Review of 'The Air Dolphin Brigade' by Richard James Allen

(Paperbark Press & Shoestring Press in conjunction with Tasdance)

Richard-James-Allen-cover The concept of this book is an intriguing one, with the collection of poems which it contains also forming the central piece of evidence in the crime around which the hybrid artform performance, Thursday's Fictions revolves. Thursday, the character who, according to the performance libretto, has written these poems, is pursued through eternity and various incarnations by Saturday, an eternity cop, and, although the plot details and outcome are irrelevant to those readers who haven't seen the performance, the fact that it is the audience, the public, who are left holding the poems creates a context for reading them which invites, almost demands, evaluation.

But then, so does any book of poems. The invitation is implicit in the act of publication, whether or not the volume doubles as the program for a performance. The Air Dolphin Brigade will be read by most as an autonomous collection, and, by those who are so inclined, be judged as such.

The best lyrics in the book have an apparent simplicity reminiscent of Creeley, relying as much on subtleties of rhythm as on any verbal dexterity or imagery. There are a number of poems constructed entirely of very short, ofhen one-word lines, a technique which, if overdone, can induce either boredom or irritation in the reader, but the collection as a whole has enough variety for this not to constitute a major fault.

Despite the importance of rhythm and cadence to the work, the overall feel of The Air Dolphin Brigade is cerebral, largely due to the preponderance of abstract over concrete nouns. The long poem, "The Fate of Reason (or What My Murderer Said)" is typical, taking a couple of pages before it starts to use vivid imagery to add a further element to its intellectual argument. Similarly "Goals" frames a central very strong visual image between two stanzas which are much more conceptual.

Many of the poems contain, even depend for their impact on references to religio-cultural 'givens' using a diction which reinforces this dependence, as, for example, "there was a terrible sadness upon the earth" and "God's green and pleasant earth", phrases which respectively open and close the first piece in the book. The poem "Over The Treetops Of The Dance" is one such, ending with the uncomfortably strong echo of Yeats, "...towards the Bethlehem of tomorrow." This approach to the heritage of poetic language is tempered often enough by splashes of the colloquial, even the brutally up-to-the-minute, as (from "preaching to the unconverted") "I don't give a fuck / if they are politically correct", to be anything but a device, but it is a tricky one to play with and might not work for readers who like their poetry fast and hard.

The Air Dolphin Brigade is an interesting experiment, both textually and conceptually. The book in its entirety will not be to everyone's taste, but Allen's light lyric touch, particularly in the shorter pieces, creates flashes of a shimmering quality as if dolphins danced through the sea (or the sky).