On the Poetry of John Allman: Lowcountry
Later this month, New Directions will publish John Allman’s eighth book of poems, Lowcountry. He retired from teaching 10 years ago (for 26 years he taught at Rockland Community College of SUNY) and has spent the past decade’s winters as a non-golf playing resident of Hilton Head, South Carolina. At 72, he continues to evolve as a poet.
I’ve admired his work since the mid-70s when the first of many Allman poems appeared in The Chowder Review. Here are a few of those poems’ titles: “Roald Amundsen at the South Pole, 1911,” “Freud’s Last Dream,” “A Dream of 1918,” “Crazy Horse in ‘A Little Flat Place at the Edge of a Few Trees,’ 1874,” “Emma Goldman Deported to Russia, 1919.” Many of these appeared in his second book, Clio’s Children (New Directions, 1985). Clio, goddess of time and history. As a magazine editor, I could count on him to provide polished, complete verse, though his output never suggested a poet particularly interested in that great venture called “establishing one’s voice.” He imagined scenes and disappeared into them. But time (past and present) tugged at the imagination; he took a long-distance view. What was at stake for him in those poems? His work enacted ways of entering a world by imagining one. The artistic burden was placed on the credible construction of the once-visible: Was it fully recaptured and explained? Was it interesting?
His first book was Walking Four Ways in the Wind (Princeton, 1979). After Clio’s Children came Scenarios for a Mixed Landscape (1986) and Curve Away from Stillness (1989), both from New Directions. The Wallace Stevens Society Press published Inhabited World, New & Selected Poems, 1970-1995, in 1995.
Loew’s Triboro (2004) introduced a ripening voice, a sharper intent, and an urgency to leverage memory. This is “The Kidnapping”:
Grandmother left her youngest child, Alice, with a neighbor
on the top floor because she was moving
into another building where she could be the Super. She didn't
want the baby in the middle of all that mess. Her husband, Blackie,
driving up and down Tenth Avenue,
delivering electrical supplies—plugs, cords, little relay boxes like
the black recorders plucked years later
from drowned airliners, a voice behind Blackie already saying,
"We're going down, we're going down!" The neighbor disappeared
with Alice. No note, no nothing. Just
the empty apartment. Blackie had a few more drinks near the docks
on Twelfth Avenue, near the German
freighters, talking about the Lindbergh baby. Burly men grew misty
eyed and cursed Bruno Hauptmann. The newsreel ran on and on.
After mother grew up and married the ex-
bootleg driver with the melancholy face, maybe she thought her
sister could be recovered
if she named her own daughter Alice. The baby growing into a
pigtailed girl inside my sister, who woke nights afraid she couldn't
breathe, who sleepwalked
toward the kitchen window with the loose pane that popped out
the next morning and floated down
into the alley like a transparent soul the neighbors looked through
before it crashed near the Super sweeping up clothespins and bottle caps.
Whose hand was it in art class drew
the little house with the smoking chimney and three children
instead of two, arms and legs spread
out, spinning in the air? Who first bled through bargain cotton
panties? My sister clawing at her face, something pinching her
abdomen, twisting up an eye.
John Allman is also a fiction writer; New Directions published his Descending Fire & Other Stories in 1994 (the only Allman volume listed in a greater Boston public library network, well-stocked with poetry). Introducing prosy rhythms, the Loew’s Triboro poems enjoy a jauntier narrative play than his earlier scene-poems. The extended thoughts, spoken by someone with a long and intimate view of events, allow poems like “The Kidnapping” to speculate freely about and reinvent the past. The voice here has a diluted acidity and a reluctance to make a show of personality that let it assess at a remove, certainly without the annoyance of conventional sentiment. Aunt Alice, gone missing since childhood, is now as mythological as the Lindbergh baby. With time, the rutted emotion drains out of a memory or story, and then one has the freedom to speak it anew. The emphasis is on slanted description, intoned.
This brings us to Lowcountry, a different book in many ways. If Loew’s Triboro is a childhood concept book, then Lowcountry is about late life transits between a northern location (a departure and return point) and South Carolina (a place of reflection and beautiful, brutal fact). The material, the tone, the line all depart from the previous book. Here he discovers that creating the visible may be even more challenging work than coloring in the invisible, the past. Is there a poet more resistant to a pithy statement than Allman? He is allergic to summation, packaged insight, and always has been. So intent on seeing, he has dispensed with shopping around an invented self, and makes the reader come to his/her own terms with the presence of the voice. Such a poet will never tell you all he knows.
BIKING THE COURSE
We’re here without permission, without documents,
not allowed this grunt and shove around golf
cart paths that snake in and out of live oak, pine,
magnolia. Doves flutter above our spattery approach,
but we’re not the only people in drizzle and gray.
