Poetry Review: Sarah Melton on Dee Allen’s Unwritten Law

“Unwritten Law” by Dee Allen

(Reviewed by Sarah Melton)

“If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention!” – Anonymous

Many a bumper-sticker, t-shirt and poster have been emblazoned with the above statement, and many  poets, pundits and politicians have used the expression to embody their ideal of the way the world should be, in some way or another – but in reading Dee Allen’s “Unwritten Law”, I see something more than just a glib reference to that aforementioned outrage.  I see its very embodiment, sincere and unflinching, in this collection of extremely provocative and well-written poems.

The introduction by the writer describes the first-hand corruption and racism Mr. Allen experienced from early childhood through adulthood, in Atlanta and San Francisco, and doesn’t shy away from making his opinions on law enforcement clear, even before the title poem, “Unwritten Law” makes that abundantly clear, with such openly aggressive lines as “The only good cop that lives is/a bad cop who keeps his mouth shut.”  Though my initial reaction to this particular piece was one of anger and discomfort (as I have known several police officers personally), I also tried to keep an open mind, realizing that this level of anger and distrust was a result of a life experience much different than my own, and that such heated bursts of emotion may be exactly the call to attention the writer is trying to create.  Such words don’t just entice, but outright demand the eyes and ears of those who would rather look away from the darker deeds of those in power than face the dirtier, uglier side of life that the disenfranchised and marginalized members of our society have no choice but to face head-on, on a daily level.   He writes of wrongs in not just our own still-evolving society, but in other parts of the world as well – from North Africa to Wisconsin, Egypt to a Georgia prison cell, never shying away from calling out the unjust treatment of others, nor the indifference of those with the power to rise to their aid.

Then, somewhere in the midst of all this anger and outrage, there is a gratitude and love of life peeking through, like momentary pauses of sunlight in a dark and turbulent storm.  In “Downpour”, he laments the suffering of the urban homeless in the storm, yet remembers to feel the appreciation of a dry blanket and a hot tea in his hands.  In his poem “Rustwalker”, you see how the power of art can bring forth a sense of admiration and awe, though it’s left to the reader to decide whether such admiration was for the statue itself, or the city surrounding her.   In “Game” he dares those suffering injustice to take an active part in fighting against oppression, and recognizes the latent power of the individual against seemingly insurmountable odds.  While the aggression in some of his poems can be disquieting to say the least, the undeniable assertion that EVERY person deserves to have their basic needs met and their human dignity intact should (hopefully) be something that everyone can agree with.

These thought-provoking portrayals of corruption, struggle, rebellion, perseverance, and yes, even the scattered glints of hope, are presented in a simply-bound publication by POOR Press, a non-profit arts organization that provides media access to low and no-income adults in the Bay Area.  For more information on this collection, Dee Allen, or Poor Press in general, you can visit them on the web at www.poormagazine.org. Allen’s previous book, “Boneyard” can also be purchased there.

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