Lillian Allen 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poetry by the League of Canadian Poets in 1992, as stated in this beautiful collection of her previously published and unpublished poetry that spans over four decades.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 Allen'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 Allen's best work and clearly illustrates why Allen 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 Allen'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 Allen 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 called Queenie Queenie and the Fall of Colonial Empire; a poem that speaks to a Jamaican town's preparations for the drive by, by the Queen of England 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 Allen meditates on the new imperialisms that keep countries like Jamaica poor where American interest and the IMF pact continues to keep Jamaica as an indebted 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 illustrates her solidarity to the freedom struggles of the people of Nicaragua and Haiti.
Allen'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." Allen 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 other. Here Allen explores the isolation of what the world has lived through and also how exiting your door to meet friends, go out of groceries can be a "death sentence". She follows this line with "Ask any young Black man" and the poem immediately taken on new dimensions 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, and Floyd said "I can't breathe." In section nine Allen 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
And again there is the linkages to Floyd's murder. The Pandemic poem is a testament to fighting against anti-Black racism and finding a way to "Talk back to this poem with your heart, gentle."
There is a change in language, tone, and imagery when Allen moves into a more introspective space through the poem The Poetry of Things. I normally do not find poems written about poetry compelling, but in Allen's approach there is an endearing quality to her honesty and quiet reflection of what poetry can be and what it sometimes forms as "wounded poetry" bringing the reader into the house of poetry that Allen 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 Allen so aptly says "everything well and wonderful is poetry."
Making The World New is an important collection of Lillian Allen'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.