Book Review

Whenever I read a book of poems coming out of New York City, I am always left wondering whether I’m reading poems and listening for the city, or whether I’m looking at the poet gesture like they’re a New Yorker. And I wonder if this is what passes for New York School-ish style these days. For so long now poetry and the city have been lovers, and all I want is to see the results of that long love affair. I am devoted to the city through its poets. John Ashbery, Alice Notley, Eileen Myles, Stacy Szymaszek, Tommy Pico. I’m sorry, Basie Allen, I read your poems and feel like they could only have happened in New York, though I know that’s not entirely true. But I like thinking it’s true. Is that unfair? Is it possible to set a threshold to how much New York might exist in the poetry? And, coinciding with this, what should I do with the “New York” I bring to the poems versus the orbit Allen explicitly marks for himself? For him “New York” is through figures like Sonia Sanchez, Cy Twombly, Aime Cesaire, and Eva Hesse.

It’s all complicated for me because when I bring New York into a poem it’s not just about these poets whose work has been concretely identified with the city. It’s about the nature of voice. That carefree and also critically engaged voice. The poems sound so impulsive, as if composed on the spot. But they are not the improvised performance I mistake them for. They are written, considered, and edited. They are the best words in the best order for fooling someone like me into thinking they’re just this poet talking to me. So casually. This is partly why I find myself incapable of not making these poems a part of the city. “I’m such a fool,” I think to myself while looking so affectionately at Allen’s poems. And, like a New Yorker, the poems look back at me already three steps ahead of my admiration. Because, of course, the poet is aware he has crafted something that sounds like improvisation. The poems are self-aware of their seeming spontaneity, and that’s part of the spontaneity.

Consider  “Both Sides of the Cover: Part 1,” a poem about writing the next poem in the book, “Both Sides of the Cover: Part 2: The Poem”:

at first words were slapped back and forth [from outside the window]
but quickly turned into the sad sound of fists
scraping concrete and faces and some rough
minutes later my neighbors from across

the hall joined in the ooouuuing with their own
dry opera of bed springs booing in-sync with rhythms
mirroring the motion of gloves doubling up
above the sweat-stained grey ring

the noise funneling into my bedroom.

As a set, the poem above and its companion below are undeniably woven into the city. In the above quote, the poet is relaxing in his apartment, when he hears two people fighting outside. And then, as though intentionally joining this soundscape, his neighbors “dry opera of bed springs” and the accompanying moans match the rhythms of violence from outside. It’s the inescapable music of New York City. But the subject of “Part 1” is not only hearing these things, it’s also that this is what the poet hears as he’s sitting to write a poem: “Don’t just listen to the city, dear reader, think about how this is what I hear when I’m writing.” Here is what might be considered a fairly precise conjunction joining Part 1 (above) and Part 2 (below):

their grey whispers kissing
any glimpse of daylight

left from the window
while two twin sounds
pour’d down from open mouths

they came—

And while it might be a surprise to see “Part 2” foreground the ecstatic after “Part 1” has described the scene in both violent and pleasurable lights, I would highlight it as a feature of Allen’s book. He revels in the poetry of a magical reality, and a poetry that is fully cognizant of what the world might be thinking when it looks at him as a black man. And, for all my commentary on Basie Allen as a poet of New York, it’s that balance he manages between embracing the world for all its potential and critiquing the racial bias he inescapably lives with that marks the magic of these poems. For instance, in the poem “Controversial and Erotic Dreams Where the New World Trade Center is the Largest Klansman in the United States and As it Turns Out We’re Engaged,” the poet finds himself dressed “cute” in “Camo Crocks / and a tommy girl sweater,” at the altar with “the Largest Klansman in the United States”—a figure pictured at the end of the poem as Freedom Tower. Though the angle of the photograph shows the building with two open windows, making the tower look like the eyeholes cut into a klansman’s hood. The poet here is giddy and disappointed and horrified all at once, which is often a mode for Allen to address complicated and denigrating issues around race. In “Untying Dream Knots and Chewing on Badge Juice,” the poet is faced with a Matrix-inspired choice about police violence against black people. Take the blue pill or the red pill. The blue pill offers empathetic fantasies for reforming the police, and the red pill a dark surrealistic horror scene with victims of police violence like George Floyd and Breona Taylor attempting to be heard over the amplified static on the police officer’s walkie-talkies.

The appeal of Allen’s Palm-Lined with Potience really is this irreconcilable center that’s an intersection of hilarity, terror, harsh cultural critique, and magical reality. It’s that friend of yours visiting you from New York who’s already thought about what you were thinking about any given situation, and their thoughts are delivered at twice the speed of yours. And it’s part of their charm, their grip on reality, the pleasure of having invited them up from the city for a visit. For all the mythology that exists around those four young men who were the official New York School poets, it’s how this kind of personality can be embodied in a poem that makes the poems so irresistible to me. Meaning, Allen’s poems truly are irresistible.

About the Reviewer

Kent Shaw's second book, Too Numerous, won the 2018 Juniper Prize and was published by University of Massachusetts Press. His poems have appeared in the Literary Review, Denver Quarterly, and Ploughshares. He teaches creative writing at Wheaton College in Massachusetts and blogs about poetry at