A man in yellow slicker teeing off by himself,
ball after ball flying into the mist, into next week’s
flow chart, the plunk of deficits. Someone’s Irish
setter prances around us as we peddle toward
the far edge: St. Andrews’ villas, one under another,
lights hung from rented ceilings, our caps dripping,
where this morning two women emerged from their
cart carefully plotting the lay of putts, the kiss
of club, each of their balls quietly entering the tiny
dark hole of happiness. A great blue heron stands
at pond’s edge, watching herself descend into the
wavering village on the surface, lit windows there,
her twin rising to meet her, long legs telescoping
into each other, dimpling water now the shatter
of rain, as we pedal faster, afraid of not breaking
through, not coming out of that drowned city
beneath the reflection of our pumping legs, breath
steaming, trying to get back to where we belong.
One not only rides the cart paths without permission, but speaks without it. Throughout Lowcountry there’s the muted sense of not-belonging in all of this nature, this alien southern history. “Biking the Course,” with its long threaded lines, is about trying to break through, spending sufficient energy and breath to prove oneself worthy of the trespass. These aren’t passive, devotional nature poems – but again, they also aren’t poems of self-analysis. You could say that Allman is no longer banging his head against history, trying to make both his head and history resonate. He’s now going after ecosystems with the same objective.
In a recent email, he told me that there was a three-year creative overlap between the making of Loew’s Triboro (1998-2002) and Lowcountry (1999-2006). “During that period,” he writes, “I was quite aware how different my modes were. When I got to work on Lowcountry I tended to read the more conventional poets of meter and rhyme, just to keep a feeling of formal poetry. That included people like Larkin, Hopkins (not too conventional, was he?), Milosz (again, not too conventional). I was attracted to the solid line, something dense, rhythmic. In other respects, I just tried to connect with the natural world as directly as I could. It wasn’t very conscious. I was just ready to do that, tired of the world of give and get and take and smash. I favored meditation and awe. A nice upgrade for a kid from Hell’s Kitchen.” I’ll speculate that flinging himself into the youth-recalled poems of Loew’s Triboro caused a rebound, propelling him into the present moment as never before.
About Lowcountry: There are six sections, each titled “Leaving Home” and labeled by its year, starting with “1999.” Each section varies somewhat by theme – an edenic motif in the first section, the tremors of the World Trade Center in the third. There is a tidal rhythm to the book: repetitions of live-then-die nature, and of poetic gesture. This is “The Beach at Windsor Place”:
Out of our shoes, across the dunes, watching
the curve of day sink its wheel rim rolling
Into the sea, a crescent moon suddenly
crossed by four pelicans, swaying travelers
nearly asleep, though on the wing, their lives
threaded to a single beat. Something in the brain
disbelieves distance, a motion in the sky forever
near. Stillness destroyed in the surge at our feet,
as we step over carapace and weed through the portals
of blandness, striking down mild comparisons,
penetrating the sleep of gulls, something of us
tossed into the surge and returned, footprints swirling
in the signatures of bodies where we walk the wind,
the tide rocking forward, nothing but erasure on its mind.
The voice is in something like a trance of clarity, stringing together the phrases. The desired effect is: continuity of acute experience “striking down mild comparisons.” Yet when nature confronts the human, it wants to erase his thoughts, too. Although “something in the brain / disbelieves distance,” this poem’s ultimate mission is to believe it.
Allman knows that too much descriptive rapture leads to monotony, so he mixes the natural observation poems with dreamy prose poems, a few historical minor notes, poems about local art, and those inspired by other writers (named in those poems’ titles -- Marianne Moore, Milosz, Jorie Graham, Gauguin, Milton, Marvell, Tennessee Williams). Some of the poems glance northwards to 9/11, the death of someone far away, and the birth of twin grandchildren.
NEWS FROM HOME
Our daughter is trying to have a baby.
My brother, who watched from the 19th story
of his building, still dreams of people leaping
out of the Tower’s windows, floor collapsing
upon floor, the sun a zinc penny in the rancid
sky. The snow is falling like loosening fleece.
Our daughter is speaking to her body, “crocus,
forsythia, tulip, azalea, baby’s breath.”
She says Sal our contractor is chipping ice off
the rear patio, drilling an arm-size hole in the
brick wall for the dryer’s vent. The wind still blows
dust over the river, my brother’s face gray in his mirror.
The new mail box is green on a cream-colored post.
She says the mail carrier left the box of our chocolates
at the kitchen door and it lay buried for two days.
She says she is trying to persuade those narrow
tubes that her eggs need space and safe passage.
The Norway spruce and Douglas firs are swaying
like elevator shafts. Deer are eating the rhododendrons,
green-stained lips are sealing the envelopes that
forward our mail. The snow has been plowed
to one side by a man with one arm. The crack
maple has cracked, the fox has torn open last
night’s compost bag before it got to the compost pit,
the dawn breaks over the reservoir like spilled
light before it hardens, the spinning at night is
the Fraioli girl’s bald tires, my brother still wakes
at night on the fourth floor of his co-op building,
heat pressing at the window. Snow is still falling.
