'in a reasonably graceful celluloid manner'

The measured movement of Julia Allen

Julia Allen as Lulu in the Frank Wedekind play; the Free Theatre, Christchurch
Julia Allen as Lulu in the Frank Wedekind play, directed by Peter Falkenberg for the Free Theatre, Christchurch, May 1986.

In July 2003 the late John O’Connor, an essential figure in the Cantabrian poetry scene in which Julia Allen was prominent, suggested that: 

the work of a number of otherwise diverse and nationally and/or internationally linked poets shared enough of the following characteristics to identify their work as coming from Christchurch: 

1) An emphasis on craft over flamboyance or display — leading perhaps to what we might call a moderated intensity, difficult to define but easy to recognise once encountered. It was poetry written for both voice and eye, intellect and heart, classical in its implicit insistence on the limitations of sense over imagination and vice versa.
2) A recognition of the centrality of the image, and the uses of concision — it could almost at times be termed mediated post-imagism.
3) Independent of the above, an interest in haiku and the influence of this on their other poems, and/or an interest in European literature to the point of marked influence on their work.
4) A concern with the spirituality of locality and more so — relatively explicitly in comparison to other recent “schools” — with spirituality in a broader sense.[1] 

O’Connor’s third point is confirmed by the influence of the French symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé upon Joanna Paul’s Imogen (Hawk Press, 1978) and Julia Allen’s Midas Touch (Nag’s Head Press, 1990). Both texts were undervalued when published yet continue to accrue admirers for a sensuous yet intellectual heft that supports O’Connor’s fourth point about the spiritual. Paul’s afflatus is Catholic, whereas Allen’s blows existential. As a teenager Allen was already reading Camus in the original French. Her ear and awareness of typographic scoring were honed by exposure to Mallarmé. 

Both poets show, to borrow an observation from Ian Wedde, “a sense of order or form that resists foreclosure,”[2] and their discrete pieces plot an expansive narrative where the boundary between inner and outer, self and other, is not obvious despite/because of the precision of the writing. They foreground gender yet neither is a doctrinal feminist. And both poets had to negotiate the death of a child, as did Mallarmé — although they read him years before their stories echoed his — so absence is a continual presence in the small body of their work. Allen asserts that:

For me Fate is an homme fatal. Fate is … I think that sexuality is a part of Fate. Male poets always see Fortune as a strumpet, but Fortune or Fate can never be a strumpet to a woman, because Fate is necessarily other. Fate is an Other you have to come to terms with, whom you have to be engaged with. I see celibates as people who have stopped engaging with Fate. Part of the reason of celibacy is to free you from Fate. Fate is ruthless, which is why it’s something to have a relationship with.

Death is a friend, a companion — not an alter-ego, somebody who should be a mate. Death was never part of my world until it came into my life. Death came breaking through in a way which was almost a kind of rape, in a funny sense — it was totally out of order. Once Death has broken through and become a force, you have to engage with it. You have a relationship with the forces that come in. They can be quite physical. There can be a force of Anger. The poem “
Flax,” that was the force of Anger coming through into my life.[3] 

For her poetry is both the stone that is rolled away from the tomb to prove resurrection and the repeated act of rolling in a vain attempt at redemption:



this is
the stone
you rolled away
from the tomb,



Drop’ was written after a walk around a coastal path which follows the cliffs of Taylor’s Mistake to Boulder Bay. The sea crashes on the rocks beneath. I saw a seagull seemingly fall from the clifftop. Poetry can be prescient. There were no “wind howls” that day. I added them in. Fifteen years later, after my twenty-year-old son died, we climbed down in that same spot to scatter his ashes. The wind was howling. My seventeen-year-old daughter, in reference to the poem, said: “There are the windhowls, Mum.”


and waters
                      fell   with seaweed   drifting over
                                                                 rocks      drew me

in (urge)
to swim you   a w a y

back       when,

the angel
on the cliff above
dropped in
                   to   a seagull   and f l e w   (clipped)

in a reasonably graceful celluloid manner

f l i c k i n g   its wings
                                         to get rid of the



Here is the real
blood and semen
not sunset and water.
Soaked in seaweed
beside  you, the day ending
brilliantly:         I
bask in the artificial   soleil
of the real.
And you:


After you were gone

the river continued
to be

the willows
painted themselves
soft green
every spring.



on pale

I think of you
as an element of colour

no longer



‘Flax’ has always fascinated me. It is actually a type of lily, yet so vigorous and so resilient. I see it as a challenge to the very air about it. The words and the sounds of the words in the air somehow enable the sayer to partake of that strength and to express a retributive anger at the injustices and follies of the human condition.



flickering red at the edges

and as for Dionysus
(in articulo mortis)
at the point of death

a veil falls
over the eyes
light flickers
over the eyelids

and as for that statue
that you pray to
that inarticulate Mater
you pray to, say

cracks at the water
and lashes
at the water’s edge



Red leaves
on their flame tree:

of little red shoes

pirouettes and adages
and grand batons: moves

ablaze with intricacies, more
than the usual

danse macabre

of the autumn winds.


Variations’ is a meditation on the notion that the slightest variation alters all and is an attempt, via the words and through time, to alter and reconcile the harshest yet the most beautiful exigences of existence.

Rich velours.    Cease
Less than redness.    Heartfelt
Deep blue    ripples
To stillness.    Surges
To silence    heaving.    As he who
Richer velours.    Cease
Less than redness.    Heartfelt
Deepest blue    ripples
To stillness.    Surges
To silence    heaving.    As he
Richest velours.    Cease
Less than redness.   Heartfelt
Deepest blue    ripples
To stillness.    Surges
To silence.   Heaving.    As

All Julia Allen’s poems are from Midas Touch (Christchurch, Nag’s Head Press, 1990).

[1] John O’Connor, launch speech for Interruption of Dreams: Selected Poems 1986–2003 by Jeffrey Harpeng (Sudden Valley Press, July 2003).

[2] Ian Wedde, catalogue essay to Wanganui Works: Resisting Foreclosure, Wanganui: Sarjeant Gallery, 1989, n.p. Cited by Cy Mathews in “Circling an Absent Centre: the Poetics of Joanna Margaret Paul,” Jacket2, December 29, 2016. 

[3] Interview with Jack Ross, Complete with Instructions, ed. David Howard (Christchurch: Firebrand, 2001): 34–37.