Imagine Not Drowning
by Kelli Allen
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Imagine Not Drowning considers what it means to toss back our heads and allow the water inward. These poems go far beyond traditional myth structures and into spaces courting ugly sex and wild wings unfurling. There are beaks snaking between thighs and sweaters whirling down slow to rest in our dirt and sand. Poetry continually asks us to define “home” and our place in a world too often oblivious to our desires. The poems in this collection offer questions whose answers are suggested peripherally, on how to differentiate between our needs and our vicious, predatory wants. Beauty means falling from the bridge ledge on purpose. This book is sometimes a breakwater, other times it’s the air we meet between the leap and hard contact of the first wet, concentric rings. Recognition means being brave enough to put one line after another, to say these images are us, they are the sounds we make when our lungs are close to full.
Imagine Not Drowning, Kelli Allen’s ravishing collection of poems, is a book of abundance and diminishment, a record of pleasure and an instruction manual for grief. In these pages, Allen chronicles bonds and the breaking of them—birds’ flight severs the ties of gravity; dementia slowly wrenches language from a father and a father from his family; and love, which never comes / on purpose, shatters everything. In precise, often astonishing language, Allen catalogues the bits and pieces left behind, the jeweled carnage of the human life, our friendship with ruined things. There is a deep tenderness in these poems and a lavish celebration of a beloved, broken world. Kelli Allen is a luminous poet, and this book, in poem after poem, is a recitation / billowing beyond generosity into artifact.
–Francesca Bell, Poetry Editor at River Styx
To read Kelli Allen’s Imagine Not Drowning is to enter an enchanted world. From the opening lines “What if my body fell through bliss, / caught its last small toe on some hook / in descent?” I was swept away. Drawing from myths and fairy tales, superbly crafted, intelligent, and precise, Allen’s poetry surprises the reader at every turn. Read this and you will have “have carried yourself home.”
–Hélène Cardona, Author of Life in Suspension and Dreaming my Animal Selves
Kelli Allen’s poems have a homespun magic that emerges from small events in nature, such as the strangeness of listening to crows make love, and they take us through dark woods and moods in ways that can remind of Robert Frost. But while Frost likes to climb toward Heaven remaining linked to the ground, Allen flings us into the sky with abandon, tells us to “Hurl your body /up into the rain, head bent back, throat to the clouds.” This is visionary nature, lyric wildness in every cell, falling through bliss and riding wings up into the dream. In this book of parables and new fairy tales the word that keeps coming up is “home.” Let these poems lift you on their wings and carry you there.
–Dr. Tony Barnstone, author of Pulp Sonnets, Beast in the Apartment, and Monster Verse: Poems Human and Inhuman
Kelli Allen’s exquisite poems haunt me. This sensual, worshipful collection is populated by feathered creatures; ravens, crows, pelicans, soft, brown hens, and the humans who in so many ways resemble them. Hers is the natural world, its order disordered, its rituals askew. A father’s death, a lover’s betrayal, turn that world upside down. “We can love what’s predatory/if we keep our bodies from being completely/swallowed” she writes. These beautifully crafted poems, like the heron that “swoops down from a skylight,” offer a kind of salvation, taking the reader on an unforgettable journey through tragedy, grief, and redemption.
— Alexis Rhone Fancher, author of How I Lost My Virginity To Michael Cohen, and State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies.
In Kelli Allen’s Imagine Not Drowning, “everything begs…to be severed, to be made sweetly clean.” In these poems, grief finds that clean severance, that distance tithed by loss. Though separation demands forgetfulness, the speaker resists, naming everything with memorable lyric clarity. Each poem is an archive of memory, dream, and moment. Nothing is forgotten, not the bag of mice thrown down a well, nor a nesting doll full of fathers, not even the Minotaur playing with his paper ships. Here the world and its absences are articulated, where light confirms what the dark tried to save us from–all these savage songs made sweet by distance.
–Traci Brimhall, author of Saudade, Our Lady of the Ruins, and Rookery
1. In a time when American poetry is vapid and uninspiring, Kelli Allen’s collection comes as a desideratum. Each poem weaves a tapestry teeming with life. Watch the way this sentence unfolds: “The paper is a wide leaf, one hundred tongues / collecting water for smoothness, gathering / my clumsy lines, knitting an image, letting / the connection turn to footsteps across // charcoal to meet your fingers now tracing / the outline of this, my intention.” Each poem begs to be savored, slowly. This book is not a page-turner. And that’s a good thing!
2. More collections of poetry are being published today than ever before. Yet, like fast food franchises, much of today’s poetry leaves us malnourished and unsatisfied. I hope you have a strong appetite, because Kelli Allen’s poetry is rich. She writes, “The old masters / may know all five appetites, but failing to tell / you even one means it’s my turn to become a ladle / resting, steel mouth wide, in the well’s water.” Her reader is chewing real words. These poems are to be savored, slowly, and they will leave you nourished and satisfied.