Our daughter is trying to have a baby.
Milosz said, “The poetry of the 20th century is mostly using irony as a counterbalance for affection.” Allman uses irony very sparingly – but he’s also careful about voicing affection. It’s as if he knows, as Robert Pinsky once said, that “piety is not a satisfactory way to the sacred” in poetry, but his own prevailing sweet temperament shows through anyway. Of course, piety and affection are different things, but both may be presented in a similar way designed to reflect too nicely on the poet. In the poem above, once again there’s that entranced voice, perhaps overly reliant on the repetitive syntax. The trance suggests a benign immersion -- but also, a plunge more than a prayer.
Speaking of syntax, Allman gives us a clue in the poem called “Syntax” as to why he frequently gives himself wholly to a run-on style. In one section of the poem, the speaker, located beside a marsh, says:
I’m bored with self, the drop-out
ego abashed at how little it confounds
the tide’s insistence. I’m fed up with
a name lifting itself into the breeze
of opinion, the sky’s azure only air
that curves to authoring roundness.
Nothing steps out of nature.
Since one never gets the impression in the first place that he is swept up in projecting a self of distinguished qualities, even this self-reference seems factual more than dynamic. At the end of the poem, the marsh is all “Sucking sound. Fume-moan. / Stinking blackness. Shuddering belts, / sudden fling: the given-up now the only / given.” The self may be demoted as a subject, but giving up isn’t what I hear in these lines. There’s an insistent, stubborn attempt to possess while in transition. In “Singleton Beach” he describes the scene like this: “Everything rising to be seen and thrown / out of its element into transformation.” Nature tends to agitate Allman into appreciation. The poet in his early 70s discards the inessential, but Allman never had many affectations to throw off. When he does get personal, the lines are startling, as in the final lines of “Construction”: “What I remember of loss / a scant rubble beneath a thin tower of words, my sister’s / suicide face, our father’s unheard moan somewhere / in the unbelieving air.” At this remove, the images of loss become iconic, but the emotional context has flaked away.
Allman’s thoughtlessness (meaning, a lack of interest in dramatizing how the mind turns on itself, per se) shouldn’t be confused with a bland sentimentality for marine life and seafoam. I’m reminded of a description of the Gaon of Vilna by the historian Louis Ginzburg in 1928: “There was a certain kind of spiritual chasteness in him which made it impossible for him to draw out his innermost treasures even for his own inspection, still less for the inspection of others. For under inspection the stamp of inwardness is apt to tarnish. We must be silent on our own internal life or it may cease to be internal.”
In “Reflections,” he writes, “I look down from the bridge / to see a white-haired man rising to the surface.” In the shorelife, he finds an analog for himself: “… the motionless blue heron / keeps the glitter of his eye fixed on the oily / stillness of a watery surface just because / something of him is looking upwards into / sky.” The lovely pretense here is that he has come to praise nature and bury himself in the praising, just as he used to vanish into his history poems. Certainly in Lowcountry the speaker points away from himself and gives all credit to the scene depicted – but the reader can’t resist the interest in the human. This is the dynamic Allman exploits so craftily. The human, in this case, is considering his mortality, and this informs the power in his descriptions of the natural: Nothing steps out of nature. But there’s another poem, “Heron on the Bridge,” that modulates this theme:
Ancient as a pharaoh in robes, he stares
from the handrail meant to keep pedestrians
where they belong, something about humans
that perpetrates a fall. His attention a quiet,
steady flow above the sky-streaming lagoon.
Hunched shoulders. Strays feathers dangling
beneath the indifferent hardness of his
gaze. A kind of beard, unkempt wisdom,
brittle bony body an epitome of soul.
How do I greet him where I need to cross?
The word “where” in the final line carries several nuances, including “since.” The man must be at odds, the perpetrator of a fall. Still, sometimes he speaks in a “steady flow” himself, approximating the world in which he finds himself.
Aging, art, seashore, history, and memory all come together in Allman’s wonderful meditation, “Scenes from the Passing World,” a tour of locale, imagined as if husband and wife were characters on a Japanese print on which “I read from a scroll of plum blossoms, // promising rejuvenation, describing this beach, this littoral, / these washed-up leopard crabs snipping the air to right themselves …” Lowcountry is spoken by a voice with two wishes: First, to be erased (to show he amounts now to no more than an erasure) by the natural forces of the world, and second, to be washed back up on shore, renewed sufficiently to praise the erasure in “this moment given for walking through cast- / up swash line into early evening, dried spartina / crackling beneath our step, // loss and waste washing into the sea, pelicans / gliding out of the fog, their faces shaped to a long hunger.”
[84 pp., paperback, $16.95]