Poet Jason Allen is a poetical pyromaniac who guides his readers through a tour of hell involving scenes of addiction, suicide, homelessness, and family dysfunction. And even if we are tempted to withdraw from such smoldering carnage, ruin and rubble, Allen reminds us that “while we sleep, our worst nightmares / continue happening to someone else.” The thing is though, the poems in this debut collection are a controlled burn. The fire never gets out of hand, which is the mark of a skilled verbal arsonist. Paraphrasing William Wordsworth: a more amateur poet would have left too much spontaneous overflow of emotion in these pages without the necessary distance needed to craft the poems as they are “recollected in tranquility.”
Allen’s poetic persona in this debut full-length collection is beatnik earnest and confessional, but also contemplative, as in the final poem of the book “Before You Go” when he warns:
Be suspicious of anyone
who talks more than they listen,
be aware of the writer
he knows nothing
more than you—
choose a story
before one is chosen
And oh what stories Allen has chosen to tell!
Most of the poems in A Mediation on Fire crackle like a well-tended campfire. His lines are full of kinetic energy, and he has a penchant for narratives about losers and boozers, the forgotten and the forsaken. Like the alcoholic carpenter in the poem “Sunlight in Solid Form,” who confesses that he loves gazing at the grain and texture of wood because he believes it is sunlight incarnate. Alas, the carpenter loses his struggle with sobriety and after a day of binge drinking he passes out and is found drowned in a motel bathtub, held down by the morning sunlight, “shimmering like a prayer.”
In one of several father-son relationship poems included in Allen’s book, the familial estrangement that the poet paints is thick and threatening:
in that living room their separation
was complete, a barrier as solid as bronze,
where there was violence in that
louder than a scream, louder than
a shotgun blast in a submarine.
In another one of the (very few) rhyming poems of the collection, “Addiction,” addiction itself is the speaker in the poem who intones: “I am a tempter tracking habits through needles and blood, / I am shots in alleyways, shell casings in mud.”
Even the poet’s fantasies about meeting a possible future lover is stained with the karma of the past, as when he writes in the poem “Woman of the Future”: “I am / plunged inside the haystack and have felt only the wrong needles.” And so, when Allen writes a few pages later in the poem “Prophecy” that: “I’m going to love. / I’m going to think less. // I’m going to fall / for all the fictions // with happy endings,” we don’t really believe him. While there is nothing wrong with happy endings, Allen excels at writing poems that are more defiant and centered on hard-won survival instead of easy platitudes. This is especially apparent in one of his ars poetica poems, “The Work, Part I”:
I am an alchemist, attempting to make myself lighter,
but instead I’ve been altered to some denser metal,
a statue, a dying subject of a dead king;
I am trying out his throne. I am alone.
I am the central figure of this space,
hunched over this blank page, hanging on
the possibilities of a word.
If this debut collection is any indication, Allen has more than enough ability to fully realize the possibilities of his poetry. One of the poems in this book won third prize in the 2014 Allen Ginsberg Awards. Another won honorable mention from the Academy of American Poets in 2013. So do yourself a favor: get this book and don’t be afraid of drawing too close to the fire that illuminates and warms even as it burns.