The Cortland Review


Stephen Dobyns

Stephen Dobyns on Poetry: Choosing the work over the life, and "trying to pass to some other kind of level below the surface."

Paul Hamill

Saint Brendan Reports To The Monks Of Iona. A world of sea and land, soft mornings, and gildings of glory.

Leslie McGrath

T'ang, Textures and Texas in Dick Allen's, The Day Before.

Leslie McGrath

Leslie McGrathLeslie McGrath lives in the village of Noank, Connecticut. Her poems have appeared in The Formalist and The Connecticut Review, and she has been nominated for a 2003 Purhcart Prize. She is a regular personal commentator on WFCR, an NPR affiliate, and is an M.F.A. candidate in poetry at the Bennington Writing Seminars.
Dick Allen's "The Day Before" - Book Review



The Day Before
by Dick Allen
115 pages
Sarabande Books, 2003

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It has been six years since the publication of Dick Allen's excellent and exhaustive collection, Ode to the Cold War: Poems New and Selected (Sarabande Books, 1997) and sixteen years since his last full length book of new poems. Have the years been well spent? The answer, upon reading Allen's The Day Before, is an emphatic yes.

Allen is a well-established "Expansive" poet, who has worked primarily in narrative and traditional forms. Lately he has moved deeper into the poetic style he began developing in the New section of Ode to the Cold War. He has termed it Randomism, in which a lyric narrative of association is woven around a small incident. In "Poem for My Sixtieth Birthday," Allen describes this process:

I like to find textures such as I might run my hands across,
a hidden cavern, a little joke
hanging by its tail in a shadowy cave,
some meadows, a crocodile, the footprints
of an old philosopher pursued by elves,
for it's the ramble I love, the nonsensical road
leading to the sensible one

The Day Before is divided into four sections of varied theme and style. While the first and last sections contain poems of a more personal (though never confessional) nature, the constant, both inside and across sections, is mood rather than topic, which makes for a series of delightful surprises as one proceeds through the book. A T'ang-inspired poem, "Poem for Li, In Her White Bridal Dress," for example, precedes the loose and funny "Texas Prison Town":

The only French he ever learned was a la mode
and went his whole life thinking it meant ice cream.

"Quiet, Quiet Now" is a list poem of similes that range from moments in time, to geography and the fine arts, culminating in one of the longstanding themes of Allen's work—love as haven:

as how a memory of calm
is like a tall and graceful woman in a summer gown
standing on the porch, holding the screen door open.

A number of the poems are either dedicated to Allen's wife ("Urban Pastoral") or written to her ("If You Get There Before I Do"), and the tenderness of their longstanding devotion is one of the pleasures of reading The Day Before.

The quality of Allen's formal verse is less even. "Letter from the Desk of Wallace Stevens" swings quickly into a rapturous sing-song which falls flat with:

Post it to Hartford where
I shall be waiting to
Sweeten the world with my
Blackberry mind.

He has more success with "Animus," which begins "We plan our days, but our days have other plans," expanding on a favorite Allen theme: the struggle to live in the moment. Here, his masterful use of rhyme—"caterwaul" and "nightfall," "imbeciles" and "coffee spills"—and beneficent world-weariness are beautifully matched.

As in Ode to the Cold War, the title poem of The Day Before is the book's emotional fulcrum. A long poem that seems to expand and contract as Allen moves from the personal to the cultural and back again, "The Day Before Yesterday" is reminiscent of one of Borges' best short stories, "El Aleph":

Save the farmers. Save the unions. Save the feel
of a bellrope lifting you a half-inch from the floor
and the mattering details, individual as each
moment is to any one of us, no matter what we share.

Dick Allen draws the reader into his world using images that lead to reverie, then reminds us why he took us there: to reacquaint us with the richness and joy of American life.



© 2004 The Cortland Review