Chapbooks are a small but interesting phenomenon of the publishing world. Most people would look at one and simply call it a "pamphlet," but poets prefer their own vocabularies. Chapbooks allow poets to put their work in various orders, in experimental constellations, until series of poems assume patterns of meaning that might have been difficult to see otherwise. This process of publishing certainly needs no legitimization, and even such a prestigious organization as the Poetry Society of America runs a chapbook contest.
K. E. Allen, graduate of the U-M's M.F.A. program in creative writing and now a resident of Chelsea, won last year's contest with a complex and ambitious collection entitled Woman in a Boat. The introduction to this slim volume, written by judge Robert Creeley, tells us, helpfully, that in these poems "no right and wrong way can be argued," although "one is in an unremittingly particular world."
The poet herself tells us in the first poem that "belief is perception," and much later, amid a long poem filled with images and words of the sea, she says, "All images but they're all we've got." But Allen doesn't leave us only with philosophical statements about the nature of her art: she creates the images that justify the statements. Those images are often captured in rich sentences that bend syntax and roll words around with an obvious sensual pleasure:
| When an oyster opens wide
under a full harvest moon —
a clean white beak
spilling over with seed and pearl —
a bird will toss a twig into the shell
to keep it from closing,
to feed, to riot.
The rich and evocative image almost lets us forget what is really happening at the end of that sentence: the gull is tearing the oyster apart in a feeding frenzy!
In "From Alton Bay, New Hampshire, to Berlin" — a short prose fragment, perhaps a letter — she addresses a friend from whom she is separated and who is suffering his or her own series of fears and silences. She is willing to sound wise and helpful in the ways we expect from our friends:
I'm frightened and alive, letting the current carry me for once, rocking me within my stalwart wooden tomb. These trees. You write you feel your body disappearing: from what or whom do you wish to disappear? Name these things and mail them to me; I will gather them in a box I made from birch and send them sailing on the lake, in flames.
There is a belief here, in perception and in the power of words, the necessity of naming things. And in the water and boat images we get more of what ties this series of poems together: a sense of a voyage, necessary and beautiful, although with only vague and uncertain destinations.
K. E. Allen reads from her award-winning chapbook Woman in a Boat at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Wednesday, April 6.