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67 Mixed Messages by Ed Allen
Ahsahta Press, Boise State University, Idaho 2006: 74 pages. Price $16.00
As a child I was a sceptic. I can remember aged 13 being told that Shakespeare wrote ‘perfect sonnets’, my English teacher laboriously explained that each line had ten beats, each sonnet had fourteen lines, the first eight lines followed one train of thought which then subtly switched for the next four lines and that the last two lines revealed another facet of the poem. Further there was a unique rhyme pattern which went AB AB CD CD EF EF GG. Now I figured that if Shakespeare wrote 154 of these sonnets then he’s bound to have slipped up somewhere along the line and I was going to be the guy who’d spot the mistake; so I waded through them, not absorbing the intelligent and beautiful messages you understand but lipping A B A B etc and counting the beats on my fingers 1, 2, 3 etc and then going over them again to ensure the divisions after the first eight lines and the next six lines were all correct. They bloody well were! What a waste of time that was!
And now, close to fifty years later, my Boss sends me Allen’s 67 sonnets to review and on the rear cover I read; ‘Allen takes on the whole tradition of the sonnet, from Shakespeare to Frost, and emerges a clear winner…’ …and yeh you are right dear reader I sat up all last night lipping A B A B etc and counting the beats on my fingers 1, 2, 3 etc and then going over them again to ensure the divisions after the first eight lines and the next six lines were all correct. They bloody well were! What a waste of time that was!
So; Mr Allen can write sonnets… and if you believe the cover blurbs he leaves Mr Shakespeare in either second or third place… ‘a clear winner’. Mmm.
These sonnets all centre on a figure called Suzi. They all contain at the beginning of every ninth line the five-beat phrase; ‘I love you Suzi…’ They appear to be the record of an individual (who may or may-not be Mr Allen), who is ambiguous about his own sexuality which tends towards gay but may have also an element of lust for Suzi who is much younger than he and who seems to be female although not all descriptions of her suggest this. The ‘mixed messages’ of the title presumably refer also to the observing individual’s ambiguity about his sexuality and the age-difference.
I have to confess that when I read these poems aloud I actually like most of them; they roll of the tongue agreeably, partly, as stated, because they are perfectly constructed, partly because the sense of longing mingled with a tentative sense of humour at the poet’s own predicament is emotive and sometimes poignant; as in sonnet 52 when Allen ends a sonnet with: ‘a fantasy/ Each man born normal gets to touch; not me.’ And Allen is clever, and well read (as an associate Professor of English, albeit at an American University, he should be)… and being well-read myself I like to come across phrases like this in sonnet 48; ‘Can this be right, or just the famous lie/ Explaining how it’s dignified to die.’ It allows me to let Horace enter my consciousness and in a sort of snobbish way I feel an affinity to the poet almost as though I’m saying; ‘Thank you Mr Allen for allowing me to feel clever and well read.’ But when Allen then begins to presume a Shakespearian stance, as in sonnets 35 and 36; ‘If Suzi’s eyes could look more like the sun/ Lips red, or something near…’ and ‘Could I be wrong? If that’s the charge they hurl,/ Ed never wrote, and no man loved this girl.’ I find myself then making unfavourable comparisons and a slight distaste replaces my sense of affinity. As too in sonnets 29, 30 and 31 when he drops into poems the name of Robert Frost… it takes me back to the rear cover blurb comparing Allen to Shakespeare and Frost and frankly such a comparison is absurd.
By this time you’ll be sensing dear reader that there is something about this collection that disturbs me… and I think I know what it is. Here we have an aging Professor wrestling with his own sexuality and his attraction to the central figure that we know as Suzi. Suzi (the observed) we presume is female and the Prof/writer (the observer) we presume is male but not heterosexual… his fascination with regard to this real or fantastical ‘other’ borders on the sinister, at times it seems as if he is stalking the object of his desires. At times I feel like saying to the observer; ‘Fuck off you dirty old pervert leave the poor wee lass alone!’ and that because his obsession, although at times tinged with humour and a sense of his own ludicrous stance, makes me want to apply for an ASBO to restrict his disturbing intrusions. To add to that the poet’s use of language is sometimes laughingly complex as when he wrestles with the age-difference in sonnets 39 and 40: ‘If I were less than twice as old as she,/ less than myself…’ and ‘It’s weird to think – the day of Suzi’s birth:/ Less time from then to now than from the day/ Of my first day to her first day on earth’ which is torturous and extremely badly written… and in sonnet 17 he chooses to rhyme ‘shiny blue’ with ‘shining…Subaru!’ which may well be intentional humour but more likely is forced rhyme.
In the end I find myself saying rather sadly; what a waste. To sit down with a single verse form which has been done a thousand times better, hundreds of years ago, in a time when such a form was at least original and to ape Shakespeare’s ‘Dark lady’ to boot is just… well it’s a waste and it’s also slightly arrogant. I want to make it clear however that these are perfectly constructed, sometime poignant, sometime humorous, creations which I know many people will thoroughly enjoy. I don’t doubt either, not for one minute, Allen’s artisan ability to construct a perfect verse form with never a deviation from the accepted pattern. I just wonder why he bothered. Surely he could have spent his time equally creatively building himself a sweet little brick barbeque in his garden and then only a few close friends would be required to admire it; and he could then have written 67 mixed messages in Haiku form explaining his ambiguous feelings towards charcoal or coal or about whether it is best for Barbie’s to be constructed in English-bond brickwork as opposed to Flemish… Haikus written on paper which he could then, (doing us all a favour), burn as fuel with which to cook himself a nice juicy burger with onions...
It would be time equally well spent, and the burger and onions would surely be more tasteful than these 67 mixed messages.
© copyright Alan Corkish 2006
Burning the Heartwood
A review for Stride 2006