Jason Allen—A Meditation on Fire
Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2016
Page Length: 71
Poems of Survival: A Review of Jason Allen’s A Meditation on Fire
Jason Allen’s debut full-length collection of poems, A Meditation on Fire, reminds me of what remains in a boxing ring after the final round. The poems spin tales of mental and physical bruises, blood, scars, and shadowboxing. Yet, even in the most confessional, sobering work, poems that speak to addiction and sobriety, the book is not without its humor and salvation.
Several of the poems are so visceral that we feel what the speaker feels as we thumb through the collection. The opening poem, “Blues Before Sunrise,” for instance, loosely plays with the blues form, namely the repetition, not the rhyme scheme and meter, to give us insight into the speaker’s troubled mind, as he listens to Muddy Waters.
I’ve got nothing
to do but listen to the rain
while a dead man named Muddy
sings the blues inside my skull
Immediately, within the short, unrhymed, four-line stanza, the poet does much to establish the mood. There is the physical aspect of the rain, but there is also the haunting quality of the music, which pounds the speaker’s skull like rain to pavement. The rest of the poem takes the reader for quite a ride, with images of a burned-up couch, a rusty canteen, a one-eyed mutt with ribs showing, and vials crushed beneath the speaker’s boots. The imagery does much to set the tone and drop the reader into an uneasy setting. By the end, the speaker states he will leave as soon as he is allowed to leave and he has been waiting for a midnight train. The rest of the collection is a journey of sorts, through drug houses, family memories, and ultimately, sobriety and newfound love.
Much of the book also addresses father/son relationships. “Gunmetal Blue” is sorrowful in its opening, set in the late fall, when the trees are bare and scrape against the speaker’s window, but the poem shifts midway from the image of the outside world to a dream in which the speaker is seated at a bar with his father, making apologies for pulling splinters out of his hand, perhaps after a fight. He is even sorry for forgetting his father’s face. Despite the complicated history, however, the speaker concludes with the powerful declaration, “I’m not one bit sorry/to have survived.”
There is another thread that runs through the collection: the idea of prayer and meditation as a means of salvation. To be clear, none of the poems in the collection are religious, but they do find salvation, either in love or through thankfulness. The way Allen uses repetition throughout the book also resembles the act of prayer. “Angels at Dawn” is another poem set in winter, but it is about overcoming winter, a metaphor for overcoming addiction and other life struggles. Like other poems, the opening stanza immediately establishes a clear, concrete setting:
This winter I feel lucky
to have survived
the thousands of miles
of white knuckles on the wheel
the bald tires on snow and ice.
A few stanzas later, however, the speaker confesses:
This winter I may have died
but for a moment I am at peace
weightless in this montage—
her sleeping face
the falling snow
the shopping cart man
to angels at dawn
the morning light
against the frost
on my neighbor’s
stained glass window
the feel of her hand
as she tows the dream-line
and sleepily says goodbye.
In the hands of a less careful poet, the poems of survival and prayer in A Meditation on Fire would not have worked, but Allen is able to mine personal memory without being sentimental. He also constructs vivid images so that we are there with him during his childhood, as he gets in fights with neighborhood boys. We are there in the punk houses, as Black Flag songs blast from the radio, and we are there when the speaker feels the warm breath of a lover against his cheek. A Meditation on Fire is a fine celebration of life and personal triumph.