Thursday, 3 October 2019
Review by Jonathan Taylor of "Banjo's Inside Coyote" by Kelli Allen
In her strange and highly original new poetry collection, Banjo's Inside Coyote, Kelli Allen cites a quotation from Leonard Cohen: ‘If you don't become the ocean, you'll be seasick every day.’ Allen’s poetry is fascinated by such sea-sickness, and its apparent opposite, ‘oceanness’; like the Romantics before her, that is, Allen’s poetry explores both tragic alienation from, and possible transcendent union with, the natural world.
It does so by drawing on natural, mythological, mystical and even Jungian imagery, refracted through intense experiences which somehow combine both alienation and union, sea-sickness and ‘oceanness.’ These experiences – love, sex, writing, swimming, dying – are radically unstable sites where the human meets the natural realm, where opposites mingle and clash.
One such site is the writing desk. Allen suggests that ‘storms retire when the calmest sea lays down its head / on our desk made from oak and stag bone’: the writing desk is both a site for the sea to ‘lay down its head,’ and a place marked by nature’s death (dead oak, ‘stag bone’). Writing is where nature ‘retires’ in a double sense – retiring to, and retiring from.
At times, Allen herself seems to retreat (or retire) from writing, in an attempt to recapture visceral, natural experiences. She declares: ‘This morning I looked at your sleeping face / and instantly threw my maps / into the brush pile.’ The experience of love at least offers the possibility of transcending writing (‘maps’):
How you look at me in afternoon light.
Consummation is communion only
After you admit, round eyes watching
My throat, that we are here. We are here.
‘Hereness,’ nowness, presence in nature seems attainable, at least for a moment. But hereness is also transient, gone as soon as it is mentioned – and, for the most part, humans ‘make trouble everywhere / we go.’
Such trouble is often embodied in the many birds that flit in and out of Allen’s poems. For Allen, the birds are powerful markers of human alienation from nature, particularly in their rejection of human signification. The pathetic fallacy – the age-old, anthropocentric idea that nature somehow reflects human concerns – has broken down, and the birds only signify themselves. She remarks that ‘the birds are probably correct to assume / fallacy anyway,’ and ‘those birds we wept over / the first afternoon will swoop into the country / as though nothing here matters.’ For the birds, as for nature in general, nothing human really matters. ‘The world’s spine is a bible,’ Allen remarks – but a very different bible to the human realm, written in an alien and unreachable language.
Ultimately, the only permanent transcendence offered – the only permanent union with the natural world – is that of death, or at least dying. Allen’s poetry seems to stand with Keats in dreaming of ‘an easeful death,’ in order to ‘leave the world unseen, / And … fade away into the forest dim.’ For Allen and for Keats, this death is a process, a fading, not just an end-point – and it is the process of dying, of what Heidegger famously called ‘being-towards-death,’ which is our deepest connection with nature. ‘Eventually,’ Allen writes, ‘anything loved is going to drown’:
We are one counteragent to entropy; we are creatures
ramshackle, propulsion after severance, stillness before.
About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk