About two-thirds of the way through Kingdomland, Rachael Allen’s debut collection, the text neatly encapsulates some of its key motifs – oppressive heat, procreation, bodily angst – in a single stroke:
The day is an oven. I float outwards
in a concentric circle. I will know the pattern of your knee.
I sit by the river and envisage our children.
My ankles give way to other thoughts,
thoughts about stealing, objectify me.
The above, from ‘Midflora’, should give you a sense of the tone of Kingdomland; and it’s a fairly uncompromising one. There’s something apocalyptic about these poems. Many of the poems have a nightmarish, nocturnal feel. In the collection’s title piece ‘The dark village [that] sits on the crooked hill’ is reached by ‘impassable paths overcome with bees, / the stigma that bees bring’, the ‘stigma’ pun evoking a cruel curse, while the ‘impassable knowledge’ and ‘poor library’ turn the power of facts against the protagonist. Nor will there be anyone to turn to, as long as ‘someone I love is jogging into the darkness.’
What then is there for comfort or, at least, distraction? Attention to detail, perhaps; Hell doesn’t have to be boring, and Allen’s vision certainly isn’t:
Small white socks bob into the dark like teeth in the mouth
of a laughing man, who walks backwards into night,
throwing drinks into the air
like a superstitious wife throws salt.
These images are hard to forget, the glass and salt then taking on a life of their own and becoming ‘my petulant daughter’, as if the image has been ‘birthed’. The preponderance of pregnancy and parenthood motifs in the collection gives this daughter a charged aura; compare her with, later, talk of a contentious abortion, when acts of creation begin to look like a cruel mix of power and powerlessness.
The latter example appears in ‘The Girls of Situations’, a prose-poem sequence that makes it clear a termination of any kind will be on the speaker’s terms:
I will steal from my own mother to make myself feel richer, and smoke her old cigarettes to make myself sicker, become impregnated with ideas and resist her own impregnation, cut anything out of me that starts to grow in there.
Is the artist uniquely qualified to self-define? Or is it that she’s more likely to need to self-define? ‘When I had a husband I found it hard to breathe’ – the familiar conflict between individuality and domesticity. Allen takes a sledgehammer to the familiarity of the trope:
In among all the crying, I see
a burning child on the stove.
The same one as before?
The curtains are full of soot. Well quickly,
we need to escape. Well surely.
No, I watch her burn.
It’s lugubrious, yes, but it’s also subversive; and Allen’s brand of subversion does take more subtle forms. The same poem describes how ‘summer streams through the trees like a long blonde hair’, an overtly Romantic image, before deflating the sentiment with ‘I don’t like the sun at the end of the day’. She can also be mordantly funny. Take for example this self-deprecating double entendre:
lilac leaves of my drooping spider plant
moulting on the bath mat
so it looks like I’ve had my purple period
At times, though, it’s hard to tell the difference between deadpan humour and clumsy metaphor, as with ‘I am a cucumber / made entirely of water’. Maybe that’s the point: the reader ought to feel confused, alienated.
Parts of Kingdomland may appear autobiographical but it is not confessional – it doesn’t want to be your friend, nor you its confidant. It’s self-aware:
he is blind
I spit in his blind eye
it is an affectation
like my own blindness
Tempered by aesthetics, Allen’s themes speak of real pain, and this offsetting is key. In other poems, abuse at the (literal and proverbial) hands of men intersects with a disdain for the carnivorous, though the pointedness is ironic rather than moralising:
There’s nothing like a man
to serve you pain deep-seared
on a silver dish that rings
when you flick it, your table
gilded and festooned
with international meats,
cured and crusted, each
demanding its own sauce.
The link between meat and misogyny is not hard to see: men who consider women inferior are apt to treat them like animals. Thus the fact of meat is a veiled threat; animal husbandry is the potential for violence writ lateral. This is an acute interpretation of Allen’s ideas, of course, and she doesn’t preach. It’s enough to point to the absurd hypocrisy of culinary norms, as in ‘Many Bird Roast’:
there are dogs in the outhouse
that we do not eat
and one small sparrow in a pigeon in a grouse in a swan
that we will certainly eat
Allen is willing to implicate herself even, observing that ‘it wasn’t so much a raven as just a plain black dove / ready to cook, and with superstition, I learnt to’. The connections between animal, object, victim and lover are seriously tangled in ‘Porcine Armour Thyroid’, suggesting they share a fate, being equals:
I am a gland, the smooth opal gland
of a pig, who is bubbly with glands
and the glands torn open in this pig’s
shorn neck look like droplets of sperm
on the end of your glans. I eat the glands
of pigs for breakfast, and I take a few
in pills each night, slipping down my throat
a smooth oblong, like oysters or snot.
That Allen’s poetry has a sense of humour means it stops at the line where the grotesque becomes morose (though only just); a stuffier poet would probably swap out ‘snot’ for ‘phlegm’ or ‘mucus’.
Tarkovsky said an artist should never try to convey her ideas to an audience, but should instead simply ‘Show them life, and they’ll find within themselves the means to assess and appreciate it.’ Coming from a storyteller whose works could hardly be described as lifelike, this advice would perhaps be better phrased ‘Show them a world, and let them explore it.’ That world doesn’t have to be true to life as long as it’s internally consistent, however perverse (consider Beckett’s plays, for example). Allen’s poetry passes this test – there are no documentary pegs jammed into surrealist holes, so to speak – though the audience still has to fend for itself.
Of the collection’s various sequences, ‘Landscape for a Dead Woman’ is the last and perhaps the most hit-and-miss. Nevertheless, lines like ‘she has dissolved / an egg in acid’ are superb and unique, and there’s a structural purity to the sequence, whose small groups of couplets float in the white, resonating:
a blue ghost on the doorstep
but it’s not her
she is wholly gone
birds hang like visual disturbance
flick monstrously from side to side
bad pile of sand
no end and no beginning
water laps at my feet
Pleasingly, Kingdomland’s end is, in a way, its beginning: it’s framed by a pair of fourteen-line iterations (sister sonnets, if you like), the first of which depicts ‘a dank and / disordered root system’, as if signposting the collection’s rough terrain. The second iteration repeats much of the first’s imagery but, significantly, excludes the disorder. The book begins ‘as the girl floats up / to the billowing ceiling’, it ends ‘as the girls float up’ (my italics). As in the final scene of Robert Eggers’s 2015 film The Witch, there’s something reassuring (if ambiguous) about the fact that, in spite of everything, the protagonist doesn’t end up on her own.