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Sevastopol: On Photographs of War. Xenos Press. 1997. ISBN 1-879378-29-9 paper, 13.00

Chelsea 65 (1998 ISSN 0009-2185)

The duty of a poet writing in the ekphrastic mode—describing works of art—is not to duplicate the work of art in words, but rather to enter into it with sympathy and empathy, to attain intimacy with it, and to strike correspondences and epiphanies. Some poets who have achieved this extremely well are Delmore Schwartz, in “Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon Along the Seine,” W.D. Snodgrass in “ Van Gogh: The Starry Night” ; and Frank O’Hara in “On Looking at Le Grande Jette, the Czar Wept Anew.”

Now we have William Allen’s Sevastopol, a collection of poems based upon forty-two diverse photographs of aspects of war (Sevastopol, for those who have forgotten, is a fortified seaport on the Crimea, in Ukraine, famous for its heroic resistance during the sieges of 349 days in 1854-55 and 245 days in 1941-42).

Allen’s photographers include the famous—Matthew Brady and Eadweard Muybridge—and the anonymous and unknown. The subjects include the Civil War, the Modoc Wars, Wounded Knee, the wreck of the General Slocum, World Wars I and II, civil rights uprisings, Vietnam, San Salvador, Bosnia, Desert Storm, Ethiopia and the Oklahoma blast. Given so much human suffering and political indifference, many poets would be tempted to write didactic poems, to stand on a soapbox and shout an agenda (How many poets’ work has been ruined by political views? One has only to think of the more shrill poems of Millay, Rukeyser, and Levertov).

But Allen’s poems are not political in the sense of expressing or denouncing principles, aims, or activities. Rather, he looks at a photograph—a document of a certain time or place—and enters into the activity in one way or another. His point of view varies. Sometimes, as in “Photographer Photographing a Dead Horse,” he writes in the authorial first person. Elsewhere, he assumes the more impersonal third person (“Joe Louis in Italy, 1944”). In other poems, he assumes a persona, such as that of a prisoner of war in Hanoi (“Heartbreak Hotel”).

Regardless of the point of view, each poem is crafted into 21 lines of unrhymed free verse, with the line lengths varying. Some give the physical appearance of prose poems (“Ill-Political”), while others have the spare look of a lyric (“Portrait of an Italian Soldier”). What they share in common is Allen’s immense compassion. A poem about the burial at sea of nine sailors ends,

As for us, the salt-bit seamen of Billy Budd,

we sleep above the restless graves tonight

and dream the day when the dead shall rise in laughter.

A poem about an impression in the ground made by a commander who fell from a fiery zeppelin concludes,

            Like a child who lies in freshly-fallen

snow, he stretches his arms now, salutes

and kicks his heels, wands with his spindly

limbs the wings that take him farther,

farther than we ever want to go.

This is highly sensitive and humane poetry, on risky subjects. One poem, “Water,” is a mediation upon the famous journalistic photo of a starving girl in Africa being stalked by a vulture. The poet is moved to write,

            I sacrifice the origin of all ideals on Earth to give this girl a drink.

Some of the photographs are not so much emotional as they are striking. These include a photo of twenty-eight hundred shirtless men performing early morning calisthenics during basic training: “The shadow of each athlete is an angel of the odd and obdurate,” and a glimpse of a Flying Fortress falling from the sky, its wing clipped off by a Messerschmidt:

            This disembodied airship, like the tonnage

            of shrapnel around it, stands frozen

            for a moment of its landscape’s bituminous past,

like the adder that swallows its tail forever

            or the eye of a winsome God, just as she blinks

and fevers a serpentine look at man and war,

            just where we are left to brood and wonder.

For his marvelous eye which seeks out the telling details in each picture, as well as for his precise and controlled language, William Allen deserves high praise. It is not surprising to discover in a note on the author that he is a visual artist as well as poet, and has shown his own prints at the Museum of Modern Art. This is his second book of poems (The Man on the Moon appeared in 1987). May he publish more.

Robert Phillips


The Man on the Moon, Poems. William Allen

New York University Press: New York, 1987. 88 pps.; $25, cloth ISBN 0-8147-0588-X.

The tradition among many men writing poetry today is still that if you approach pain directly, with the first person, it is too much like sentiment. One poet whose work is an exception to that rule is William Allen, and his collection The Man on the Moon, Poems, chosen last year by Philip Levine in the NYU annual publication award in creative writing, is a fascinating, sometimes disturbing work.

The first section of the book deals with the poet’s rites of passage, and the sheer anomaly of being human. In this narrative, fluid poem, the poet delineates a fine edge between rational and irrational forces:

An electric haircutter was whirring over

my head, my eyes, fluffing off

the topmost layers.

It was the horrible machine that Mom had used

when we were small, reducing us

to shaven images of little American doughboys.

I look at myself in the mirror,

see the small black speck in one eye,

sink back into the chair as this man’s hands

encircle my warm skull, and I feel again

the priest’s wandering fingers,

holding the sides of my head together,

whispering some unbelievable catechism.

The whole poem is this fine and sure and has the effect of water descending from its origin to its destination; in fact, a fine-crafted iambic pervades every line.

The strongest poem in the section is “The Loon,” which captures, in a confluence of images, a first sexual encounter. Here, the sense that some of our moments do indeed find completion achieves dramatic expression; here, vulnerability may in fact lead to epiphany. Watching a loon dive beneath the surface of the bay and disappear, the poet wonders, “Could a bird become a fish? “ (marvelous inflection of adolescence) and steals into a young girl’s bedroom to touch her:

I came to love the pulsing of my fingertips,

the stiff warm shell which now responded

to my awkward kisses at her mouth.

And then I left, and walked outside

and couldn’t sleep and found the sea awake

which rose above its water marks

as a hurricane approached the island.

The second section makes a leap into adulthood, and the poet incorporates exotic and vivid places, rich in ‘otherness,’ in opposition to images in earlier poems of the Atlantic seaboard. Here, Allen’s ability to present succinct image-patterns and place names gives the work tremendous richness. Some of these poems have humanistic and political overtones, lending balance to the collection. In “Desert Music,” Allen writes, “ We pick the last fruit, leave our enemies behind/Olive trees bend in the wind,/and they cry as the doves of mercy,/the long, tired arms of Bedouins.” There is purity in these mythic worlds, although there is a sense of loss and violence in them; hence, perhaps their appeal for the poet and their usefulness as tools resolution.

The single most powerful poem in “ Willow,” the finals ection of the book; this poem brings the book full-circle by recounting a boyhood experience, one that underscores a truth we all hold in common—we are forever changed by our first losses. Once we recover our childhood pain, we begin to achieve a mature vulnerability. This loss is the young poet’s dog, the Willow of the title, who gets struck by a motorcycle. Waiting for her to be put to sleep, the speaker hears, feels, smells: “Something clamped down hard, stank of /electric trains. Unable to cry,/I thought of the gas chambers,/somehow purified…”

It is all here—elemental loss, the dog’s death as metaphor for the dissolution of the family, the travesty of the sacrosanct offered by the Church in place of true bonds. We see the influence of Catholicism on the writer, on culture, and how it is that our boy-children are still taught that open grieving is weak.

Allen’s book is not perfect, but his poetry fulfills the psyche and the intellect. Perhaps the greatest value odf the strongest poems is that they offer catharsis.

Jenné Andrews, Colorado Review

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