Offcourse Literary Journal
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Christening the Dancer, by John Amen. Seattle, WA.: Uccelli Press, 2003, 70 pages.
Reviewed by Robert W. Greene

Yeats is not the only poet whose influence John Amen is rejecting in Christening the Dancer, but surely he is one of them. Since the middle of the last century, the closing couplet of "Among School Children" has haunted readers of English-language poetry: "O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?" The final lines of the title poem in the present collection show how completely its author has escaped the thrall of his famous predecessor:


The dancer bleeds dust, the dancer
drinks light. Like an old god,
the dancer dies and is reborn.

And his name, whatever it is, is not mine.


The repetition here of certain sounds, especially of d, but also of n and o, subtly urges us to attend to what is being said. No longer are we being invited to meditate upon the emptiness of distinctions such as that between dancer and dance (Yeats's lesson). Rather, so "Christening the Dancer" seems to be saying, any myth that posits a controlling center of consciousness, like the one implicit in Yeats, misleads us: "And his name, whatever it is, is not mine." JA's dancer, as compelling as Yeats's, but fiercer in its specifics, conjures up no balletic vision for our rapt contemplation.

JA's response (deliberate or not) to the older poet's well-known couplet suggests the thrust of his ambition. He would focus on his self exclusively, while at the same time remaining utterly porous to the world. In a word, his collection is profoundly personal (one of its poems is called, fittingly, "Pondering an Autobiography"), yet it reaches a level of impersonality that T.S. Eliot might have envied.

No doubt significantly, JA's titles and epigraphs cite poets other than Yeats and Eliot: Villon, Goethe, Poe, Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova and Guillaume Apollinaire. The breadth of his reading may explain the boldness of his practice, of his "attack," to borrow a term from the lexicon of music criticism. That JA is not only a poet, but also a musician and a painter does not surprise us.

Paradoxically, JA transcends the limits of his individual story by particularizing it to an extreme degree, and by pulling out all the stops. His verse is totally free. His images are surreal but ordinary, violent yet serene, as in the following stanza from "Homecoming":

I am taking dictation from my body.
I am holding an auction, but
who would want these things?
A toy engine with a blood stain on one of its wheels,
a testicle resting on the bottom of a pill vial?


Or as in these two brief stanzas from "Legacy":


When I awoke, scrambled, still
divorced, devoid of family, dust motes
hung in the air like omens.

The sky was streaked in red,
cumulus smeared with gods' blood.


Sometimes, as in the last stanza of "Monologue for a Massacre," right before our eyes, hot anger at the cruel absurdity of it all turns into cold fury:


I will never be able to defecate all the rage I have eaten
or make peace with elephants lying mutilated in the brush,
ivory tusks hacked into cheap gewgaws,
much as we, too, have been hacked, into men.


Who created the fix we are in? Whom can we blame? Atheism, even if invoked only for the similes it offers, rules out God as the culprit. The harsh opening of "The Connection" reveals that: "The day is as stubborn as an atheist / moments running like mascara on a prostitute's face." On the other hand, "After the War" ends with a categorical accusation: "It is burning, and everyone knows / God is the one who started the fire."

Actually, JA blames no one, not even his family, not even himself, for his life, however tempted he might be to do so. He obviously seeks only to inventory his nightmare and, perhaps, to confess his "shortcomings," as the second (and concluding) stanza of "Towing the Debacle" demonstrates:


I watch my towers,
meticulously crafted complexes,
crack in half like a wishbone.
These bridges, burning like tapers,
never led to a place where gold
was for the taking. Corn grew
on the other side of the razor wire,
but I was never able to see God
in beautiful things. That
was my shortcoming, one of them.


The appended afterthought ("one of them") expands to virtual infinity everything that comes before it.

In a real sense, "Towing the Debacle" captures JA's entire project. A basic question remains, however: Is he towing the mess of his life (or of our not so different lives) out to sea for sinking, or back to shore for salvaging? Either way, he is a true poet, one who by his work has made his life transparent, turned it into a lens or a loupe.

JA's achievement in this respect is especially poignant in "Osip Mandelstam's Last Letter," a miracle of sympathetic understanding. He has stepped whole into someone else and laid that someone else bare. We are thus able to see OM's shipwreck of a life through JA's instrumentality. I shall conclude by quoting this marvelous poem in full:


Here, even fire gorged with wood burns low.
Blue flames nip at the sky like wounded dogs.

Every day we begin at the
northernmost point of endurance,
hiking like ghosts toward Kolyma;
afternoons of anemic silence,
black nights spent shivering,
listening to the screams of madmen.

Petersburg seems more beautiful now
than I thought it at the time,
spring days with Akhmatova and Nikolai,
wine as endless as a child's wishes.

Should you receive my letter, Nadezhda,
think of me, on the outskirts of Vladivostok,
snow packing like a coma, my dreams
still as dazzling as wild flowers.
Oh God, Nadezha, the sun
is an old friend whose name I have forgotten.

 


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