Book review: Fixing the Broken Nightingale

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Image of book cover for Fixing the Broken Nightingale

Reviewed by: Kate Prendergast

Book: Fixing the Broken Nightingale
Author: Richard James Allen
Published: 2013
ASM & Cerberus Press

The Secret Potency of Words

Fixing the Broken Nightingale is a small book of short verse, in which—through an alliance of experimental form and observational insight—an element of faith is recuperated out of the chaos and disorientation of everyday life.

Writing in a voice of emotional authenticity, the fiction and performance writer, editor and poet Richard James Allen travels through a series of ‘movements’ or sections which structure the volume. Its course is a reflection upon identity and mystery, desolation and exaltation, the stealth of desire and the tenacity of love.

The first section ‘Natural Disasters’ is the darkest and most cynical in theme and tone, broiling with unquiet memories and emotional and psychic turmoil. It is also the most comic; wryly counterpointing the sombre and deflating the grim so as to produce a gratifying dip of pleasure.

One example of this kind of bathetic impulse is in the poem ‘New York Night’. Here, a man is airing his bed-sheets out a high-story window when ‘a little brown piece of metal/tinkled down between the apartment buildings’. ‘I hope it wasn’t my lucky penny’ the man muses.

As the volume unfolds, the reader continues to travel through rooms and moments characterised by disorder and confusion; particularly at the junctures of love and death. And yet the verse is infused with a vital spirituality, so that we encounter as many miracles and moments of wonder as we do pain—indeed, the two are indivisible.

Both are also seen to abound in small, humble and often invisible human relations — forgotten umbrellas as ‘giant origami love letters’ to unknown strangers, the haunting premonition of the ‘fat lady’s song, and the ambient ‘mist of souls’, unseen but felt by some.

Elliptical and meditative, Broken Nightingale’s patterns throb and circle like a questing current round a horse-shoe bend, reaching, in the final movement, a feeling of transcendence. A reconciliation is tendered with the ‘soiled, holy world’ everyone must move through, and through a lyrical address of daily living, he meets the mysteries he calls up halfway.

A deep humanity is palpable in Allen’s verse; as is his capacity for hope, even when there seems little to vouchsafe it. In the final section, art is upheld as a means to mend the broken and vulnerable parts of the world; with ‘the poets who believe in their blood in the secret potency of words’ at the fore.