This verse hits hard at appalling conditions and broken lives in a history of industrial
exploitation and sectarian division against a backdrop of demoralising tenements
‘Ha Ha’ perhaps implies our need for a crust of indifference. It’s the title of
one sequence of poems that plumbs the greatest depths of degradation found in a collection
that spares no degrees of squalor, despair, and lack of wider horizons. The poems
range through past and present exploitations of the weak and vulnerable, beyond Allen’s
Antrim and into other cultures, and suggest how social attitudes harden within communities
and families. In one poem Dee, fourteen, returns from college to find her mother
‘crumpled over in death’ from years of drink, drugs and sexual abuse. Next we see
how her mother’s victimisation developed, but it is also Dee’s inheritance. The
spare final poem shows Allen’s skill with layered implication: a peaceful, white
room, clean and simply furnished, people sitting in silence, a disturbed boy making
bird shadows. Asylum, or refuge from a broken, rootless world? Its ending haunts
In the distance is the sound of a trumpet
the whinnying of horses
then the sound of feet
and the soft voice of someone speaking.
The heart of Allen’s vision is ‘disconnection’. His aptly fragmented style makes
for a voice that mixes engaged anger and detached comment. It works best in his dramatic
monologues. ‘Book of Hours’ ruminates on his fraught relationship with his father.
The experience and tight-lipped style fuse into defining a Protestant culture of
restraint and endurance, the poet’s ineradicable heritage:
Oh how he passed it on
the ability to be nothing
compressed as layered stone
In ‘A Priest Confesses’, a monologue from across the divide, Jesus’ suffering can’t
match the pain of this down-trodden people. His calling is submerged in sectarian
prejudice and violence:
knock three times, I came without warning
like the broken colied spring drive,
the balance spring regulator
of old fob watches.
In a moment I destroyed everything I loved.
Tender moments provide relief. ‘Spring’ visualises the joy, confusions and conflicts
of early love with delightfully inconsequential juxtaposition of images and incidental
facts. In ‘Act Out’ his ageing mother confuses the poet with his father, a twilight
mental state that perplexes the narrator into contradictory responses. And in ‘Lost
Wages’ she and her sisters, too young to work and diverted into play, are locked
out by the mill timekeeper.
Seldom comfortable reading; but Allen’s unique way of talking to us is unforgettable.