NYQ Books, 2015
Paperback, 107 pp., $14.95
Review by Andrew T. Powers
Reading the poems in John Amen’s most recent collection, strange theater, is like rewiring one’s occult circuitry, what might be thought of as reconfiguring our capacity to read and interpret, and doing this in new and bizarre ways. As our senses fail us, the familiar grows strange and we are forced to be inventive in how we encounter what follows. What, for example, are we to think of the movements of a scorpion conducting the nuances of an orchestra, how its stings create balance through point and counterpoint, as we witness in the poem titled “yr opportunity”? Each poem can be thought of as an individual scene in a play, as a vision, as a dream, or even as an instance of drunken or otherwise altered consciousness grasping after the unusual and uncanny.
Poetry is a performative art, Amen reminds us, and since timing is all-important in performance, it’s no surprise that time itself is a subject explored in this collection. In the poem “summer wedding,” he writes, “suddenly you’re someone you didn’t plan on becoming,” pinpointing a moment of existential crisis where all the plans and events that led to this moment are suddenly suspended, and you find yourself a thing out of time without a visible past or a foreseeable future. Our every attempt to account for ourselves and our time here is a stab at the impossible, we learn in “self-portrait @ 1pm,” perhaps especially since there’s no clear line between what has just happened, what is now happening, and what will soon happen. This is all further complicated by the fact that, while we try to figure these things out, time continues to pass. Amen writes: “whatever it is that passes / continues to pass / Zeno’s paradox explains human effort alone.” The scenes of our lives, the moments that collectively account for a life, are measured out in disparate units of time, instances that bleed into one another.
Disembodiment is a common theme in this collection, and so it is to this end that the words spoken in each poem do not appear in quotes but are italicized, possibly indicating that they are not actually spoken aloud, but rather thought, like words whispered in a dreamer’s ear or otherwise startled into his consciousness by an outside source. In the poem “invisible,” the speaker appears to be a ghost who’s stuck in the routine of his old life, only now he’s invisible, neither his presence felt nor his words heard. The speaker in the poem “everyman” is a dead son, a ghost jumping from one body to the next, in each incarnation finding a new man to call “father.”
In the poem “Before What Happens Next,” the speaker appears to be a dead girl who has walked in on her own autopsy, witnessing it while not being aware, or dismissing the reality, of what is happening. In “23,” a series of suicide attempts has the speaker on the downward spiral, circling around to common sites again—“I’d been here before”—much like the repetition of imagery and sites in dreams, or episodes of a drugged reality initiated by an overdose of Valium washed down with vodka. In the poem “drunk,” we discover that coping with death and suffering through the stages of grief is a transformation not unlike death itself. Death is a continuation—not the end—of the journey begun in life, and perspectives will vary on how we practically approach and emotionally process these paramount concerns.
of course routine returns
like waking after a near-death experience
but more & more those shimmering threads remain
bridges extend from who you are to who you are
you can use them anytime
In one of my favorite poems in this collection, “initiate,” the speaker has undergone a transformation, something that might be thought of as a psychic reboot, and one with considerable updates to the environment, and even his own body. Something has changed—he knows it—and he begins looking for evidence, knowing there are others who must have experienced this switch. An external message from beyond made its way into his mind during the vulnerable time of waking up, and the more that time passes, this message, this virus, continues to take hold. Doubting that it’s all just a vestige of some strange dream, he says:
it’s grace I’ll forget what I saw
in time dismiss it as a dream
the blank night splattered with my fears
some rogue vision that by chance
broke the atmosphere of my waking mind
This poem also speaks to strange theater as a whole. How, in infiltrating consciousness, it alters perspective and leaves us doubting the verity of everyday reality. Each poem glides into the next as though each were an individual stage of death, or an ongoing thread of strange visions witnessed during a nightlong period of intense dreaming. But beyond the wild spectacle, Amen is speaking to the larger human necessity of expressing what is unusual, or at any rate, incongruent with our everyday lives: we dream, we create mythologies, and we write poems, if for no other reason than to ease the suffering of our tragedies and to invigorate the intensity of our joy.