Graham Allen, The Limits of Self-Help

Graham Allen is a Professor in the School of English, University College Cork. He was the winner of the 2010 Listowel Single Poem Prize. His first collection, The One That Got Away, was shortlisted for The Crashaw Prize and The Strong/Shine Prize. His latest collections, The Madhouse System (2016) and Holes: Decade 1 (2017), are published by New Binary Press. 

The Limits of Self-Help

You can’t choose the time in which you live,
you can’t learn from your mistakes until they’re made.
You can’t say goodbye to your own shadow.
You can’t stand in the rain and not get wet,
or talk to yourself on the telephone.
You can’t write yourself a blank cheque.
You can’t celebrate your mother’s birthday
in the same spirit in which she celebrates yours.
You can’t see yourself seeing, or smell yourself
smelling, or hear your ears hearing.
You can’t be sincere and ironic, or touch
the wind and stay indoors, or mutually
lie back and think of England. You can be
an atheist and pray to God, but only
in moments of utter terror.
You can run yourself over with your own car,
but you will not be driving and you can’t
guarantee the result.  You cannot blow
your brains out and then write a song about
it. You can’t sleep around and remain a
virgin. You can’t make omelettes without cracking
eggs, and you can never, ever impress
a wise guy. There are billions of
habitable planets in space, but you
can’t pack your bags and relocate.
You can’t use hair-dye products appropriately
if you are completely, incurably bald.
There might be three different lottery
winners, but you at best can only be
one of them. You can’t catch yourself if you
are falling, or pull yourself out of the
village well. You can’t make a hole-in-one
if your tee-shot doesn’t make the green,
you can’t send yourself a surprise invitation,
or contact yourself years later out
of the blue. You can’t, despite what certain
books claim, teach yourself the piano, or
be penniless and invest wisely. You
can’t catch a ball without unclenching your fist.
You can’t stand still at one hundred miles per
hour, or talk and talk and talk and yet re-
main silent. You can’t completely quit and
yet stay smoking. ‘But you can fall in love
with yourself,’ she said, looking into my
eyes, before disappearing. I said, in
reply: ‘The glass is not half empty, the
glass is most definitely half full; the
problem is somebody’s poisoned the milk.’

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