–Norman Buzz Minnick, author of Folly and To Taste the Water
Charles Wright once wrote, Just give me the names for things, just give me their real names, not what we call them but what they call themselves when no one is listening. In this powerful collection of eighty muscular poems by Kelli Allen, the body bears witness to the oracular voice of the poet, conjurer and auger, naming the world, an incantation of wildness and wonder, stitching with language an ecstatic song. She writes, “We are nearing the door to the room where my ear/ presses close to the mat used sometimes for prayer,/ sometimes just for kneeling” Part invocation, part magnetic field of desire, language here is the joyful burst of play, birds as Annie Dillard once observed them, careening toward the ground at astounding speed and then sweeping up effortlessly. “We/ will hear his wings too late and the fruit just drops,/ jeweled carnage into the stream” Language is the syntactical thread and stitch of connection, like the nests found in field and wood, an architecture of love. And in this book language is the prophetic and nameless paths of migration between longing and home. The poems conjure and assemble with an authority that awes and sometimes frightens. She writes, “ We walk, and I am pulling you along, a man/ in love with being afraid, with sometimes, / me.” Here is the voice of a woman who knows, whose knowledge can strike fear and yet also binds. The voice inhabits the body, with its own authority and knowledge, a totem, a pillar, walking through the garden of the earth, creating matter and braiding with unbreakable ligature other bodies into relationship to itself, the lover, the father, all creatures, a knowledge that weaves beings disparate and flung into one source. This is language sustaining life.
–Heather Derr-Smith, author of The Bride Minaret and Tongue Screw
The more I read Imagine Not Drowning the more I realize it is one of those rare literary artifacts; a completely individual and immersive world that is almost as staggering in its depth as it is in the wild collusion of influences at play. Throughout this book Allen’s ear is finely attuned to the human experience, with familial relationships and love explored through a voice integrating an eclectic range of approaches, but most impressively combining mythology and nature with personal history so cohesively that it becomes impossible to dissect the threads that entwine so well in these works. In many of the poems Allen explores the moments between moments, stretching this space to breaking point and filling it with the author’s lush diction. There is a confidence and a completeness to this book that I rarely find in poetry collections; Allen is not one to provide cookie-cutter answers or staged epiphanies, she is a poet who combines a post-modern understanding of confessionalism with mythology to lay the important questions at the feet of what is certain to be an exceedingly grateful readership.
-Daniel Sluman, author of The Terrible and Absence has a weight of its own
Kelli Allen’s Imagine Not Drowning is a collection with a strong voice with a tinge of magical realism. I loved the mythological elements and the way the poems keep me crossing or erasing those boundaries between humans and animals. Allen’s amazing metaphors arise from deepest looks at the world of things, the world of living and non-living, the world of feelings. “And I came here to watch, that much is cleanly, almost certain.” This is true even when the desire may be to move away from the world. There is a universal appeal here, universal exactly because it is strikingly specific and wonderfully peculiar. There is both doubt and frightening certainty in the words chosen to build the space and time for humans and creatures. As all great poetry, Allen’s fresh outlook has immediate appeal but the words require work, require remembering, and revisiting.
-Adnan Mahmutovic, author of How to Fare Well and Stay Fair
I don’t balk at all in my declaration that these are important poems.
I feel nothing but inclined to follow Kelli Allen down these various paths/poems of birth and decay (and birth again); poems where lichen, when lichen appears, is smothered in wildflowers. If one can imagine a world where Hughes and Plath had collaborated, where his nature poems and idyll landscapes were more colored (or “invaded”) with Plath’s keen ability for oblique and often shocking moments of synthesis—one will find a complex and consequential companion in Imagine Not Drowning, by Kelli Allen.
–Erik Campbell, author of The Corpse Pose
Imagine Not Drowning thrums with birds—beautifully, startlingly appearing in “rain-refusing jackets” to show us what songs we can sing from the human heart. These poems wind their way through fairy tale and return us to the world of elegy, where the sea and the forest shimmer with love and loss. Kelli Allen reminds us that in naming there is magic, and her poems are music boxes that play words like bells. What is said and what is left unsaid oscillate like sun and shade throughout these beautiful poems. As the speaker of “Separations for Fall, for Winter, too” says, “my tongue waits, turtle- /shelled in the mouth.”
–Tyler Mills, author of Tongue Lyre
The first poem in Kelli Allen’s collection Imagine Not Drowning ends with the image of “jeweled carnage” and her book is full of a terrifying beauty that she invests in everyday scenes, fairy tales, and everywhere else her weird and wonderful imagination takes us. She explores love and loss and the places between them, “…a belated topography. Your gestures/ remind us both of the egg inside the egg inside/ the tree, of the terrible, involuntary waiting.” The natural world is here, but it is the world of the “albino moose,” the “tortoise in a wild woman’s cellar,” “feathered starfish,” and “the fox breathing underwater.” If you are looking for wonder in poetry, for the unexpected, for the surprising leaps a mind unfettered can make then read Kelli Allen’s Imagine Not Drowning and enjoy being amazed as she tells us “…what it means to begin/ with anything, not knowing where it’s going to go.”
