By James H Duncan
Poems that tell stories have always been my favorite, and collections that do the same, that have an arc and cover more ground than just a collective of observations, they always win me over. This one certainly does the trick, and these new poems by Ally pick a fight head-on with every possible danger we may face in this world—both commonplace dangers and those seeming to swing out of memories tinged with the surreal and pre-apocalyptic. They feel like speculative poems anchored in such realism that these delicate nightmares faded and worn could revive and happen again tomorrow, or could be coming for us right now.
We walked the narrow lane down
the only busy street into town,
our mother’s hearts fluttering with caution.
Other children had been found dead.
We stole boats and rowed out into the crater lake.
It had a creature in it. Everyone knew that.
The poems weave their way through childhood years, all the while with Ally convincing us that memories are just stories we’re told, nothing more, with maybe-imagined/maybe-not images coming to light from our buried subconscious. The poems become mile markers guiding the way through the empty haze of our youth, making us recall what we need and what we wish we didn’t need, through days and night when even the mundane events and locations are colored with some sense that things can go wrong. And things usually go wrong. Ally is able to hammer this home with striking, frightful scenery, as in “Movie Death”:
He asked me later how it happened.
And I tell him, filling in the gaps
with my hopes. I tell him it was peaceful.
I tell him it was simple,
the slight fluttering of the hollow of the throat,
a weak smile, slowly closing the eyes.
A movie death.
I hate this life, I tell him,
but he’s already turned away from me,
back toward the mirror,
on his face a smile starts but never finishes.
The power in the poems comes from being so close to what we fear, and how sometimes it's hard to believe whether or not this is really happening. Yet we have to make choices in these moments, choices that can save us or lead us to dead ends. Spoiler: there are so many, too many, infinite dead ends.
But these aren’t nihilistic poems. There’s tenderness and truth, and nostalgia too, though not in a blindly wistful way, but a heavier feeling than that, with a sad wisdom of having seen how things end up, a feeling strongly noted in “
Late Nineties”: Summer Lake
So young that we could still hear the
steady throb of our hearts,
the shudder of our bones stretching
in skin tightened by lake water.
So horribly breakable young that
some of us will not survive and
some of us will stay this way.
Too young to realize that
this time was,
not going to last.
As the poems progress, we witness the balance between the aching boredom of growing up and the wild sound and vision of time passing so fast that every day becomes a car accident of fates and love and fears coming true. The writer matures throughout the book, the arc reaches forward as it looks back. Old horrors that seemed so surreal are replaced by the all too common torments of adulthood. In “Backache”:
I tell him my back hurts and he pulls me closer
so that his arm,
which is under me,
can reach up and rub my back.
Which is sweet of him,
because I know
it’s the soon-to-be-diagnosed cancer
that is eating my family
finally, to feast on me.
The poems claw through a marry-go-round of nightmares and worries, and they toughen the writer, and the reader. Scars accumulate. The boxing tape frays but holds tight for the next round. There are lessons through all this. The poems keep coming as the days keep coming, and there are good ones and ones that make us cry, but we learn that if the days won’t stop, neither will Ally, not until they finally run out. The least we can do is to keep pace with her, keep reading, keep writing, keep punching.
It’s a hard life but it’s our life and getting through it all may feel like trying to fit the ocean in your mouth, but what other choice do you have?
This wonderful meaningful book is now available from Blue Hour Press.