Miles Davis once said, regarding jazz improvisation—“I always listen to what I leave out.” A careful listener to Paul Allen’s Ground Forces might note what goes missing in the title poem. “Ground Forces” initiates the reader, serving as preface, proclamation, and, in its own curious way, an invocation. It begins:
We are the new militia, armed with empty arms,
inducted now by having come to know
the last shall be first and the first last—but
concurrently. All those pleas—God, Please—
then hushed we hear ourselves swearing in:
Well, I’ll be and then begin to be.
When Moses gets his huge oh-by-the-way
from Yahweh: You will see but not get in…
he clucked a little Well, I’ll be, and was—
On my first reading, I paid little attention that “damned” was omitted. In our casual speech (Allen’s tone is predominantly conversational) we hear “well, I’ll be” as often with as without the moral pronouncement, damned. Nonetheless, as one reads further into the book, one learns his omission of moral judgment—when ”we” first congregate for “swearing in”—is key to understanding the book’s central theme.
Allen writes in the metaphysical vein, although with a more contemporary wit and a more open form than the original metaphysical poets, and without the end rhymes. His rhymes are most frequently internal, which is more in harmony with the book’s many interior monologues. Though his diction frequently bears the high unction of Biblical allusion and ecclesiastical or theological terms, such loftiness is more than offset by his puns, use of slang, colloquialisms, and general playing with language. This is in perfect keeping with his spiritual trajectory. Where Donne’s longing may lift hearts heavenward with its pious intensity, Allen’s yearning focuses lower and is earthy, although no less effective at moving the reader. Like jazz and the blues, Allen’s poems give us both poignancy and lift by laying low, with irony and wit as side men.
Thus, more particularly, the book is about our being or “begin[ning] to be,” grounded. Its poems illuminate us solely as earthlings. They elucidate the processes by which we are repeatedly brought back to earth, despite our wildest desires and most cherished creeds. As one reads, the title phrase bends and sways with new meaning. In the beginning, the “ground forces” are the congress of beings gathered for their induction. Later, the reader finds himself ruminating on different forces, those creating our spiritual weather. Felt both internally (guilt, love, alienation, willfulness) and externally (class, duty, calling), they keep us pinned down in life as we search for meaning. Where there is melancholy or the sobering effects of our troubles, Allen leavens this with wry humor, demonstrating even grace itself can be graceless.
In the section entitled “His Longing: The Small Penis Oratorio” for example, there is the poem, “He Loses Focus in His Lecture on ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’.” The “lecture” opens with a short synopsis of O’Connor’s story:
It’s about your position. First, the grandmother stands
over the man of the house, rattling the gun of the
day’s news at his head.
Then she sits in the car, then the diner—coming down
Finally, after her family has been killed elsewhere (sitting
or standing, we do not know), she’s as down to earth
as she can be—below the earth, in a ditch.
The poem then turns on the story’s climax, climaxing itself with the persona’s enlightening befuddlement.
And the Misfit shoots her when she gets confused and
calls on Jesus, calls the Misfit Jesus, perhaps.
Now in your physics class you learned that two things
cannot occupy the same space at the same time.
But that’s in physics class. In the real world, they can.
Goddamn, I’ve lived that way all my life—both:
the one with the gun, murder on his mind, and the
one in the ditch, a prayer of love and pity for him
draining from her lips…and, and….
I’m so sorry. Dismissed.
The collision here of fiction with poetry, religion with science, splinters metaphysical matters not unlike supercolliders smashing atoms. Yet because physics deals solely with the outer world, its laws, for this speaker, are of insufficient truth to deal with “the real world.” For him, “real” is comprised of inner being as well. As he says, “It’s about your position,” which ultimately, as the poem dramatizes, comes down to being “sorry” and “dismissed.” The speaker’s fog serves as a cloud-chamber of revelation, showing all of our conventional wisdom to be inadequate. For him, both science and the age-old Christian duality of saint-and-sinner fall short in our need and quest for understanding. And that shortfall dogs us as it does Allen’s benighted professor. Yet there is hope.
Listening to Allen’s chorus of voices, one hears both the unraveling of the old order and something new being woven. The poem “Against Healing” with its epigraph from Rilke’s “Elegy” (“He who lets go in his fall/ Dives into the source and is healed.”) begins with a startling repudiation:
Original sin, my ass. In the beginning the earth was
whatever darkness was, and wet—was Rhonda’s
mother down at the end of the road
who took me to her bed, that stuff you’ve read
about—Chopin on the record player,
Orpheus holding a vase across the room.
The birds and the bees loved her leaves,
her wild world of shadows around that house.
In Allen’s world, innocence is not lost but enhanced by experience. The poem continues:
Me and my Red Ryder, rolling
my tongue to feed the gun with BBs,
ammunition from my mouth.
I got good. But when she’d call me in
to her, I was bad. I would come for more
than killing birds and bees. I would come
to be found out there, to be brought in
for music, wine, to feel her hand in mine,
hear the shot roll down the magazine
when she disarmed me at the door.
I learned a lot on her property.
And thus enriched, life shudders onward with twists and turns—
But her music never demented me
like my own loves later did, or my own songs,
in honky tonks, roadside taverns serving
hope with a twist while the sun came up
in brush strokes on painted panes in the john.
