‘Clabber Street’ is the local nickname for Alexander Street in Ballymena, Joseph Allen’s hometown. It was reportedly a crowded and grim district during post-war times, where the residents held a kind of inverse pride in being from there. The word ‘clabber’ itself means ‘mud’, and in this collection, Allen in the Virgil to the reader’s Dante, not afraid to wade in knee-deep and explore.
Typically, the collection are rooted in childhood and reminiscence. Hardship and desolation is addressed directly, with poems reading like existential death notices, thick with the ‘betrayal of childhood’, where ‘youth is old’ like the character of a Tom Waits song. Allen’s universe is inhabited by family, the lost and the unemployed, each unable to share their pain. And as on any Skid Row, there is a certain happiness to be found as well amidst the gloom, whether genuine or deluded.
From the title poem, ‘Clabber Street Blues’:
The sun doesn’t shine on Clabber Street,
the winos drink Special Brew, Silver Crown
as the shoppers rush to their parked cars.
The drunken tinker
lifts her skirt
and laughs at the people passing.
The resulting image is comical but depressing: we are not meant to laugh along. Elsewhere the figure of the father persists throughout: ‘a father’s hangover‘, ‘A father envious of my mistakes‘, ‘ My father might have loved me‘. He is cast equally as an idol and a source of fear, at once Perseus (Greek hero and slayer of Medusa) and a violent drunk. When Allen writes ‘I felt his father’s belt upon my back | so many times before’, we have to winch alongside him, the memories painted being so concrete and authentic.
The ultimate summation of this pain comes in ‘Generations’:
My father might have loved me,
an affection for his issue,
but somewhere, we came to hate.
My mother tore her heart,
a buffer between us,
I cannot hate her for her pain.
Now they are gone,
I, their sole connection with this earth,
feel no anger at their mistakes.
All we leave behind
are work, art, thoughts,
cast them aside,
they cost us nothing
but the soul.
Whether we are to believe that he feels no anger is questionable. However, there is hope to be found alongside the damnation, a hope found in music, in writing, and in keeping oneself a sensible distance apart from the world, a distance frequently impinged by the young and dead. In ‘Sour Hill’, we learn how ‘the sound of fiddle and mandolin | lured me from my home‘. Music ‘comes from within‘ and ‘knows no borders‘. It is a solace that has served Allen well, being a singer and multi-instrumentalist, performing bluegrass, folk and the delta blues.
Allen, as always, is reflective and forward-looking in his writing, balancing in his hand the certainty of death against the uncertainty of time. In ‘Burdens’, he comments:
A man feels the burden of his years,
learns to accept his failings,
passes his knowledge on.
Ultimately, Clabber Street Blues is a list of failings and lessons learnt, tricks to survive, and an unloading of those accumulated burdens. Allen has learnt to celebrate the small things in life, and in order for us to feel uplifted, he first must bring us down, thick in the clabber of existence.
‘Clabber Street Blues’ is available from Greenwich Exchange, 88 pages, ISBN 9781910996072