Imagine Not Drowning

By Kelli Allen


C&R Press
April 2017

Reviewed by Layla Azmi Goushey


Kelli Allen's poems are always mixed with moments of compelling surprise and sensuality, and her recent collection, Imagine Not Drowning, carries us into new realms of sensory experience. In this innovative collection, Allen's surprising turns of phrase and sensual imagery draw us toward our own undefinable undercurrents of emotion. Her precise naming of ordinary things such as barns, windmills, birds, dandelions, and the wind are penetrating reminders of our sensuality, our mortality, and our awareness of the extraordinary.

Allen's poems demonstrate her mastery of magical realism, a literary device that creates captivating, undefinable feelings that we enjoy even as we wrestle with our need for predictability. Magical realism creates more depth of feeling than metaphor because it asks us to accept unreality as real. We can appreciate metaphor as a poetic device, but magical realism insists to us that its imagery is true and it inspires a dissonant emotion that compels us to reach inward to resolve.

In a section of Allen's title poem, the narrator speaks of a normal walk through a field, yet something more exists in the ordinary moment. Is it a minefield or flower bulbs in a garden? Whatever it is, the reader senses something invisible at work during this simple morning walk. Readers also personalize the experience because of the use of the indefinite "you" which makes us think of our own ordinary moments and extraordinary experiences. Then suddenly, we are surprised by the blazing strength of what we really might have been all along: a dragon, a waltzing wingman on fire.

Spiked edged milkweed and one morning
soon the ankle scrapes won't matter
and you will keep walking, pin dots
blooding-up your bones and shoes
right on past what was a minefield, bulbs
in orbit, neat circles and rows you planted
together. None of this means you are less
a dragon, less a waltzing wingman on fire.

This is the magical realism of Allen. In the book's title poem, the precisely named "milkweed" and "ankle scrapes" are juxtaposed with a visceral reminder of the life force in "pin dots blooding-up your bones and shoes." We read simple words that evoke meaningful images, but we do not sense impending revelation until it blooms into our awareness. 

Due to Allen's concise naming of things, readers have sensory experiences that feed our reflections and moods. Her use of sensual terms such as mouth, skin, suck, and tongue prompt us to feel or to anticipate the experience of the speaker that could be her, a companion, or us.

I have become
the woman, he says, he might have wanted
before falling one too many times
from the roofs like those in the photo
he folds again as surrender, sometimes
as drowning, and he drinks the red thick
into his belly, where last night, my mouth
said an autumnal, honeysuckle prayer. 

And later:

One more story from knees splintering
into the hardwood. Just another night
between July and not becoming
my mother's only child. So what
if the most beautiful part is the sucked-tight
rasp when he pulls back before in?

In the following stanzas, she uses the word belly to draw our attention to our own center of fear and lust:

We break open our bellies,
leave the spine for licking clean.


Crosshairs are one
thing when traced with tongue pointed
South. The trigger in my belly
is another.

Anticipation builds as we read through the poems in Imagine Not Drowning and we long for the climax, for the truth of our own feelings to be revealed, for our life force to show itself to us, for the unnamed feeing to be named. There are certain feelings, we all have them, that do not fit within any defined emotional labels. The closest I can come to describing one of the feelings is nostalgia, but that is not quite right either. In "The Rhetoric Of Emotion, With A Note On What Makes Literature Great," James Averill, a psychologist and literary theorist, calls this mood the endocept, and refers to D.H. Lawrence, who differentiated feelings from emotions. Lawrence said that feelings rise up within us and can be ephemeral and undefined, while emotions can be named in ordinary language such as anger, happiness, fear, or sadness.

Allen's magical realism takes us to those undefined feelings where we are tantalized and left wanting to name our own endoceptual mood as the climax of our experience. That we become aware of our endoceptual mood at all is a testimony to her poetic skill.

Averill tries to define great literature. He says ". . . what makes literature great? The answer . . . is that great literature allows the reader to participate in an act of emotional creation, or re-creation." He draws on Lawrence's assertion that "it is up to the creative artist and writer in all of us . . . to give voice to feelings without imprisoning them in conventional emotional categories."

As I read Imagine Not Drowning, I keep reaching for the endocept, the intangible feeling that I know is there at the edge of my consciousness.

Sometimes the window is open
at just the right moment and we look through
glass quickly, pulling the outside fire as a parachute
collapsed, inward, to settle around this table,
laden as it is with tiny bees, my notebooks,
your palms, upward turned, catching first
my elbow as I rise to push wider the panes,
letting the first storms come in, rounding
our shoulders, this suddenness.

Averill says that we have no words for endoceptual experiences. This is not because they are primordial in a biological sense, but because they are new and different and idiosyncratic to the individual. Yet they are, as Lawrence states, "full of potent speech." Averill adds, "In the hands of a skilled writer with aesthetic sensibility, they are the stuff of great literature."

Kelli Allen is a significant literary voice. Like Averill, many ask what makes great literature. Allen's magical realism evokes readers' awareness of their own endoceptual moods. Imagine Not Drowning offers an exquisite, sensual reading experience that is not to be missed. This is great literature.