Journey to Kailash

The Journey To KailashJourney to Kailash
By Mike Allen
Norilana Press: Curiosities Imprint
$9.95 USD trade paperback / $19.95 USD hardcover
125 pages
Reviewed by Amal El-Mohtar
(This review first appeared at the SF site in 2009)

Before I begin this review in earnest, you should know that several of the poems appearing in Mike Allen’s Journey to Kailash first appeared in Goblin Fruit, the online quarterly of fantasy poetry that Jessica P. Wick and I publish. However, any bias I may have towards those poems ought to be more than countered by the jealousy felt over not having published a number of the other pieces in this collection, clearly making of me an impartial and discriminating judge of its contents.

Reader, it’s brilliant.

Journey to Kailash is a handsomely designed book that brings together the very best of Mike Allen’s poetry, collecting almost fifty speculative poems published over the last ten years in a variety of venues, several of which have been nominated for or won the Rhysling Award. In addition to the quality of the material, Allen puts his well-deserved reputation as a fantastic editor of the fantastic to work here, organizing these sometimes very disparate pieces into a coherent whole worthy of the term oeuvre.

The collection is broken up into three different groups, headed by lines taken from the first and last poem within each section. It took me a couple of readings to realise that; I was at first caught up with how the headings seemed to tell a story, hint at some thread of meaning carried through the whole. Brought together, they make a sort of poem in themselves: misfortune when he leaves; his shadows grow to meet her — as the stars die, sad whispers warm the breeze — staring down the sun: the end he never sees. This is certainly a collection of layers and depths, of subtleties tucked into the corners of seemingly straightforward meanings.

On the surface of it, this is a collection of nightmares. Mike Allen is a Tarot-deck Devil, and the most effective of these pieces partake of the dark. Consider the following lines at the end of “The Disturbing Muses,” the titular poem of one of Allen’s previous collections, inspired by a series of paintings:

At strange street’s foot
a little girl in silhouette
runs with a hoop toward
a waiting shadow
which extends a stunted limb;
blacker and heavier than she,
it grows, as she ascends,
to meet her.

Allen’s style, at its best, is devastating in its minimalism. He has a photographer’s skill in approaching subjects from slant, unusual angles that bring out the different and strange.

Other poems take a lighter approach to the dark: “retrovirus” and “Disaster at the Brainbank(tm) ATM” lack the elegance and evocative beauty of “The Distubing Muses,” and represent the type of poem that I don’t particularly enjoy on its own, but appreciate the necessity of in a full-length collection; they can’t all be deep and mythic, after all, can’t all be introspections on an epic scale. There’s a black humour to many of these intermezzo-ish pieces, an ease of reading that leaves one smirking at the cleverness or rolling eyes at the gut-wrenching pun, which is sometimes welcome after having been terrified by a nightmarish image of someone holding a knife to your memories (“The Captive Pleads with the Memory Carver”), or the inexorable tug towards the pale face at the dark window (“No One”), just beyond the blinds. By and large, poems like “The End of the Affair” – in which a man and woman attempt to ever-so-subtly kill each other by such varied methods as a “wormhole to the planet of razor-demons” and “limb-devouring sludgemolds” – leave me amused, but ultimately unmoved. Still, they adequately serve the purpose of seasoning the dark, dark meat of the collection.

My favourite poems, however, are those which engage with myth in distinctly Allen-esque ways. “The Journey to Kailash,” the poem that opens the collection, is a masterful piece in which an American teenage boy considers the relative strangeness of having the Hindu god Ganesh as a step-father. “Bacchanal” places the Roman god of wine and revelry at the heart of a heroin party; the triptych of “Midnight Rendezvous” poems – one in Boston, one in Philadelphia, one in Eden – are nothing short of amazing, featuring satyrs liaising with Horned Gods in bathroom stalls, mermaids taking wayward men back to, ahem, their place, and the disbelieving rejection of would-be clockwork lovers.

We use “nightmare” as synonymous with unpleasant, nowadays – the nightmare roommate, the board meeting that was a nightmare, the nightmare exam from hell. But dwell on it a moment, break it down into night and mare, into darkness shaped for riding into the strange, the incomprehensible, the unknown. That land we fear to visit in our sleep is where Mike Allen lives full time, twisting the dark to his purpose. The poems in this collection are as terrifying as they are wonderful, and I highly recommend the reading of them.

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