Monday, June 18, 2012

The Oblivion Breakfast Table

C.J. Allen
C.J. Allen

I've already mentioned my admiration for the poetry of C. J. Allen. After reading his new collection (which it took Amazon an age to deliver to my door), I feel compelled to mention it again. I opened At the Oblivion Tea Rooms over the breakfast table and nearly made myself late for work. In the last few days, I've read the collection twice, once at a single sitting. And each time I open it, I experience a sensation so rarely associated with contemporary poetry: pleasure.

The book is divided into five parts, dealing variously with the poet's early life (or a comic version of it), animals, landscapes and the writing of poetry. Allen's verse is playful and experimental, but above all startling and compelling.

Against all the wisdom of creative writing courses, he piles metaphor on metaphor, image on image. He notes how poets are obsessed with different ways to describe the light, then peppers his own work with seemingly endless attempts to capture its different qualities.

His imagery, while obviously clever, never descends into being just 'clever' - for example, when he describes donkeys as 'much like a box of cardigans / left in the sun, in an Oxfam shop'. This image is also typical of his deliberately excessive - yet perfectly controlled - style, and that final qualifier ('in an Oxfam shop') is key here. It hints at the irony (and, indeed, modesty) at the heart of this writing. The poet doesn't claim that his imagery is adequate; he is always adding to it, admitting that it's incomplete; some more exact description is always just about to occur to him. Significantly, the donkeys are only 'much like' his image, not entirely like it at all. And yet, the description is so arresting that I know the next time I see one of these creatures my perception of them will be changed by having read C.J. Allen's poem about them.

I could say more about what's on offer in the oblivion tea rooms: I could mention the fish who 'don't need passports' or the long exposition on the 'shirts of great writers'; but really the only thing to do is go there yourself.

To whet your appetite, why not try the free sample of Allen's poetry recently published at the excellent Gists and Piths blog.


  1. Dear David, thanks for your blog post, so pleased you have enjoyed CJ Allen's latest collection - we've very much enjoyed publishing it, and so good to hear feedback from readers like this! Sorry it took an age to arrive from Amazon - sadly beyond our control, but next time you order something, come direct to our website shop and I'll ensure you get a free copy of something else equally good thrown in with your order. Best wishes, Jane (Nine Arches Press).

    1. Thanks, Jane. I guess I shouldn't really complain about Amazon when I ought to go straight to the publisher! I'll have a browse and take you up on your kind offer in due course.

  2. Dear David, Thanks for this. It's an excellent collection which deserves a lot of readers. Regards, Alan Baker.