Friday, June 3, 2016

Poetry Month, Day 3 - _Ode to the Cold War_ by Dick Allen

Another book from my wife's library sale trawling. According to the back cover, "Dick Allen is a central figure in America's often neglected 'transitional generation' - poets born in the late 1930s and early 1940s." Allen's poems reflect his generation - it is clear that the transitional generation, not unlike the Baby Boom generation, with witch there is some overlap, clearly, was defined by the end of World War Two, the Korea and Vietnam conflicts, and the Cold War in general (as the title of the collection suggests). Throughout the book there are poems musing on these conflicts, and the struggle between the great powers of the Cold War, as well as poems about life in America between the late 1940s and the early 1990s (the book was published in 1997). As with any collection of poetry (or, really, any collection of anything), this feels like a mixed bag. Some of the poems speak to me, while others feel unnecessarily obscure - Allen engaging in lyric density for his own amusement.

I'd like to share the title poem, but it's rather too long for me to re-type; several pages. It has a delightful lyric flow, almost musical in places. There is a fine use of internal rhyme for emphasis, and a rhythm which borrows from jazz, but also from rap. I wish there were a recording of it somewhere, I bet it sounds great out loud. I will share a different poem which is shorter.

The Report

The wind is blowing on the prison walls
Above the secret towns. In the secret towns
Men are walking through the streets with guns.

Men with guns are walking through the streets
Below the prison walls. The prison walls
Are on the cliffs about the secret towns.

Behind the shattered windows and the shattered doors,
The women kneel and pray. The women pray
While men are walking through the streets with guns.

Men with guns are walking through the streets,
Breaking down the doors. Breaking down the doors
Is what the men do in the secret towns.

The women pray they'll stop. Please stop, they pray,
And let the prison fall. Let the prison fall,
They pray behind the windows and the shattered doors.

But the men are laughing in the secret towns,
And carrying the guns. The men with guns
Walk and laugh below the prison walls.

Below the prison walls lie secret towns
With broken doors. Beyond the broken doors
Men are walking through the streets with guns.


The tight form here, with the repetition of theme throughout is reminiscent of Frost, and is not at all typical of the work in the collection. Allen seems to favor a much more open format, sometimes a sprawling blank verse, and sometimes more constrained, but not as formal as this example.  Consequently, this poem feels like an experiment, which I think works quite well. The narrative description, however, is entirely in line with the rest of the collection. Allen's work captures lush pictures in his words - bucolic snow-scapes, agonized war scenes, nostalgic moments of children hiding under desks, that moment just between fall and winter as blankets come down from the attic - and renders them so precisely that the reader can smell the moth-balls, hear the crunch of sled runners on the snow, and see the mud of the battlefield. Not all of the poems are easy to read, but I enjoyed the ones I read.

I should say, though, that I miss sitting with fellow poets and listening to them explain their own work. There were several pieces in this collection that I'd love to hear Allen offer background on.