Book Review: John Amen's Illusion of an Overwhelm (NYQ Books)

Illusion of an Overwhelm by John Amen (NYQ Books, 2017)


John Amen's work has become familiar to us through his four previous collections of poetry, the last of which, strange theater, was a finalist for the 2016 Brockman-Campbell Award. He also founded and edits the excellent Pedestal Magazine. John's latest collection, Illusion of an Overwhelm, is a terrific overview of the obsessions that fuel his artistic process.

The book is divided into four cycles of poems. The first part, Hallelujah Anima, is concerned with desire. How it makes and mars relationships. Its first piece begins:

        The purpose of desire

        is to propagate desire

        & its concomitant recoil:

        ambivalence is truth.

We travel across a terrain dominated by Anima, the Jungian term for the female aspect of the male psyche, looking inward, which Amen refers to as a fixture I inherited. This fixture proves to be beyond the poet's control at times, as with the poem he begins:

        What happened to Jul with the blond hair & brown eyes?

        Rachael who used to turn and wink at me as she belted her moody tunes...

Yet it also manages to bring him self-discovery, as when he says:

        ...still I wear "brother you better believe

        none of this is going to work out"

        like a suit of armor...

And it manages to finally arrive at inner healing, when he concludes:

        ...My years

        have been punctuated by small salvations

        I can never explain.

The second cycle, The American Myths, is an attempt to express the intimacies of a racist society within the family of man, a subject I am sure is complex for Amen as a Southerner.  The tensions which spawned the Black Lives Matter movement roil beneath the surface as the family members self-medicate. Super PACs and PTSD are referenced, ironic emoticons appear within the text, and everyone tries to solve their problems with Jacksons, the currency represented by the most racist of Presidents. This cycle is at times difficult to read, and its context has only gotten more upsetting in the short period of time since when Amen first wrote it.  But this has made it more important, and I salute John for not holding back.

The third part of the book, My Gallery Days, is a series of portraits of a 1990s New York City artist community, most of whom are struggling with drug addiction:

        ...ventriloquists on forever methadone, their abstracts

        sold for change @ yard sales in Bellmore & Syosset,

               the years pass like nodding on Coney Island.

This is my favorite section of the book. The portraits are specific and heartfelt. There is a surprising amount of humor regarding the art movements, and tenderness toward the protagonists, despite their dire situations. You can also identify most strongly in these poems Amen's debt to the beat aesthetic:

        AM I soared on Adderall, crashing @ dusk,

                Claude on 51st w/his rainbow pipe,

                            dude humming along to Coltrane

        standards on tape, dude dead in a snowdrift in May.

The final section of the book, Portrait of Us, points us toward the possibility of escape from all the inner turmoil through love and romance:

        The only salvation greater than love

        is the possibility of love: the sky opens...

Most of these poems are very dense. I have not been able to adequately communicate through this review the density of the wordplay. The conflict between the physical and the spiritual. This is much to John Amen's credit, and makes it a book that everyone interested in poetry should sit down and read. Though this density represents the struggle that most of us are going through, in one way or another, it also contains sublime moments of resolution that we all need to get through this journey we are on:

to see it's possible

        to love things

        just as they are,

        a woman

        just as she is.

Illusion of an Overwhelm John Amen NYQ Books, 2017 ISBN:  978-1-63045-048-9