Age and experience continue to accrue until finally the speaker stands naked in a Motel 6. As he does in several other poems, Allen inserts second person pronouns during such moments to capture better the speaker in introspection. However, the effect of “you” and “your,” when heard, also draws the reader closer, as though the persona were using direct address and, in this case, issuing an imperative,
There in your original-sin garment of animal skin
examine yourself in the streaked mirror
with an eye to love:
Hair all over’s going, skin’s cracking, stretching
into bright patterns: You’re molting, Pale Scales.
You’re no ordinary, garden variety man.
You’re serpentizing. I’m not sure you’d want to heal
before you had witnessed that.
I’m not too sure you can.
“You’re no ordinary, garden variety man,” indeed. Adios, Adam. Adios to all that. This witness has outlived his laboring for salvation’s sake. The old means of redemption—pious ritual, devotion to heaven, a glorious hereafter—have evolved into some new recognition. The old saint and sinner have become so folded and intertwined in this outlaw troubadour that they no longer work in opposition. They are more complementary than opposite. His being, rather than being rigidly fixed in an either-or proposition, is characterized by a more flexible, fluid state of becoming, of “serpentizing.” His “healing” no longer depends on moral judgment but rather staying true to his own “molting.” He has come to know that metamorphosis is the most abiding of forces in earthly life and, as such, is the source of hope and resurrections. Saint and sinner have morphed into yin and yang, a means of moral understanding rather than moral judgment and condemnation. And the image of the “molting” serpent, rather than representing the presence of evil in the speaker, represents his pending emergence in a new skin.
Self-examination has long been a precept for moral understanding. But Allen’s voices amount to more than a simple conversion to Eastern philosophy. His book promotes an expansiveness and inclusiveness, a congregation of all moral constituencies and states. In doing so, it is a testament to human compassion. Its narratives and dramatic monologues are small parables about and prayers for mercy, forbearance, and grace.
In “The Mind as Mr. Potato Head” the childhood toy is a metaphor for our persistent need to sort out the mishmash we become in facing our lifetimes. Retreating into seclusion at a lake front park, the speaker is “primed for the kind of peace religious know.” Yet he is tormented by the “daemon child” of memory and his “kitchen sink” of doubts, regrets, and mistakes. The recollections pierce consciousness and conscience like grotesque facial features. “My head”—he concludes in stanza 1—“must look like a yard sale by now.” But stanza 2 ushers in a counterpoint:
Five days fishing hard for peace, but peace,
the poet says, is supposed to come dropping slow.
It doesn’t, though.
Or hasn’t anyway.
An hour’s drive from here, some of it
the same road I drove up, the Benedictines
are winding down their liturgy of hours,
those times of day they set aside their day,
cease their building, baking, making, mowing,
drop their hoes and take up Os and Aves.
But even they, with all their regimen,
know they can’t create or even tweak
the here and now they stop to celebrate.
At first the intrusion of saintly monks from Mepkin Abbey seems to frustrate this sinner, longing for, as he says, “an epiphany of not-world.” But then we see juxtaposing sacred and profane proves simply that neither of those perspectives can claim superiority, moral or otherwise. Both sacred and secular outlooks are equally powerless “here and now,” equal in being humbled and being awed by life. The poem continues:
Two days ago, between two summer rains,
an osprey brought a fish back to her nest
on the power tower far out in the channel.
For the briefest moment, my life was nothing but osprey.
But then the imp stung me with an eye,
which was the gun a Mr. Youngblood allowed
me to shoot on his farm, me fifteen.
A WW II .303 Enfield.
And that led, naturally, to wondering
whether the osprey was in range, even
with the elevated sight. Then I thought
about the thickness of osprey eggs now,
then egg to mating, mating to my ex.
But there was that clean few seconds.
“That clean few seconds” when suddenly we find release from the leaden sensation of our own gravity, and our being soars and glides, osprey-like. This becomes the poem’s point—not an “epiphany of not-world” but an epiphany about this world—where being mindful, where recollections (whether they be pleasant or sore) in tranquility, will find cause for thanksgiving. But the poem is not yet done with its surprise visitations:
And last night I was fretting about fretting,
when Mike showed up, so unexpected it scared me…
He knocked. I opened the door, and there he was,
shirtless, sporting a big shit-eating grin,
holding out a case of beer, his Dobro
slung across his back like silver wings.
And behind the surprise of him, out on the pier,
the light that dawn and dusk activate.
For Allen, who is also a songwriter, music, I suspect, will always function as a set of wings with the power to elevate. But the imagery here is tiered and contains also transitional lighting—“that dawn and dusk activate.” There’s a marvelous symbolism to that, one rich in its irony—that enlightenment can occur regardless of whether one is moving from darkness into light or vice versa. And thus, “the world releases us from worldliness,” the speaker concludes, wrapping up the poem:
I leave tomorrow. Check out time is noon,
Sext at the abbey. By None I’ll be back home,
back helping that daemon child collect the body
parts I’ll curse next year when I try this.
No doubt next year, this year’s osprey, Mike,
the monks, my daily tableau on the pier,
will be among the imp’s gee-gaws of thought.
No doubt too (confiteor!) my tonsure
will have grown, to make more room for them.
And so, in this life, if we are open to it, if we keep faith with our earthly present, we are greeted with release and “surprised by joy,” in the words of C. S. Lewis. But Lewis uses his experience as proof for God, an outside cause for hope at some remove above. Allen’s voices, being stirred by the whiff of new skin, immerse themselves in the here and now, bathe in the elemental, soak in the preternatural within.