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Review of ‘Broken Things and other tales’ by Vicky Allen

This week it’s my pleasure to review Vicky Allen’s quietly resonant pamphlet Broken Things and other tales (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2020) that invites us to step back from the hurly-burly of urban living and find significance in the ordinary things in our daily lives.

Her poem, Heron, is typical of her sparse, economical style and of her concerns. The heron ‘stands/ folded/ silent/ still’. Nothing happens: the heron does not move or attempt to strike at a fish, a point reinforced by the repetition of ‘folded, silent, still’ in the penultimate stanza.  Yet Allen finds significance in the moment. She describes the bird as ‘a ghost/ watcher’, ‘bridging/ this solid/ world/ and/ its paler cousin’, portraying it as a sort of Grim Reaper and reminding us of the transient nature of life: death is never far away. Yet typically the poem resonates with other meanings for it concludes with the lines: ‘she will always know/ stillness/ brings nourishment/ in time.’ Though this is clearly a reference to the fact that for the heron the ability to keep still is an effective strategy in hunting, I took those lines to mean more than that. Allen makes the heron a symbol of the value of tranquillity in our lives: the pursuit of quiet leads to nourishment,  retreating from the bustle of daily life revitalises us and energises us; an idea that emerges again in some of her other poems.

It is this quietude that allows Allen to connect with the natural world and take pleasure from the basic rhythms of life: the seasons, solstices and equinoxes, night and day. As a result there’s real delight in her description of the first day of spring in Vernal Equinox. She describes the moment as if announced with ‘a fanfare’; it is a ‘longed-for surprise’; and ‘the dark scatters’. Similarly she captures her sense of awe at dusk in the poem of the same name. The poem’s form with its repeated, rearranged lines suggests an observer trying to come to terms with and make sense of the bewildering effect of what she observes, an emotional response ‘somewhere between wonder and peace’. In a similar vein, Allen writes in praise of night. It isn’t portrayed as something to be feared or endured, quite the reverse: it is a ‘blessing and balm’ (Night). It’s a time of rest and repose, when one can put aside the day’s affairs, an idea that is captured in the stunning image of the day folding its hands; it’s another time of stillness that prepares us for a new day: ‘I need the night,’ she says, ‘long, dream-hazed, quiet,/ how else to welcome another dawn.’

It is this same stillness that provides an opportunity to connect with oneself. In the appropriately named poem, What Comes from Silence, she describes the difficulties of the process of self-discovery. Finding stillness does not come easily, it must be ‘learned’, ‘hard earned’. Furthermore, this time it is not a comfortable experience, being compared to sitting on a ‘stiff-backed pew’ and resulting in tears ‘as silence offered me/ my own star-shrouded heart.’ The self-knowledge she achieves is both ‘star’ and ‘shroud’, images that, in typical Allen style, open up the possibility of different but complementary meanings: in this case they, perhaps, indicate a recognition of her own mortality, or maybe signify a sense of spiritual loss or emptiness. As in so many of the poems in this small collection Allen leaves space for the reader to engage with her images which is what makes them resonate long after you have turned the page.

There is no doubt that Allen is a sharp observer of the natural world and her economical, layered poems invite us to take time out to look beneath its surface and perhaps reconnect with and take pleasure in those things we have either taken for granted or have forgotten how to value. I’m already looking forward to reading her next collection.

Vicky Allen lives on the south east coast of Scotland. The land, seascapes and rich heritage of story and folklore in Scotland are influential in her poetry. She performed her spoken-word show Wonder Lines for the 2018 Edinburgh Book Fringe, with further performances taking place in 2019. She regularly participates in open mic and community poetry events. She has work published online and in print with Mslexia, Vox Poetica, The Writers Cafe, Bonnie’s Crew and the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics journal Stravaig amongst others. Vicky was the 2018 Faith/Unbelief poetry slam winner. Broken Things is Vicky’s first poetry pamphlet. To find out more about Vicky click here and to buy a copy click here.

Next week Josephine Lay drops in to talk about a poem from her life-affirming A Quietus (Black Eyes Publishing).

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