Like most living people, I imagine, I often fantasize about selling nearly everything I own and fleeing to the woods. I’d bring a well-constructed knife, rope, some clothes from military surplus, basic cookery and a testament to great intellectual acuity—something to keep me inspired. Also I’d maybe bring a generator. And like a case of bug spray. As for deciding on what book(s) I’d bring, well, that would prove difficult. Proust would keep me busy but ugh. Thoreau would be too obvious. The Greek plays are certainly attractive. As are Shakespeare’s sonnets. And then, of course, there are Augustine’s Confessions.
The Confessions are surely substantial in their own right, both probing and profound. One of the blurbs on the back cover copy of Andrew Allport’s debut book of poetry, the body ǀ of space ǀ in the shape of the human, proclaims that Allport’s poems take “…emotional heart from Book VI of Augustine’s Confessions…” In an article online titled “An Introduction to Augustine’s Confessions,” James J. O’Donnell writes, “The Confessions are the last product of Augustine’s youth and the first work of his maturity,” which is as good as summary as I’ve ever read. In this sense, Allport’s poems can be read and understood as elegies to life lived and meditations on living life—charged with the kind of Romanticism that could easily compel a spiritually needy person to abandon everything familiar and begin anew.
From “Off Great Point:”
There are no trees here, he intoned, since they became
the boats: there are no trees here on our island,
only spaces that might have been. As though these
shadows might be assembled, float.
The poems in the body ǀ of space ǀ in the shape of the human are arranged into four sections, each of which begins with a helpful epigraph, a sort of thematic guide that sets the tone for what follows. Subject matter here, for the most part, will seem familiar to readers of poetry: the loss of a loved one, being and time, our comprehension of the natural world. What’s working here, however, is a consistently urgent and learned tone. Allport’s poems are stunningly arranged and hauntingly lyrical, containing great depth of feeling and insight while also remaining readable—no small task.
From “Patterns of Grace:”
Here’s another excerpt I found particularly effective, from “Sarcophagus:”
He stood on the boulder rising from the sea
imagining the word whitecap as a mountain in spring.
Is man less capable than a forest of kelp?
If all elements conspire to our delight,
Why should water drown its lord?
He stood at the mountain’s mouth, thinking
how alike an avalanche to thunder.
Many references to literature, exploration, art and history are made throughout the body ǀ of space ǀ in the shape of the human. Half the fun is unraveling the meaning behind each allusion, remaining conscious of the vastness of knowledge, its seemingly unlimited influence. King Lear, Dante, Robert Musil, Cortez, Plato, Han Solo, Keats—all of these can be referenced at a glance. One of the reasons I love to read poetry is to see such clean forms of articulation arise from the ooze of the writer’s learning, and in these poems Allport has demonstrated considerable scope and understanding.
Perhaps most memorable is “The Professions of St. Augustine,” whose five sections (“Of Love & Language,” “Of Flesh & Blood,” “Of Limited Humanity,” “Of Childish Error” and “Of an Empty Office”) span an equal number of pages, yet the reading of such commanded the vast majority of my time and attention, which, I suppose brings us full circle. A note in the back of the book informs readers that the entirety of the language used to compose these poems was taken from a particular translation. Of course, both confessions and professions are avowals of some sort, declarations, and both are words deeply rooted in Christianity. Only one of these words, however, makes dubious its truthfulness. And it is in this understanding that Allport’s retitling of Augustine’s infamous papers finds meaning.