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The Encantadas

by Robert Allen

Montreal-based poet, novelist, publisher, and teacher Robert Allen’s latest book was originally serialized over four chapbooks and 25 years. The title is borrowed from Melville, but an observation by Melville’s contemporary, Poe – “the phrase ‘a long poem’ is simply a flat contradiction in terms” – seems an apt summation.

The problem here isn’t bad writing. On a word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase, line-by-line level, the writing is consistently good, apart from a few flat spots and a bit of formal arbitrariness (the poem is composed of 158 nine-line sections, all but one of which are subdivided into loose – sometimes very loose – tercets, a form which seems more an authorial imposition than an organic necessity).

The book is even excellent in spots, as when the poet tells the Muse, “You’re a harridan bound with twilight stays, jutting your hips like/a cheap date.” But it has a way of getting boring. The cover copy likens the poem to an adventure novel, but this is misleading. In an adventure novel, things happen. The choppy plot of The Encantadas is rather static by comparison – more Wordsworthian reflection than Stevensonian action. Worse, it seems even to bore its dogged author: “Poems … especially those/that go on and on, have no buyers but other johns of the written word.”

The poem is, as many modern and po-mo long poems have been, a grab-bag for the bric-à-brac of its author’s mind. Because Allen’s is a bright and eccentric mind, the highlights can be a lot of fun, as he mixes registers of voice and reference brilliantly. But just as often he indulges himself with an over-generous dollop of pop-culture ephemera or vapid introspection. And sometimes he simply gets it wrong, as when he says “Alden Nowlan’s elephant had the world for a shithouse.” Presumably, he means Milton Acorn’s elephant. Or maybe he did it on purpose, “another story [he] got wrong, adrift on the winedark sea.”

Whatever the case, Allen’s whale-road is worth the ride – if you don’t mind potholes.