Real Rhyming Poems, by J.M. Allen
Published by Kelsay Books, 2022
Reviewed by Nikki Gonzalez
If you’ve ever held a poetry chapbook in your hands, you know their comparative lightness. They don’t have the physical heft of a novel or even most magazines. Yet their brevity–the majority no more than 50 poems–is what gives them their very weighty punch. The strength of a chapbook is in the concentrated emotion they deliver. And it can be quite a wallop.
J.M. Allen, with his collection, Real Rhyming Poems, delivers his strike in smart, witty rhyme. One could easily underestimate the impact of this style, brush it aside as just an observational comedian in couplets or Seinfeld-in-verse. But I invite you to look beyond the humor and see the compilation that, while not taking itself so seriously, profoundly allows for connections. I don’t, for example, need to live in Minnesota to imagine just how cold my ears would be in winter and who wouldn’t laugh, albeit with a knowing little ache, at the experience of typing out a heated email. In “An Email Never Sent,” Allen rhymes:
I wrote an e-mail; it was how I reacted.
I was about to hit Send, but a text got me distracted.
The content came to me fast, as my anger slowly rose.
I just kept on typing, with the sharp words that I chose.
The email, of course, isn’t sent after an interruption forces him to re-read his words (and it’s probably for the best!), as Allen concludes, “And so after the delay/ my draft e-mail I re-read,/ And then it struck me–I should just call him instead!”
The poem “Acknowledgement” is perhaps the best example of Allen’s ability to share in the human experience as he writes specifically of the impact of connecting with others through smiles. This poem, a mere four lines in length, creates the emotional encounter of a simple nod or wave in passing–“a feeling that is priceless”:
If you smile and say hi, it might just brighten my day.
Or nod to me in passing, nothing you need to say.
When I’m driving my route, a wave to me would be niceness.
And you may make me smile, a feeling that is priceless.
Reading the poems in Real Rhyming Poems feels like taking a walk with J.M. Allen through his neighborhood, through the seasons, through various terrains–from beaches to hiking trails to the prairie, and through his daily routine as he points out all the details you might otherwise miss. As you synchronize your pace with his, page by page, learning his stride, becoming accustomed to his style, you begin to develop a sense of anticipation, knowing a smart twist will come at the end of each of his pieces. You expect it. You ready yourself for it. You’re giddy with the promise of a knowing, connecting laugh or “aha!” moment.
But the walk Allen takes us on, though it begins easy and fun and playful, begins a climb into observations of more adult issues. The poems go from airy Shel Silverstein-esque read-alouds and move gradually to weighty reflections. I began to feel the gradation change in the poem “The Lawnkeeper” (published in my own literary publication, The Parliament Literary Journal), a reflection on “that” neighbor–the one who sprays chemicals on the lawn or whose landscaping machinery is loud and annoying and used way too early on a Sunday morning.
Chemicals are often sprayed on it,
and I think ants get it the worst.
No insects at all are tolerated,
even though they lived there first.
Many of us will relate; we laugh knowingly; we connect. But this time when we laugh along, there’s a slight sting. It’s not just disrupted weekend sleep that Allen’s rhymes go after; he also swings a pointed jab at the ignorance and ego that prefers an immaculate lawn over the damage it causes to the environment. We climb higher as Allen goes on to reflect on micro-managing bosses (who end up getting the promotions, incompetent as they are!) in “Eruption”; gun ownership in “Why I Bought a Gun”; and health issues in “Living at the Hospital”, a poem that begins:
I’m mostly living at the hospital,
sure wish I could be done.
I keep needing to give my birth date,
my life should be more fun.
Most likely, we’ve been there too, have given our birth dates over and over to nurses, and technicians, and doctors as well. It feels like an absurdity. And we also understand that, to be in that situation, something serious underlies.
Allen concludes with “Dragons,” perhaps the most serious poem in the collection. Masked in fairy-tale metaphor and layered with his trademark wit, this concluding piece closes our walk together with an undeniable parting squeeze. The final couplet unites all his strengths–the smart rhyme, the unique perspective, the ability to connect to us: “To calm my nerves, a drink from my flagon / And I promise this time to slay my dragon.”
With each of the poems in the chapbook, we can find connections–with Allen and with each other, sharing common experiences of life that unite, and enjoying a little chuckle about them. These poems are seemingly simple, but impactful indeed.
J. M. Allen is an electrical engineer and parent, who enjoys writing rhyming poems. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan, and has been a longtime resident of Rochester, Minnesota.
Nikki Gonzalez lives in New Jersey where she is a professor of Psychology and publishes The Parliament Literary Journal.
Risa Denenberg is the Curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.