Monday, 31 January 2011

Review: Tasting the Fruit by Steve Allen (Indigo Dreams Press, 2010; ISBN 978-1-907401-08-4)

Performance poet Steve Allen has been flying the flag for poetry in the cultural wilderness of Milton Keynes for years. In the flesh, he is a compelling performer, using his whole body to bring his words to vivid life. Steve’s sense of dramatic or comic timing is about the best I’ve witnessed on the performance circuit. He can spot an innuendo at 1000 paces, and revels in being able to spice up otherwise serious poems with a choice double entendre or two. It’s the more risqué side of his repertoire that’s best known from his performances, and there are some good representative examples in this long overdue debut collection. But it’s easy to forget that his publication record has been largely built up on serious poetry. The bulk of the collection consists of travelogues, love poems and love-gone-wrong poems (and sometimes all three in the same piece of writing).

It is in the love poems that Steve’s touch is most delicate, his poet’s eye at its most insightful. What I loved about these pieces was their simple domestic intimacy. There is an understated poignancy in the first-time chef’s act of kindness to a sick partner in Can’t Cook, Don’t Cook, the glances and touches of the separated former lovers walking in the woods in Midsummer, the butterfly fluttering past the boarding aeroplane in Incarnation.

As for love poems, so with love-gone-wrong poems. There are a whole clutch of these, that fuse raw emotion with rather cynical humour. Second Adulthood, the exact mid-point of the collection, is the angriest poem in the book. On one level it can be read as a divorcee’s bitter rant against the failure of a marriage; but the overpowering mood is one of triumph:

I’m not fragmenting
I’m intact.”

Other poems chart the search for a human connection to replace the one so brutally disconnected in Second Adulthood. The tone of these is more wistful, the poet’s disappointment quite palpable through the subtext:

“We drank your wine
Not mine
But that’s OK”
(from OK);

“I accept the euphemistic coffee,
mentally noting that, at this time of night,
decaffeinated is safest.”
(from Come, Come).

A similar unsettledness enlivens the travelogue poems, which range through scenes as foreign to Home Counties eyes as Kuala Lumpur street corners, the home of a Brazilian charcoal burner and, erm, Camden market. The scene pictures are deftly painted; the “old boat, now on stilts, that houses her garden” (Zafira’s Garden), the “bandaged, bloodied stumps / of the shuffler / struggling along / the pavement-less road” (Knees), the “village bullock and cart (that) plod the fast lane” (Caste and Contrast) and the signposts filled with unintended doubles entendres (Kum Kum) were particularly vivid for me. But I felt a curious sense of detachment when reading these poems. The narrative voice was that of a self-styled “Englishman Abroad”, wryly noting the alien and incongruous scenes around him, but rarely getting involved. When the poet is dragged into the scenes, it is usually against his will.

A review of Steve Allen’s work could never be complete without mentioning the slightly smutty, innuendo-laden poems which are his hallmark as a performer. Several such poems are clustered together in the central section of the collection. They range from the ingenious Park and Ride and Pay and Display to the splendidly titled Vibrator Racing. At their best, these pieces display a precision of craft that equals any of his serious poetry. But some (You Done Then?, (C)Rude Poem, the laddish punchline of Mind and Behind) leave too little to the imagination. I know that they are effective on stage; but devoid of the performance element, I didn’t honestly think these pieces brought any real poetic quality to the collection.

For me, the greatest poetic depth was to be found at the end of the collection, in a small set of autobiographical poems. East End, Southend was a particularly intriguing piece, centring on the rescue of a vandalised photograph of the narrator’s parents in their courting days. There’s an unstated sense of sadness for lost times in this poem and many of its companions. Here, for the first time, it feels as if the poet is writing honestly about himself without hiding behind a bluster of drama and innuendo: as a child in Early Days, a teacher of disaffected colliery children in Supply, a would-be hippie transported unexpectedly back to 1969 in After the Rain-Gush. The poet’s memories of his mother, sharing the drama of thunderstorms in Bravery Comes in Many Forms, and her simultaneous vulnerability and stoicism in When Mother Fell, are particularly moving.

For me, this collection was a bit of a paradox. Steve Allen’s talent as a performer, his timing and intonation and sheer energy, are so much a part of his poetry that some of the poems in this collection seem weak when stripped of these elements. What comes across as wry wit in a live performance can be mistaken on the page for smugness or a route to a cheap gag. With few exceptions (Park and Ride being one), the poems here which are most effective as written poems are the more personal pieces, which show a delicacy of touch and a mastery of subtext which is sometimes absent from the performance pieces. So for me, this was a mixed collection. But if its existence provides a means for one of today’s best performers of poetry to get his work performed live in front of new audiences, it will have amply fulfilled its purpose.

More about this book, and some sample poems from Steve Allen, can be found on the Indigo Dreams Press website.

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