Michael Tolkien

Ha Ha   (Lagan Press, Belfast (2011))

Publ. in Ambit 209, summer 2012


 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 and suburbs.

 ‘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 me!


In the distance is the sound of a trumpet

the whinnying of horses


ha ha


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.  




Gary Allen