Sami Rafiq reviews Fixing the Broken Nightingale by Richard James Allen

Richard James Allen. Fixing the Broken Nightingale. Bulahdelah, NSW: Flying Island Books, 2013. ISBN 9789996542589

 

Sami Rafiq

 

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

(94)

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

again

-oh my God

-the terror,

like a hurricane

out of nowhere,

hauling out

the roots of my trees,

jagged-edging my sky,

blowing my topsoil to who knows where.

(21)

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.

(103)

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:

our voices

the cry of the wind

(98)

“ 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

(44)

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

(93)

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

(68)

Several poems in the section titled Flickering Enlightenment are about healing and spiritual seeking. In “Grace”

These suggestions

Are everywhere

Reminders that

God

Is not designed

For us

We are designed

For God

(80-81)

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

(95)

“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:

the

cascading

in

slow

motion

waterfall

of

love

(108)

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

Something

Which is of value to others

That gleaming grain

Of golden sand

That piece of matter

With the universe in it

(110)

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

(86)

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

(88)

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

unfathomable moments,

they mistook the prison bars of their minds

for the harpstrings of the heart

(100)

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

(113)

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.

(59)


[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.

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