Pleasures of the Game
by Austin Allen
Chipping Norton and Baltimore: Waywiser Press, 2016.
Austin Allen’s first collection, the winner of the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, has much in it to gratify readers favoring traditional form in verse. It would most likely have appealed to Anthony Hecht, not only for its stylistic polish but for its view of the tenuousness of humanity’s hold on order and happiness in a universe not given to coddling. Order and happiness are nevertheless capable of being found, in the opinion of both poets. Hecht’s final collection was entitled The Darkness and the Light. Allen’s title, Pleasures of the Game, suggests a similar sense of balance, weighing possible enjoyments against the unyielding demands of the rule book, without which the game ceases to exist.
Allen’s poems in the volume are presented in four sections, each of which bears as epigraph a stanza from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. This translation, by assembling originally disparate individual quatrains into a sequence of continuous if meandering argument, offers much to ponder for students of poetic structure. Each stanza is numbered and most have an epigrammatic completeness (which may explain why generations have found the work easy to mine for quotations). Yet over the course of the sequence, certain related themes advance, recede, recur. An overall shape suggests itself, and yet remains hauntingly (tauntingly?) elusive. The same might be said of Allen’s assemblage of mostly short poems, which together achieve a more impressive degree of unity than is typically the case in a poet’s first collection.
The form of Omar Khayyám’s quatrain seems to offer a further hint at Allen’s outlook and method. The stanza comprises paradox; it is at once a highly finished construction of four lines, satisfyingly complete as utterance, and yet, on the more abstract level of its rhyme scheme, it is flagrantly defective, rhyming aaxa. The third line rhymes with nothing. The first two lines might lead a reader to expect a sequence of couplets, which turns out not to be the case; the fourth line, harking back to chime with the first two, offers closure in one way while blandly ignoring the defect. The unrhymed line is an unresolved chord, a rent in the fabric, a flaw in the foundation, an eternal loose end. Considered closely (perhaps too closely), it suggests not so much imperfection, since perfection in art is impossible, but rather a persisting mystery, a question hanging unanswered in the air. This fits Omar’s (or Fitzgerald’s) view of things: an urbane, fatalistic acceptance of the world’s inscrutability, less tragic than matter-of-factly epicurean in contemplating a game in which we are pawns with at best dubious control over our moves. This is the message of the first of Allen’s aptly selected epigraphs:
But leave the Wise to wrangle, and with me
The Quarrel of the Universe let be:
And in some corner of the Hubbub couch’d,
Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee.
Allen’s poems can be viewed as small mirroring facets of his book’s framing metaphor. The opening section offers poems about actual games that have their say unsparingly about human society and behavior while advancing their own figurative suggestions. Most of the views of play here are rueful or disenchanted. “Maris*” evokes the breaker of Babe Ruth’s season record of sixty home runs as plagued for life by an asterisk on his achievement, since he had a longer season than Ruth did in which to perform the feat. Maris’s asterisk is imagined as spawning a baleful snow squall:
It multiplies, becomes a flurry of flakes,
hardens to hail and pelts you as you run,
head lowered, one blast shy of sixty-one.
Litters its thistles, drives spikes through your spikes.
An even grimmer offspring of the national game, “In Mudville,” travesties “Casey at the Bat” in pitiless fourteeners. The original reads as a Song of Innocence next to this, which is very much a Song of Experience:
Oh, somewhere in the alleys they’ve begun another game,
And the crowd still finds it thrilling, but the rules aren’t quite the same,
And the layoffs at the gasworks have the watchmen carrying knives,
And the mayor wakes in dreams before a council of ex-wives.
More personally, and with a winning humor, the poet remembers his teenage job as a Little League umpire: “the kid behind the kid behind the mask,” who had to face angry coaches
charging the plate and hurling anguished rage
at a kid not much more than their kids’ age,
mouths twisting, golf tans reddening at their collars.
One called me “bitch.” He did it out of love.
I took it for a hotdog and ten dollars.
There are higher spirits, too, in “Parabolic,” which depicts a juggler “adept / at making each fumbled ball / look like part of the act,” providing a little allegory of grace, as it operates in art and emotion, in this supple lyric of twenty lines.
