Standing Wave

By Bert Almon

A review of Standing Wave by Robert Allen

Published on October 1, 2005

Standing Wave
Robert Allen

Vehicule Press / Signal Editions
$16
paper
82pp
1-55065-198-6

Robert Allen’s Standing Wave has two parts: “Thirty-eight Sonnets from Jimmie Walker Swamp,” and the third and final installment of his narrative poem, The Encantadas. Allen answered an e-mail query about the Jimmie Walker Swamp, explaining that the sonnets were written in “a little house in the woods in the Eastern Townships,” on a property that once belonged to a Jimmie Walker. The lands include part of the wetlands along the Tomifobia River, hence its local nickname. The poems are written in a modern idiom, though Allen is a quite aware that Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets set an intimidating precedent. These twenty-first century poems deal with themes that Shakespeare would appreciate—love, lust (Allen is very witty on sex carried out across bucket seats), tough self-examination, regrets for lost love, meditations on art, observations of nature—but he uses current imagery, like a raccoon eating Styrofoam in the woods, or patriotic war news on an American channel. These sonnets are technically adroit: Allen says rightly that he knows when to break a line, comparing himself to “a flycaster finding / the perfect pool, the perfect arc into it.” But poetry is not just technique, and his creed goes like this: “I turn to my work. Which is what? Breathing. / Loving against best evidence. Being, and seeing.” On the strength of the sonnets alone, Allen has to be ranked as one of Canada’s finest poets.

The sonnets alone are worth the price of admission, but there’s another act in the show, an experiment in reverie delivered through complex syntax and sumptuous imagery. Allen published the first 60 sections of The Encantadas in The Magellanic Clouds (1998), the second 60 in Ricky Ricardo Suites (2000), and the final 57 appear in Standing Wave. Each section has three stanzas of three lines each. Allen’s introductory note attributes the triplet form to the influence of Wallace Stevens and A. R. Ammons. Devotees of Stevens will be reminded of the American poet’s The Comedian as the Letter C, a most eccentric story of a sea voyage, or his poem in three-line stanzas, “Sea Surface Full of Clouds,” where the long lines suggest ocean waves, a strategy that Allen also employs.

The Encantadas has a protagonist, Jack, an oceanographer who retreated to the Eastern Townships in part one of The Encantadas after suffering rapture of the deep. Jack has an extraordinary alter ego, Teddy, “the Antediluvian Vaudevillian,” a tap-dancing giant sea turtle from the Galápagos Islands (also known as the Encantadas, or Enchanted Islands) whose maritime adventures fill part II. Teddy’s adventures provide an analogue to Jack’s inner life. The story element in the concluding section, Jack’s voyage with smuggled wine from Corfu to England, is mostly a pretext for some exquisite reveries on love, the muse, and the sea. Jack becomes a modern version of Dionysius (in Allen’s spelling), who brought the cult of wine from the Mediterranean to Northern Europe. Like Dionysius, Jack traffics in visionary experience. The poem is eccentric, but Wallace Stevens suggested that sometimes we recognize that the eccentric is the base of design. Allen’s designs are filigrees worth tracing. mRb

Bert Almon lives in Edmonton, Alberta. Retired from teaching, he follows the careers of his former students.

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