative way, but I wanted to spend some time explaining how the more abstract and metaphor-heavy elements were working for me as I read this collection.
Repetition is used throughout the collection to a haunting effect. In ‘Kingdomland,’ the book’s title poem, she writes, “There is a plot of impassable paths towards it/ impassible paths overcome with bees.” The word ‘impassable’ is then repeated several more times. In poetry, words are sometimes repeated to emphasize the word or image and/or to create rhythm. Rhythm in poetry can be thought of as the pace. The easiest example of how repetition can create rhythm is in song lyrics. Often a song will have words or images that repeat throughout to emphasize the song’s central theme and to set the pace so that the listener can expect roughly when the chorus or bridge will arrive.
Allen also repeats images and word choice across the collection. There are echos of images that pop up throughout the book, creating a kind of déjà vu feeling. I won’t give an example of this in case you decide to pick up this collection, because I think this is a unique quality and a disorienting surprise to read. Repetition of metaphor can also work as an anchor. Because Allen’s poems hold a lot of metaphor, having these repeat can help the reader begin to build a sense of how the image constructed is working for them and how they might interpret it.
For example, Allen repeats images and metaphors dealing with fire, burning, flames, etc. This gives the reader several chances to add meaning based on personal experience. That is the beautiful thing about wild and fantastical poetry — it allows a lot of room for readers to create their own meaning. When Allen gives an image like having a lemon for a heart or an inflatable dinner party, she is not doing so because those a readily-accessible and common images. Those images hold enough familiar items for us to build our own understanding of those words within the context of the poem.
There are several poems in this collection that are multi-part pieces that link together through theme and image rather than by chronology or linear narrative. ‘Nights of Poor Sleep’ and ‘The Girls of Situations’ are examples of this. When I began reading poetry, I would read each piece of a multi-part poem as if it was its own stand-alone poem, but doing this prevented me from the larger messages in a work. If we take ‘The Girls of Situations’ as an example, each paragraph of the poem could be read as individual stories of the author, her mother, or other women in her life, but when we read them all together it builds a more complete picture of how the author has come to understand herself through her own experiences and through those of her mother. I think this is much more interesting and powerful than if each of the vignettes were presented separately.
There are other ways that Allen plays with words in this collection that I sadly won’t be able to explore in detail here because I have gone on long enough (and also I drank a cider and half a White Claw and because I am old I get tired when I drink). Allen sometimes uses punctuation and then sometimes doesn’t which can be disorienting and when combined with repetition and close rhyme can be dizzying and tongue-twistery in the best ways. The form of the poems vary and fit the poems well. She uses enjambment in interesting ways that I really enjoyed, and I also enjoyed her use of varied line length, as someone who has always been skeptical when instructors have told me that having even line breaks and consistent punctuation and all that is critical for a good poem. These poems are good and they don’t do that stuff all the time.
Anyway. I loved this book, and I think you should read it.
Favorites and Best Bits:
Promenade (pg. 4)
Nights of Poor Sleep (pg. 13)
Beef Cubes (pg. 29)
Seer (pg. 32)
Porcine Armour Thyroid (pg. 36)
The Girls of Situations (pg. 40)
Prairie Burning (pg. 49)
Multiflora (pg. 51)
Landscape of a Dead Woman (pg. 54)
Banshee (pg. 71)