Julia Clark Reviews Alice Allan’s The Empty Show

By | 2 September 2020

Finally, in the titular poem, ‘The Empty Show’, Allan brings together her forays into sign collecting, construction of self, and the journey from lost to found. Allan opens the poem with words borrowed from the lost and found signs throughout the collection.

Lost something.
Help is on the way.
Looks like this. Too fast to catch.
I just want them found.
Please give the missing back.
Understand, I’m not mad.

Gathered together, the signs are fragmentary and jarring. They seem to provoke in the speaker the assurance, ‘Understand, I’m not mad.’ It’s unclear whether she means angry or unwell until it’s immediately undercut by ‘I worry I might be losing it. Going mad.’ The sestina form allows Allan to weave the six end words ‘something’, ‘way’, ‘catch’, ‘found’, ‘back’, and ‘mad’ together like tying up the wandering thematic ends of the collection. Then, as the speaker burrows deeper into her own mind, the imagery becomes circular and repetitive in a broken internal conversation. She says something only to take it back, ‘Going missing wasn’t like this way / back when. Hang on I take that back’ or answers back to herself, ‘Got your back / sweetie. Don’t sweet me.’

Central to this poem is the same complicated distinction between lost and found that permeates the collection. While the speaker admits ‘Part of me did go missing’ she counters with, ‘I’m not lost.’ At the same time, the association between ‘found’ and ‘catch’ takes the shine off being found. Rather than the typical connotations of trapping that ‘catch’ has, Allan subverts it through repeated use of the phrase ‘Catch up’, a phrase that imagines a journey or forward momentum whether metaphorical or literal. Then in this hypothetical:

Ok but what if you found
a cat on the beach or out the back
of the Croxton? Or what if she turned out to be something
that looked cattish but was too fast to catch?

This casts back to the rabbits who were uncertainly lost or found but ‘too fast to catch’. In this hypothetical and the reframing of ‘catch’, Allan draws a connection between freedom in the image of wild animals and the idea of movement forward, which together does away with the desire to be found, stagnant, owned.

With this poem and its sense of momentum, The Empty Show as a collection sheds the weight of absolutes like empty/full and lost/found so that the final poem, ‘Kind of what poetry’, has room to breathe. Spread across six pages with large blank spaces between words and stanzas, the collection has loosened to let the simple act of living in when Allan writes, ‘I just want to celebrate another day of livin’.’ After all the turmoil of being lost and finding yourself, the ‘noise / evaporates’.

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