The concept of play informs the book not only thematically but prosodically. Allen hardly ever puts a foot wrong in his use of meter, and his handling of rhyme—natural, unforced, more or less audible as needed—is a model of the kind of pleasure that comes of mastering the rules rather than being mastered by them. A number of New Formalists have preceded him in applying traditional techniques in a conversational manner to contemporary material, and I suppose that if one must chart taxonomies Allen is definitely of that lineage. (Looking back a little further, Auden can persuasively be seen as a forerunner in such playful yet exacting technique.) The original New Formalists must by now in many cases be drawing Social Security; Allen is enough younger to indicate that major aspects of their aesthetic program have found a welcome in a new generation.
Attention to versification, however, goes only so far in assessing the distinctive flavor of the book. Teasing out the implications of its recurring allusion to Omar Khayyám may take us further. The Rubáiyát’s tone and outlook are tricky to emulate, since bemused skepticism can so easily curdle into facile cynicism. Fatalism is only fun up to a point, and many writers (e.g., Hardy) pass that point early on. Perhaps because he does not take himself too seriously, Allen manages not to be off-putting in his view of the human condition, even when what he depicts is dismaying or dire. Some of his darker lyrics make their points in an almost offhand way, compact and understated, yet unnerving. The dreamlike “The Floating Café” is an example of this; another is “The Closing Doors,” a sonnet that can be read as a worthy descendant of Allen Tate’s fine sonnet, “The Subway.” Both poets write of the subway in ways that infuse oppressive, mechanistic modernity with recollections of the underworlds of religion and myth. While Tate’s imposing rhetoric gives us “the iron forestries of hell,” Allen’s disarming descriptions (“Goateed musicians with guitar and drums / play you offstage, and underneath the stage”) accumulate casually, and subtly grow ominous. The sonnet’s poker-faced third line, “You make your exit when the right time comes,” assumes a memorably disturbing resonance when it recurs as the final line.
In just a few cases Allen’s ingenuity wears out its welcome. Throughout most of the book, his gift is centered in the short poem. Two extended sequences, “Valentine Variations” and “Calliope,” are consistently clever, but their charm fades as they go on. Light verse, when it runs out of steam, can come to seem extremely heavy. In contrast, the light love poem “Gossip” sustains itself brilliantly over a span of fourteen rhyming quatrains composing a single sentence. You win some and you lose some, in this game as in others.
As I have just noted, Allen’s most compelling pieces tend to be short. The exception to this is the seven-page poem that comprises the final section of the volume: “Tamám Shud; or Secrets in the Sand.” This poem is a masterpiece. Based on what its headnote describes as “Australia’s most famous cold case,” it imagines various scenarios in an attempt to penetrate the mystery of “ʻSomerton Man,’ found dead on Somerton Beach, Adelaide, in 1948.” Never to this day identified, either a murder victim or a suicide, perhaps a spy, the corpse resists explanation even as the third line of the Rubáiyát’s stanza, in which form the poem is expertly composed, resists formal symmetry. Fragments of narrative are embarked on and abandoned; clues are scrutinized, the most haunting of which is the scrap of paper belatedly found in one of the dead man’s pockets, bearing the words “Tamám Shud.” Persian for “It is done,” this phrase appears at the conclusion of the Rubáiyát. Even this truncated account may convey some sense of the remarkable intricacy of this nest of boxes, each of which contains only a downsized and equally unrevealing replica of itself. At one point the poet muses:
how deep does this thing go? And as one delves,
will one find subterranean hives of elves,
long-vanished continents, the face of God,
but never solve this man? Is he ourselves?
Is this a station gate through which we pass
like tourists, separately and yet en masse—
a guise we’re all someday assigned to wear,
like “wave” or “grain of sand” or “blade of grass”?
The poet’s zest for play brings vivacity to the piece; his sense of mystery inspires its deeper notes. Allen’s renderings here of the enigma of existence, the indifferent beauty of nature, the certainty of mortality—all these, evident in flashes in his book’s preceding lyrics, are in grand full display in this final work. Tamám Shud indeed: It is done, and it is well done.