Mark Seton reviews Text Messages from the Universe by Richard James Allen
by Richard James Allen
Flying Islands Press
Reviewed by MARK SETON
It’s 2023, and our world flounders under an encroaching deluge of Artificial Intelligence apps, especially ChatGPT, that might enable anyone to ‘generate’ poetry, so why bother! The good news, I believe, is that the poetry that touches us, moves us and connects us still emerges from a living, breathing, feeling, embodied poet. That’s what Richard James Allen generously offers the reader in his latest work Text Messages from the Universe. And it’s fun too!
This is the fourth work of Allen’s that I have reviewed over the years and he never ceases to delight and surprise with new modes and constructions of words and images that overlap and bounce off each other. The initial treats of this new work are the physical size (the book of poetry fits in the shape of one’s hand) and, accompanying the text, one encounters colourful pages of photographic images, many incorporating dancers in bright, flowing strips of cloth, intermingled with textures and ambiguous light sources. It’s all an invitation to enter into the flow of sensation before making any attempt at meaning-making.
In a past life (or maybe it’s just an ongoing present life?) I’m sure Allen was/is a detective, a Philip Marlow of the 21st century. Through an omnipresent framing of address, in second person, he asks you, the reader, numerous investigative questions. He proffers multiple, possible meanings. He knows he sometimes makes miscalculations. He acknowledges that life can be messy. And he asserts that life is worth living no matter how short it is. I suspect there is a clue to the puzzle of this text, proffered in his dedication – “for my Virgils” – a reference, perhaps, to the ancient Roman poet, Virgil, a master poet of antiquity, who structured his most famous poetic epic Aeneid into several ‘books’. Likewise, Allen crafts a textual container of two parts, collectively containing three chapters.
Part One consists of two counter-pointed chapters, ‘An Introduction to Dying and An Odd Way to be Born.’ Two confronting themes, yet Allen seduces the reader to keep reading by means of playful, image-triggering phrases about the reader’s mind and body that strangely convey an everyday normality within the fantastical – “Your head feels like it is under attack from a swarm of alien starships, trying to blast their way through your mind core” (p.9) followed shortly by “The vehicle [body] is so tremendously powerful. It’s the Holy Grail for floating spirits, waiting aeons for the chance to act again in the world” (p.15). The second theme invokes a ritual-like multiplicity of ways to be ‘born’. Almost every page insists that you “wake up!” and offers you various narratives that you might choose to bring you into some new state of being and becoming. This section of texts is most powerfully counter-pointed by the photographic images of dancers in various modes and moods of movement – sometimes their eyes address the reader, sometimes their eyes indicate where the reader might go. But it is the dynamism in their frozen moments of ‘the dance’ that is most striking in how it shapes one’s feeling and/or interpretation of these different story offers. This second theme wanes, at a critical transition, where the message of the Universe observes, “You’ve got it all wrong, strange things happen to everybody – it’s just that mostly they don’t pay attention to them, or if they do, they don’t tell anyone about them, they just keep them a secret” (p.47).
This launches the reader into a wilder ride through Part Two of this collection of messages, entitled ‘The Book of Bad Dreams’, that are far more scattered between pages of dancers and textured lighting, creating a sense of acceleration towards some kind of finality or paradoxical crisis/opportunity. It’s almost like a textual version of the psychedelic ‘stargate sequence’ in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. As the textual messages seem more urgent and demanding of a readerly response, it’s in these latter pages that the very words begin to blur into a stream of consciousness:
If you were to speak the perfect words, what would they be? The onlythingyourememberisthatthebodyyou entered, or thought you entered, was walking across, a street talking on their phone. You can’t remember to whom. The conversation was interrupted by a text message.(p46)
This becomes the point of no return – or unending return – where texts finally subside and lift the reader to a place where there is no place or need for text messages. Only bold colours, dynamic dancers and sensual textures remain to fill in the last few pages of this playful, provocative and in-sight-ful work. Another sensual, innovative and rewarding accomplishment from the embodied exploration and expression of the poet who is Richard James Allen.
Dr Mark Seton (PhD) is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies, at The University of Sydney. He is an Educator and Consultant for Sense Connexion, which he established to teach empowering vulnerability to actors and other professionals, such as lawyers and health practitioners, whose capacity for empathy and sensitivity is crucial to their effectiveness and success. Alongside membership of the Editorial Board of the “Journal of Applied Arts and Health”, Mark is Chair of the Human Research Ethics Committee for the Australian College of Theology and is a founding member of the Australian Society for Performing Arts Healthcare.