The one-page introduction to Ron Allen’s recent collection of poems, The Unborn Muse of Shadows, categorizes his work as “sketches of language, images and Buddhist reflection” and closes with a dedication to love.
“Love is the whole/the rudder of the will … the healer … the touch of resolve” and “the filling air.” The ambling roster of amorous metaphors concludes by assuring that love “is not unkempt in the mouth.”
The 60 diminutive poems that follow are anything but unkempt at the mouth. Allen’s offerings are mostly less than 10 lines and rarely exceed 20 words. Accompanied by black and white sketches, etchings and woodcuts of Detroit-area artist Shaqe Kalaj, Allen’s spare texts are tranquil reflections on meditation, Zen practice and language. On the page, the relationship between these intimate poems and Kalaj’s somewhat imposing drawings can be either thoughtful or flippant, but the collection’s most intriguing attribute is its collaborative energy.
This energy is not without an occasional misstep. On “41,” the combination is almost comic when Allen’s offering, “words are/ the/ audible/ empty,” is contrasted by Kalaj’s cartoonish line-drawn face gushing enormous tears. There are moments like this throughout, when the images seem more like hasty add-ons than meaningful collaboration. But when the combination succeeds, such as in the highly nuanced, aptly abstract sketch that complements Allen’s visceral “45” (“sun is the smoke/ night is the hand …”), it gives the collection its greatest moments of poignancy.
Allen’s work is often set on tackling the ineffable (sometimes literally the idea of nothingness), and the meditations are occasionally thick with Zen-babble (“mind is not there/ it is here mind/ not here mind …”). Even though Allen introduces the book as a collection of “sketches,” it ultimately suffers from an abundance of seemingly hasty choices.
In “42” Allen’s entire poem states only: “I wish/ god/ would be/ more/ democratic.” Above it, Kalaj offers a sketch of two ponderous, wrinkled faces. The end. Unimaginative moments like this border on parody. Though the Unborn Muse of Allen and Kalaj is often more inspired, the inclusion of just such half-baked expressions distracts from the work’s finer moments, making the quality of collaborative sketches, in a word, unkempt.
Unborn Muse is Allen’s third book published by Detroit’s Weightless Language Press. Allen and Kalaj (whose name is pronounced: shacha kali) consider the work "an exploration of shadow and light in a search for meaning in contemporary society."
Allen, a veteran Detroit poet and playwright, has been writing in the Detroit area for 20 years, and has promoted poetry readings, workshops and theatrical performances. Kalaj is a Detroit-area visual artist who works in acrylics, woodcut prints, etchings, ink, photography and digital imagery. His work has shown in galleries in New York, Chicago, Toronto and San Francisco.
Weightless Language Press is a non-profit publishing company dedicated to publishing works that examine paradox, contradiction and the search for meaning in modern culture. It’s in its fourth year of operation. The Unborn Muse of Shadows was supported by ArtServe of Michigan in conjunction with the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs.
E-mail Nate Cavalieri at firstname.lastname@example.org.