Violence, fear and the menace of the mundane all feature in Rachael Allen’s debut collection, Kingdomland, but a strange beauty permeates throughout, writes our contributor Maz Hedgehog.
Rachael Allen is the poetry editor for Granta magazine and co-editor of the poetry anthology series Clinic, as well as the online journal Tender. Allen’s poetry has been published on multiple platforms such as Lit Hub, the Poetry Foundation, Tank Magazine and others, and she is the recipient of the Eric Gregory Award and New Writing North Andrew Waterhouse Award. Allen’s first pamphlet was published by Faber & Faber as part of their New Poet’s Scheme. With the poet Jack Underwood she hosted the Faber Poetry podcast. Kingdom land is Allen’s debut collection published by Faber, and is reviewed by poet and arts contributor, Maz Hedgehog, for Lucy Writers.
The eponymous poem, like many inKingdomland, is dark and frightening yet strangely beautiful:
Small white socks bob into the dark like teeth in the mouth
of a laughing man, who walks backwards into the night. (‘Kingdomland’)
Much like these starling lines, there’s an effortless lyricism to rest of the collection that makes life’s shadows, its fear and violence, a little less foreboding. Throughout Kingdomland, the metaphors employed are vivid enough to make the bizarre believable.
Allen’s debut collection is animal and surreal, yet it seldom dips into the visceral. Precious few poems tugged at my heart strings, and I never got the impression that Allen wanted me to feel with her characters. ‘Promenade’, the first poem in the collection, finishes:
I’ll just lie down
my ribs opened up in the old town square
and let the pigs root through my chest
This poem, like so many of the others, feels a lot like trying to make sense of someone else’s dream diary, with all the emotional distance and strange irony that implies. And, like a dream, Kingdomland regularly contrasts barbarity with the absurd. Poems like ‘Dad the Pig’ contrast sharply with ones like ‘Lunatic Urbaine’, the former bringing much needed levity to what might otherwise be a very dark collection.
In many ways, Kingdomland is an exploration of misogyny. A powerful moment in ‘The Girl of Situations’ reads:
the red bricks of the day in a woman’s chest like weights on a diver ungracefully stomping into the lake
The suffering depicted is firmly situated in the legacy of womanhood, something the narrators and protagonists have experienced alongside their mothers, grandmothers, sisters and friends. The men in her poems range from the amusingly disappointing as in ‘Rodeo Fun on a Sunday’ and the creepily pushy in ‘The Girl of Situations’, to the outright violent in ‘Simple Men’. The poems’ protagonists show love and patience as much as exhaustion and pain, deftly balancing the conflicting feelings women often have for their oppressors. Allen’s women and girls are not portrayed exclusively as victims, but potential co-conspirators in their own oppression. The storytelling throughout sidesteps hyperbole or sentimentality. The stories told are utterly quotidian and all the more real for it.
Kingdomland is strange. I’m not sure there’s any other word for it. It is at once explicit and obscure, meandering and precise. If you’re looking for a collection that will bring a tear to your eye and take the wind out of your lungs, Kingdomland probably isn’t for you. But what Allen does is approach the horrors of life with a wry smile and shake of the head. Whilst it’s not emotionally affecting, it definitely made me think.
Rachael Allen’s Kingdomland is published by Faber and available to purchase online and in all good book shops around the UK. To find out more about Allen and her work, click here. She tweets at @r_vallen