Richard James Allen. Fixing the Broken Nightingale. Bulahdelah, NSW: Flying Island Books, 2013. ISBN 9789996542589
This thin, brave, little volume of enigmatic verse apparently about healing the broken nightingale of Nature that has been ruined by destructive human ambitions, actually has many subtexts such as the theme of loss and destruction which grimly predicts a deeper psychological and emotional derangement in nature-human relationships.Wordsworth’s nightingale, who according to the poet (had) “never known, / The weariness, the fever, and the fret / … where men sit and hear each other groan”, has been broken and needs fixing in the anthropocentric age. It’s a book that’s convenient to carry and worth re-reading many times to feel the pulse of shaken and broken times and even as a source of inspiration. The poet’s voice in the present collection is a call for spiritual evolvement, healing and compassion.
The question is not how to die but how to live
How to link the miracle in each moment to the next
Befitting the genre of ecopoetry many of the poems paint ominous pictures of this predicament in the future and give a warning. In “Natural Disasters” there is a clarion call:
Here it comes
-oh my God
like a hurricane
out of nowhere,
the roots of my trees,
jagged-edging my sky,
blowing my topsoil to who knows where.
However the destruction of nature is not an isolated phenomenon rather it is a corollary to the destruction and loss of human values.Allen aptly conveys in “The Disappearing Soul” the loss of faith with the same intensity as Matthew Arnold in “Dover Beach”:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
In “The Disappearing Soul” the last line where the poet is sadly silent there is a re echoing of Arnold’s Sea and its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.
I would like to find one thing which makes it clear that what
was worthy and beautiful in us outweighed that
which was hideous and amoral.
That despite everything we somehow managed to tip the
balance in favour of our kind-heartedness and compassion
over our loathsome selfishness and bloody-minded hatred.
Sadly, I am silent.
According to Jonathan Bates ecopoetry is about change and about presenting the experience of nature.[i]
The poet has worked out these premonitions and fears through an experimental and innovative style and formatting. Even the prologue, epilogue and divisions into sections are highly evocative. There is an order and intended cohesion of the different parts which leads the reader through destruction and disaster towards understanding and enlightenment as can be visualised from the Natural Disasters / Unanswered Questions / Occasional Truths / Flickering Enlightenment / A Scheme for Brightness. These are packed between a prologue and epilogue.
The prologue prompts the reader to engage with the poet in an embrace through eternal verse which may make it possible to outlive transient time. The verse itself is a cry to save nature while there is still time. “in the storm” uses visual expressions of art and even the title is in lower case to perhaps show humans as part of the storm of nature and human voices as insignificant as wind:
the cry of the wind
“ Acts of Unfulfilled Love” has been formatted in the style of a play, and there is a dramatic correspondence between sexual fantasies and the broken rhythms of nature which create a sense of unfulfillment. In a soiled world love too appears to be corrupted, so the poet hopes for love in another world:
In another life
you are the love of my life
and in my other life
I bid you welcome
instead of farewell
Even though humanity is the oppressor and betrayer yet it has the potential for spiritual evolvement and healing as can be seen in “Armistice”:
Here I am
darting like a bird
like a fish in love
like one of Noah’s doves
from dry land,
that leaps out of water
While death has been a much written about topic in poetry down the ages imbued with the sense of fear, romance, inevitability, surrender or sadness, Allen sees death as an obtrusion which he can put off.In “The Neighbour” his encounter with death inspires hope and healing for the earth:
Suddenly I am not too young
to have such drop-ins unannounced
though I won’t let him stay long,
not for now at least, not while I still
have the strength to tell him to go home
Several poems in the section titled Flickering Enlightenment are about healing and spiritual seeking. In “Grace”
Is not designed
We are designed
Biblical and spiritual inspiration leads to the understanding of God’s signs that all creation is a vessel for God’s grace.
“Gone Fishin’” uses visual art to represent the intimate connection between the human unconscious and its nature oriented animal symbols.The poem is shaped like a lake in which: “The great, putrefying deep sea monster from our night sweats squatting in the heart of each of us.”(85) The poem ironically hints at a deep connection between the rotting lake of the human unconscious and the looted drained world of nature. Yet the Sublime or God still remains for human beings to hold on to for hope and healing in “Chimera”:
the total data stream too dense to be assimilated
like a kind of heavy water that must be
“Chimera” also uses visual art to show divine inspiration growing from a large expanse into a point of nothing. The point of nothing which stands for humanity makes the poem Swedenborgian in intent.
In “Waterfall” visual art is used to show the soul slipping away from the material to the spiritual world of love like a flowing waterfall:
In “A Scheme for Brightness” the poet is “sitting on the edge of infinity” so
I must discover in myself
With eyes closed
From the four wild corners of the universe
Which is of value to others
That gleaming grain
Of golden sand
That piece of matter
With the universe in it
In “The Secret language of Border Guards” there is an attempted conversation between the secret mystical world of nature and humanity:
If our language were not a secret one
we might share it with you
These lines delve deep into the human predicament of loss of faith and understanding of the link that is shared by man and nature.The border guards who will not let ignorant ones cross, are the creatures of natural sustenance and the rich unconscious. In the next poem “The Secret Language of those who wish to cross”:
Even if the roadblocks all come down
and the checkpoints disappear,
the road between us will never be open
They say intuitively that the road ‘between us’ will never open even if all barriers are removed. Allen seems to indicate that the inscrutable mysteries of nature can never be understood completely and humanity itself has created insurmountable barriers through its callousness and ignorance.
“Aubade” is perhaps the most beautiful and exquisite poem of this collection and hints at the loss of an artistic and beautiful world in a materialised technological age:
The only gold
they ever knew was the music
Of their imaginations,
when, for a few brief
they mistook the prison bars of their minds
for the harpstrings of the heart
The poem appears to mourn the loss of freedom for poets who have to create poetry out of their intellectual bondage and barriers.
The epilogue sums up the purposefulness of poetry for change and its corresponding elusiveness:
I will wake up to poetry once more
in a season aeons hence
kicking at a glow in the embers
to start one last fire
against the chill of my days
It is a volume of verse worth reading and thinking over and a treasure of wisdom that one would want to go back to again and again. As in “The Optics of Relationship, or With this Poem I thee Wed” it raises some troubling, timeless questions too:
Who I was in the past,
Who I will be in the future –
What distractions these are
From who I am now.
[i] As quoted by Kate Dunning in “ From Environmental Poetry to Ecopoetry” http://merwinstudies.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Dunning.pdf
Sami Rafiq is Professor of English at Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, India. She is also a writer, translator and poet. She has translated the poetic works of Asrarul Haq Majaz and Raghupati Sahay Firaq from Urdu into English. Her novella The Small Town Woman can be read online and her blog aligarhadventures.blogspot.in showcases her many published stories.