Lillian Allan was named a foremother of Canadian poetry by the League of Canadian Poets in 1992, as stated in this beautiful collection of her previously published and unpublished poetry that spans over four decades.
In this anthology of Lillian Allan’s rhythm-based poetry we are introduced to many kinds of poets in one singular voice. Make the World New is a wonderful collection of Allan’s best work and clearly illustrates why Allan is considered a pioneer in not just dub poetry, but in poetry that is imagist and thematically drawn out over different areas of life. Her work is a calling to that old song of revolution and to bring social justice themes to the foreground – themes such as anti-Black racism, misogyny, class, and the importance of demonstrating against injustice.
The book is edited by Ronald Cummings who highlights both her previously published work and also assembling work on the page from her sound recordings. Cummings, a professor of English at Brock University, collates these poems with an eye to illustrating just how versatile Allan’s work is and the breadth of her use of language whether it is Jamaican patois fused into an English form, from an oral tradition, or poems that live on the page.
In a recent CBC interview Lillian Allan had this to say about the musicality of language - there are these vibrations and this dimensionality. There are all these things that are encoded in rhythm and sound. And it gets to you — your soul is reaching out for it. And I am especially enthralled by rhythm because we're all in this rhythmic space.
The sense of rhythm in language is well articulated in a number of poems – the first one opens the collection and it is a prose poem titled Queenie Queenie and the Fall of Colonial Empire; a poem that speaks to a Jamaican town’s preparations for the Queen of England driving by on their way to another stop on a royal tour of Jamaica. There is such a strong subversion of a colonial moment with the introduction of nine-year-old Delveena who screams near the end of the poem “look me prettier than de queen”, as the motorcade rolls past her. The town erupts and celebrates Delveena instead.
This collection also is deeply political and humanist as Allan meditates on the new imperialisms that keep countries like Jamaica poor where American interests and the International Monetary Fund pact continues to keep Jamaica as a debtor country. In the poem Conditions Critical, Allen speaks of freedom that never arrives but “freedom has been mythical” to the people of Jamaica; one that is not tangible or emancipatory.
Allen has a deep empathy for those who are impoverished by western imperialism, as a series of poems illustrate her solidarity to the freedom struggles of the people of Nicaragua and Haiti.
Allan’s poems about Toronto are equally provocative and empathetic to those who have nothing. In her poem Unnatural Causes there is a deftly written story of homelessness where “all people are created equal except in winter” where the only way one can make it through winter is to be “ice.” Allan clearly states that this poem is “unpostcardlike.”
This commitment to keeping the eye on injustice continues with the poem Pandemic which has fourteen parts to it, some sections longer than others. Here Allan explores the isolation of what the world has lived through and also how exiting your door to meet friends or going out for groceries can be a “death sentence”. She follows this line with “Ask any young Black man” and the poem immediately takes on a new dimension of what it is like to be the victim of anti-Black racism. In the seventh section George Floyd is cited and the stanza goes on to describe the holding of breath and a final exhale in parallel to the words spoken by Floyd when a police officer had his knee on his neck, “I can’t breathe.” In section nine Allan writes
Black people are harmed by the spit and the spite
Of white people turning away
Even above systemic inequalities and white supremacy
Pressing on our necks
Linking again to Floyd’s murder. Pandemic is a testament to fighting against anti-Black racism and finding a way to “Talk back to this poem with your heart, gentle.”
Language, tone, and imagery change when Allan moves into a more introspective space as in the poem The Poetry of Things. I normally do not find poems written about poetry compelling, but in Allan’s approach there is an endearing quality to her honesty and quiet reflection of what poetry can be and what it sometimes forms, a “wounded poetry” that brings the reader into the house of poetry that Allan writes from. The poem itself is not didactic, nor does it set out to be authoritative in nature. It humbly offers some quiet observation of the power of the imagination, creativity, and the word and as Allan so aptly says “everything well and wonderful is poetry.”
Making the World New is an important collection of Lillian Allan’s literary and sound recording work; and her work through a sense of community. The poetics of rhythm, language, image, and a focus on story telling offers a profound engagement with what is wrong with the world and also what is good in people’s action. Her work is a call to conscience, to inspire revolution in each reader’s soul and change the world to be a better place.