Caught by the River


16th February 2019

Jennifer Edgecombe reviews Rachael Allen’s ‘Kingdomland’, newly published by Faber & Faber

In Rachael Allen’s debut poetry collection, female forms are found embodied within the natural world (‘a face drawn / pendant- / shaped, from / the bark’) and in art. In the poem ‘Tower of Masks’, several sculptures of the female form are ‘reclining’, ‘cherubic against glass’. A hip becomes a dish, ‘puckered as flesh is’. This poem’s theme and rhythm recall Alice Oswald’s ‘Dunt’, in which a museum artefact, a woman figurine – ‘very small and damaged and quite dry’ – is trying unsuccessfully to summon the impossible: ‘a river out of limestone’. She is forever frustrated from fulfilling her goal. Similarly, in Allen’s poem, the women, as sculptures, are frozen out of life. Their freedom, their enjoyment, has been revoked:

To lay down
and be lovestruck
out of nowhere
and then to be
carved in stone
and to never take
your arms away
from your face
to never take
your arms
to someone’s face

The collection’s title, Kingdomland, infers that men still hold the power, and the turmoil evident in the environments it describes reflect Allen’s anger – the sea, for example, is a ‘cramping tide’, ‘fog stuffed’. A masculine presence means turbulence, reality thrown into confusion:

In the living room is a man who loves me more than the last man
who made me feel like I was falling from a cliff
and if it feels like you’re falling from a cliff
you just might be

By contrast, masculinity’s absence allows for calm: ‘my cup of bedside water is very still’.

The killing of animals for food and the abuse of women at the hands of men (‘the man who loved me / pushed me to the ground’) are issues Allen explores with equal fury. Their violence disrupts the natural order: ‘When a woman dies / the landscape / unlocks from its planning’. In the poem ‘Cravendale’, the perversity – as some may see it – of dairy cows waiting to be milked (‘the contract made on her behalf’) causes darkness to fall early; ‘their moans create the dusk / not the other way around’.

‘I am so angry / for the octopus / swallowed in kitsch restaurants’, Allen writes, and our taste for meat is portrayed as self-defeating, bringing on the end of the world like the near-apocalyptic scene depicted in the poem ‘Beef Cubes’ of a crowd surrounding a beached whale carcass and leisurely cooking meat beside it:

where the whale cut in half
exudes its yellow fat

and the tourists come
stroked and swollen […]

laying down blankets
one beef patty turning on the grill

by the large blue carcass
by the large blue sea

There are fires ‘edging closer’ in this flame-orange, angry, collection and its opening line demands we stand and ‘watch the forest burn’. We suspect the purging inferno is for humankind – perhaps more specifically mankind – damned for its planet-wrecking appetites, swimming ‘through plastic’ in a ‘black and / emergent pond’.


Kingdomland is out now and available here, priced £10.99.

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