Strange Theater, by John Amen (NYQ Books, 2015)
Reviewed by GEORGE WALLACE
GRANDIOSITY IN THE BARDO, BORN OF DESPAIR
A new collection of work from North Carolina-based poet John Amen is always cause for cautious pleasure. Pleasure because his poetics are rich in language and precise in vision. A caution because his message is frequently challenging, and sometimes a little uncomfortable to hear.
And so it is in Strange Theater, his new collection published by NYQ Books. True to its title, the collection offers a tip of the hat to the world of the theater—or more properly, the blurred lines between theater and real life. But more completely the fundamental motif which weaves through this collection is that of a strange world 'in the bardo' i.e. in the intermediate place between two states of being. In Amen's world that means an existence laced with dread, the plight of an individual caught up uncomfortably up in a kind of inexplicable dystopic suspension. Sometimes in this collection we find that motif played out in the wings or on the edges of the stage. But whether theatrical or otherwise, in nearly every case the reader is confronted with stop freeze after stop freeze vignette, the protagonist caught up in the despairing moment. Whoever it is Amen is enunciating for is a man without past or future, caught in the existential spotlight of a present tense he cannot begin to understand.
Resistance is a strange pantomime, Amen declares in one Sisyphean moment in "The Real Problem Is Doubt." The will pushing a wheelbarrow full of rocks up a hill before twilight."
At least Sisyphus had a clue what he was being punished for: deceit.
In the case of John Amen's characters, they don't seem to have a clue what they've done wrong. Or at least we don't as readers—somehow we find ourselves dropped chin deep into the circumstances of a speaker who is confronted with an unintelligible world of absurd and menacing situations.
The dystopic takes many iterations in Strange Theater, and the collection offers a wealth of sinister and at times somewhat lurid circumstances. A character takes valium and vodka and drives down a dark back road, both headlights broken, in a suicidal gesture. Another character is stuck in a dull slo-mo purgatory where—after being menaced in a dining hall by someone called the Iscariot Boys—a waiter brings boiled water cupped in his palms, his dining partner stares grainy-eyed as a debutante at a menu, and he can't decide what to order.
A third character has been reduced to a hotel dick, rooting out 'provacateur' artists hidden in some of the establishment's rooms: The electric xylophone reverberates in the hotel lobby. I'm told the musician, mad from years of drug-induced inspiration, is secluded in one of the rooms, his improvisations broadcast anonymously through the intercom. It's my job to go searching for him…
I've been through this process I don’t know how many times… I can promise this: if we get the funding we need… I'll unearth them all—these musicians, these painters, these tormented provocateurs, how they hide in their shirking chambers, hoarding the secrets of the universe! ("Preface to an Investigation")
Still a fourth character is a voyeuristic and somewhat predatory man sneaking a look at a medical procedure on a young girl, an act which is as perverse as it is self-defeating.
This clinical distancing, and the dehumanizing impact of logic, mathematics and science, is also a recurring trope: I stand in the driveway/of the research lab where I was raised/saving a rifle at the neighbors, Amen writes in "Self Portrait@Noon."
This is bare-knuckle American impotent rage, characteristic of headlines du jour in a society where, when things stress out, people reach for their guns. And it is a condemnation that loses nothing of its power when Amen rushes in with a disclaimer; I can't afford/To discard this story.
There are times when Amen's frank depiction of the harrowing and savagely dehumanizing trauma of it all is told with biting and unforgiving satire, as in "Guilt by Necessity." Yr father raised you his honing steel/Each night whetting a prayer/A dull sermon between yr thighs…
Second Sunday In June I set his church on fire The crucifix curled & cracked like a salted slug… …when yr father stumbled out in flames Collapsing beside the dry well I pissed & pissed until the blaze went out 50 congregants on their knees Screaming in the white gravel.
Surrounded by ballerinas/I'm not sure how my background in math will serve me, he admits, in "Self Portrait on Lunch Break."
Still I visualize a world of right angles reciting theorems with a full mouth How many times has Pi saved my life?”
Not often enough, it would seem.
Sanctuary in the mathematical, in the clinical, in the scientific, leads as often to perversion and cruelty as it does to liberation. Which leads to an ultimate kind of question: to what extent does the limelight offer the kind of solution to the existential dilemma discussed and discarded in Strange Theater?
John Amen is as cagey about that question as he is suggestive. Eschewing the incorrigibly bold assertiveness of Whitman (who confidently urges us to look for him under our own boot-soles), Amen signs off from this book with a dodge as mysterious and dramatic as Jimmy Durante's infamous radio/tv tag "Goodnight Mrs Calabash, wherever you are."
I’m just like my father, another ghost vying for the limelight, he declares in "Epitaph" in a quote that resonates eerily between Durante and Prince. Such grandiosity, born of despair!
Look as much as you like you won’t find me.
Camus once said that it's our job as audience to imagine Sisyphus happy—and it's the job of Sisyphus to rebel. One can neither imagine the Sisyphus-like characters John Amen presents as happy, or able to rebel successfully.
What we can enjoy is how wonderfully John Amen has put his finger to the profound sense of powerlessness in the human condition, and come away with a convincing ability to tell about it.
Strange Theater by John Amen, NYQ Books 2015, ISBN: 978-1-63045-008-3, $14.95
John Amen is the author of four collections of poetry: Christening the Dancer (Uccelli Press, 2003), More of Me Disappears (Cross-Cultural Communications, 2005), At the Threshold of Alchemy (Presa, 2009),The New Arcana (with Daniel Y. Harris, NYQ Books, 2012), and Strange Theater (NYQ Books, 2015). His work has appeared in numerous journals nationally and internationally—including great weather for MEDIA's I Let Go of the Stars in My Hand—and been translated into Spanish, French, Hungarian, and Hebrew. In addition, he has released two folk/folk rock CDs: All I'll Never Need (Cool Midget, 2004) and Ridiculous Empire (2008). He is also an artist, working primarily with acrylics on canvas. Amen travels widely giving readings, doing musical performances, and conducting workshops. He founded and continues to edit The Pedestal Magazine.
George Wallace is Writer in Residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace and an adjunct professor of English at Pace University in Manhattan, where he is active on the poetry performance scene. Author of twenty-ninechapbooks of poetry, he maintains an active international profile, lecturing, leading workshops and performing his poetry across the US and UK. George is also an editor at great weather for MEDIA
We accept book reviews for our website. Please query via the contact page before submitting. Reviews must be under 1000 words. Our aim is to support new and emerging writers, and other small presses. Poetry and experimental prose reviews preferred. Review submissions accepted all year round.