Psychic Unrest

By Lillian Allen

Reviewed by Jorge Antonio Vallejos

All the great poets learned from those who came before them.  Many young and aspiring poets have Walt Whitman sired.  Willam Butler Yeats has influenced many.  And Sylvia Plath is looked up to by young white feminists. 

But who do poets of colour look to?

A good start is two time Juno Award winner, Lillian Allen, the Queen and originator of Dub Poetry.  Naming her third collection of poems Psychic Unrest after a quote by Mesitza poet and academic Gloria Anzaldua, you see that Allen had contemporaries to look toward and listen to:

“Living in a state of psychic unrest, in a Borderland, is what makes poets write and artists create…”

Aptly named, you read through Allen’s collection the unrest that is a result of living in a society that has so many wrongs.  Allen is one voice of many who sees change as a need and not a want.  And the Jamaican poet does not hold back.  Psychic Unrest has poems challenging racism, violence against women, and apartheid.

Before taking her readers on a social justice journey, Allen first defines what a poem is.  Like Audre Lorde who boldly challenged the literature elite by saying, “Poetry is not a luxury,” in her essay with the same title, Allen shares with readers her beliefs on what a poem is in The Poetry of Things:

“Poetry is that dialogue between the world inside of us and the world outside…Poetry brings into focus the sharpness of one’s mind’s eye”. 

Allen goes further by defining who and what the work of a poet is:

“The work of the poet is that of midwife and birthmother.” 

Allen backs her statement by giving life to images, harsh realities, and positive dreams on the one hundred and two pages that fly by as you read them. 

Published in 1999, Psychic Unrest is somewhat a book of recent history.  Poems about the Oklahoma Bombing, the O.J Simpson trial, and South African Apartheid are seen.  

Allen shines when writing of a topic that is fought hard by many yet never seems to end: violence against women.  In Don’t They Know Allen tells the story of Elizabeth, a prisoner doing time for defending herself from her violent husband.  Reminiscent of Menominee poet Chrystos’ Dear Mr. President found in her collection Not Vanishing,  Allen shouts of  “a war undeclared on women and children” and how police and government are doing nothing about it:

“Don’t they know there’s a war

there’s a war going on down there 

United Nations won’t send no peacekeepers in

the Justice Department say its budget thin

There are things words don’t speak

rivers of tears don’t stop the pain

regrets and speeches don’t materialize change”

Don’t They Know reminds this writer of a button he used to wear that evoked the same message:


While in line for something one day a white male sarcastically asked, “What war?”

“Pick one,” said this writer.

It’s been twelve years since Allen published Don’t They Know and twenty-three years since Chrystos published Dear Mr. President.  What has changed?  How much more needs to change?  How can poetry work with other arts and movements to bring this change?

Throughout the collection Allen shares her philosophy through one liners that take up entire pages:

“The myth of powerlessness is the TV of the masses”

“De root of all language is impulse”

“The mind seeks no permission.  The poem doesn’t ask for approval”

The above lines can be used for hours of contemplation and conversation, quotes for essays, and writing prompts for poets.  Not seen in many collections, the breaks given to the eye with these powerful one-liners are much appreciated.  You also see the depth in Allen’s craft and thought; some of her one liner’s say more than many collections of poetry published today.

Psychic Unrest has odes to Newfoundland, stories of people of colour fighting for their rights, lines that you know Allen agonized over like all great poets, and love poems that are not only invitations but have you wishing you came up with them:

“Your smile provokes a poem in me

and I would love to make a revolution

with you.”

Tune in to Black Coffee Poet Wednesday February 23, 2011 for an inclusive interview with Lillian Allen.


About Black Coffee Poet

Black Coffee Poet is a mixed race poet, essayist, and journalist who focuses on Social Justice, Indigenous Rights, STOPPING Violence Against Women, Film, and Literature.
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  1. Sheila Stewart says:

    Fabulous! I love Lillian Allen and her work.

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