Iscariot’s Dream by Gary Allen, Agenda Editions, £8.99; 80 pages

The quality of Gary Allen’s writing is impressively sustained. In the whole of Iscariot’s Dream I found hardly a page from which I couldn’t have drawn memorable quotations. From the first I was struck by the authority and resonance of his phrasing, as in the first three lines of the book:

This cushion of darkness pins us to the earth
landbound, only our thoughts rise
above the sensed outline of these buildings:

Several characteristic notes are sounded here: the combination of emphatic utterance with fluidity of syntax and metre; the cutting of a line against the syntactical grain to tauten rhythms and heighten our alertness as readers by keeping us off balance; the way the muscularity of the first line dissolves into the shadowy psychological and spiritual suggestiveness of lines two and three, and associated with that, a sense of vatic grandeur, dissolving the concrete scene into a metaphorical one and using the first person plural to involve us and make us feel that the poet speaks not only to but for us. The physicality of his description is often much more extreme and startling than in the example above. In a description of the speaker’s father’s death in “Vision”,

fine-boned horses gather at the hearth
big eyes stupid with running
deep veins shivering in their necks

Again, that’s an almost random example because almost every poem throws up vivid flashes of the physical world. There’s a very strong sense of the book as grounded in and authenticated by the real, by particularities of experience, place and culture. The evocations of violence, betrayal, oppressive religion, resentment and despair that pervade the book are often rooted in Northern Irish bigotries and deprivation, in the atrocities of the Troubles, and perhaps the poet’s own childhood in Ballymena (“These things are synonymous to a child – / the bible and loud talk”). At the same time, Allen has worked “throughout Europe”, as it says in the biographical note, and his imagination has been fed by different springs. Several poems are explicitly set in Holland. In others the setting is indeterminate, or Ulster references are crossed with references to Greek myth or, of course, the Bible. Literal scenes and physical evocations give the sharpness of actuality but they are constantly dissolving into remembered or imagined or metaphorical or mythical ones, being splintered and recomposed according to the logic of imaginative vision or, befitting the volume’s title, of dream. This vision or dream is a powerfully cohesive one and I can see that it might be too unrelentingly dark for some readers to enjoy taking the book as a whole, though that is how I think is how it is meant to be taken. At the same time, the gloom is leavened both by sardonic wit and by deep compassion. This compassion can express itself with the evocative simplicity of these lines about a woman who has had enough of life, who covers her face with a piece of cloth and refuses to speak:

In this house she has borne ten children
and buried a husband with her thoughts

in the building sites and motorways of England,

or in this extraordinarily powerful, mythopoeic image from “Orpheus”, near the end:

your mother is here, my love
feeling her way with broken feet
along the jagged shoreline

whispering, Ijmuiden, Ijmuiden –

does she still come to you in your dreams
to sleep with you, bone fingers
twisting in your tangled hair

breath foul with Jenever and decay?

I would like to thank Acumen for permission to reprint this review.

One Response to “Iscariot’s Dream by Gary Allen, Agenda Editions, £8.99; 80 pages”

  1. short poems said:

    Mar 11, 11 at 7:06 pm

    An amazing review, enjoyed reading it 🙂

Leave a Reply