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A Democracy of Poisons by Tim Allen (Shearsman Books)

A Democracy of Poisons by Tim Allen (Shearsman Books)

This is a very rich collection of challenging, finely written prose poems, with numerous surreal touches, fairly unreservedly among the best I’ve seen. There is though something of a self effacing or deprecatory tone, as the unappealing title would suggest, which can make the writing dense and either understated or uncertain of what it’s accomplishing.

There is actually something telling or impressionable on just about every page. The narrative is discontinuous, but threads run through it. It might be a fault or limitation of the book that a sense of narrative progression is mostly lacking. Indeed, each of the 100 prose poems is pretty much self sufficient. There are no claims to continuity as we might find in fiction. 

That said the book is great to dip into, each poem consists of four stanzas or paragraphs about 7 lines long, and the title markers, all of just one word that appears in the text are there for orientation. Some key or highlighted phrases are also italicised. The first titles open out with ‘Walk’, into a forest, ‘Lunch’ and ‘Growing’, but perhaps a fairly indicative one might be ‘Cynic’ (no.34), surely indicative of present philosophic inclinations.

It’s a rich heady brew. One might say though that it somewhat lacks an upbeat quality, it is kind of deflating, or challenging as to how we deal with that cynicism or feeling low. So that would appear to be a deflating lack, indeed the last poem is called ‘Desert’.

It is useful I think to indicate where that acidic title gains mention which is most closely matched in poem 17, ‘Flock’. Part of the relevant passage is:

‘Don’t dismay, a simple book read by nobody special gallups uphill as fast as it descends the hill of be careful what you wish for but how to be careful when the world is a democracy of poisons’. (p23)

stated quite dystopically. Plainly Tim Allen feels this is apposite, right, in what some might take to be resentment; but he doesn’t dwell on it or offer a longer exposition. This might even be consistent with an amount of cynicism. Elsewhere in no.67 we find:

‘In the outside world the books earned differing amounts but here in the library of democratic poisons having no time for books gave them all equal space on the shelves.’ (p73)

There might be something of a thesis here, perhaps of the one size fits all, lowest common denominator, greatest happiness number that the book sits ill with. Elsewhere Allen says ‘I work underground too writing subversive literature only blind moles read’ (p29).

Andrew Duncan’s commentary in his back cover blurb might also be worth citing:

‘As the prose units of democracy of poisons develop, their polished and surreal surface becomes more and more convincing. The title presumably refers to a 24-hour media slew in which toxic ideas try to win popularity contests. There is a camaraderie of bad ideas.’

which I find pertinent and useful and indeed promisingly speculative. There surely is an unqualified seeking after of popular kudos, more likes on Twitter, more hits on YouTube and so on. Does anybody question the quality of those moments or instances that are getting the most hits, some of which are into the millions?

It is no doubt worth mentioning that Allen was associated with the very interesting and well wrought Terrible Work website, now defunct. This is his third Shearsman book following The Voice Thrower (2012) and Settings (2008).

What I might surmise is that the book kind of insists on a stubborn title, but that this belies a rather complex but fairly accessible design given that each poem is subdivided into four accessible chunks. Many of these poems I suspect will hold up well to rereading.

This then, one might say, is classic prose poetry, albeit with an amount of difficulty attached;- the title poses a barrier as much as an invite. It is, certainly, not aspiring to be a thing of beauty, but of perhaps acerbic plain, surreally inflected speech that would rather be true or authentic. This book is Allen’s first from Lancashire having moved on from Plymouth. The book is dedicated to his associates back there, the ‘Truth Brothers’. Allen also mentions that the recommendation of the title came from Joanna Ashcroft after a reading. (p108)

Allen’s poems seem to convey that they are driven in part by a wilful perseverance but also an amount of anger, which might seem inevitable, if one puts craft before popularity. I suspect it’s a little compromising and down to find a conclusion at no.100 ‘Desert’, but then this may simply be telling it like it is. There is in a sense too perhaps a defensive formalist sticking to, in the sense that the formal design fully encompasses the entire book. But it is full of great insights and often inspired phrasings and sits very well with the most striking examples I’ve seen of contemporary prose poetry.

Clark Allison 3rd January 2022

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