–Jon Tribble, author of Natural State
“Sometimes the book is a swan,” Kelli Allen declares, and we know she’s right. In this swan of a book, poems transform like forest paths in fairy tales, as we are visited by Baba Yaga, by mysterious crows, by the lamented dead. It is a book full of curses, spells, and incantations. These poems would rend what is whole, and make whole what has been broken.
–Shane Seely, author of The Surface of the Lit World
In a ragged world, Kelli Allen’s Imagine Not Drowning is a meditation in richness. Forget scarcity, Allen’s lyrical poems radiate with wild ferns, shoulders that become blackbirds, and a man loosening his bowtie near the river. In these generous, well-crafted poems, we are grounded in place and relationship. We are given the gift of images as each poem leads us where light rotates between fog. Allen’s exquisite skill as a poet will make you dive in. Imagine Not Drowning is a collection that will pull you under in all the right ways.
–Kelli Russell Agodon, author of Hourglass Museum & The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice
Kelli Allen’s Imagine Not Drowning is one of the most beautiful books of poetry I have read in recent memory. Allen’s language balances between the lush and urgent, and nearly all of her poems envision a world made energetic and lush through wholly original metaphor. Not only are Allen’s poems imaginative, they are successfully imaginal; they never attempt to confuse or to merely transcribe experience, but pack microcosmic and macrocosmic imagery into the lines such that the poems become dynamic, unexpected, and often sensual experiences. Allen interleaves the non-human world into human circumstance and thus expands my way of knowing–my way of seeing. These poems have enriched me, and I know that I will return to them for their sensuous wisdom.
–William Wright, Author of Tree Heresies and Night Field and Anecdote Series Editor of The Southern Poetry Anthology
Kelli Allen writes in her collection Imagine Not Drowning, “There is a forest separate from the library/ and I will meet you first with books/ tight under my arm, than again with leaves/ in my hair.” This is a collection where the moment overwhelms the narrative. It reminds us that life, when fully lived, isn’t a story but an immersion into water without drowning, sky without falling, fire without burning, and earth without burial. In the forest of Allen’s invention, there is no leaf is left unexamined.
–Nicelle Davis, author of In The Circus of You, Becoming Judas, and Circe
Have you ever seen that toddler toy—you shake it up and peer through its clear sides, sifting through beads to spot a ring, a jewel, a coin? That’s a lot like the poems in Imagine Not Drowning by Kelli Allen. This collection is completely out of the ordinary, and it’s jam-packed with stuff. Every poem presents some visual image, some thing for a reader to latch onto, and, from a firebird to catch a ride on in the first poem clear through to a rope bridge to climb out on at the end, the stuff of Allen’s poems is just waiting to transport a reader. The collection certainly transported me, as I read it through in one long sitting, taking plenty of time between poems to linger amid the artifacts.
–Karen Craigo, author of No More Milk and Passing Through Humansville
What a curious bestiary, Imagine Not Drowning, the “black ducks / tucked in rain-refusing jackets,” the sparrows “agitated / and waiting.” Kelli Allen writes poems with a “determined appetite”—poems mythic, allusive, and just out of reach. “I want this experience to be unpolluted,” she writes, knowing full well that experience is pollution. “There is a grackle who reminds us that it is not yet / too late.” But of course it is. And yet. In Allen’s own words: “These outstretched songs are fierce.”
–Randall Mann, author of Straight Ravor
Kelli Allen’s Imagine Not Drowning it is not an unreal or dream world, but a fantastical alternate reality that exists just under the skin of the quotidian. Kelli Allen says, “We live everyday/ with a child we do not know.” That is the being that lives within the pressure suit of the human body. Kelli Allen takes us deep to strange things that are eerily familiar, and she does so with a language that is strikingly fresh and musical. “It’s the accidental gifts that we trip over/on our way around the desert, the cacti blooming/hard. We endure rot because the music ants play/marks the first song we hear last.”
–Rustin Larson, author of Crazy Star and The Wine-Dark House
Imagine Ophelia floating from the pebbled riverbank, singing in her skirts and flowers. Where does she go from here? Imagine her not drowning. Imagine Ophelia “…checking / not for pulse but for birds, lilies, trapped…,” collecting “wrists / with [her] tongue,” and ultimately writing “a lifelong sentence toward home”—a home she may never see. This is Kelli Allen’s praise song and elegy, a sumptuous treasure box brimming with Sharon Olds’ intimacy and the knotted, slippery syntax of Carl Phillips. “Sometimes the book is a swan,” writes Allen. Indeed, though with her as our guide, we will just as eagerly follow “the jeweled carnage into the stream.”
–Sandra Marchetti, author of Confluence and Sight Lines
Kelli Allen’s words soar, seem as carefully chosen as the silences, what her speaker will not say. Her images are surprising and true, and I find myself smiling with admiration as I read her work. Moreover, Imagine Not Drowning is a sideways look at love and longing and hope, tender and fragile emotions anchored to this world by the music of language.
–Mary Troy, author of Swimming on Highway N