At the Threshold of Alchemy, by John Amen.
(Presa Press, Rockford, Michigan, 2009)
Like the sea sung by Homer, this new and wonderful collection of poems by John Amen sounds with many voices. There’s the guy who steals cough syrup, ersatz booze, from the A&P, then watches his buddy Scott punish a would-be mugger lying on a bathroom floor,
“your fists like battering rams pounding holes in his face.
He’s begging you to stop in Chinese.”
Those coarse-grained lines belong to a piece titled “Icons” showcasing the low city life. Then, by a sort of ironical inversion, the longer poem in twelve parts with the violent title “Rampage” is written in high-brow, often aphoristic language. It begins:
fortifies what it wishes to dismantle,
bogs itself in what it strives to transcend.”
And then there are lines in German, French, Russian and Italian, either of Amen’s invention, or culled from other texts. In the latter case, an endnote gives the source—the I Ching, the Book of Job, the Soviet national anthem, and so on. This is far from being the only feature in common with Eliot’s The Wasteland: “Rampage” is an updated, refreshed Wasteland, a mise-au-jour, the world-wastes as perceived from the suburbs:
“It (mind) has pressed the play button again.”
And having pressed it, we hear about the gardening neighbor, his blood “viscous with envy,” and we hear the depressed poet’s voice:
“I sit with vulgar people,
I stand with vulgar people.”
That, by the way, is a quote from the I Ching, as an endnote makes clear, for an American voice cannot possibly utter such things barefaced. Then suddenly we find ourselves elsewhere, on a train near Basel, freed from the tyranny of the to-day: my hunch is that the poet is talking to that neighbor across the picket fence, either in actuality or in his imagination, as he sarcastically tells him:
“Congratulations on the summer home off Lake Cocytus.”
The envious vulgus are shades, they are no better than the dead, and the Eliotic conceit is further Eliotized by the Dantesque resonances which, further down, explode into three lines in Italian where Brunetto Latino and Ciacco the glutton leave the Inferno to make an appearance here. Nor is The Wasteland the only work by T.S. Eliot evoked in “Rampage.” The ninth part of Amen’s poem is a take off on Four Quartets—here are its first three lines:
“The end of time
is the beginning of time,
and time itself is timeless.”
Both Amen and Eliot end on what is vulgarly called a positive note. Here is the end of “Rampage”:
“… As my memory
departs—a healed pigeon again taking flight—
I’m cleansed in preparation for the next go-around.
Indeed, all is one—divine, absurd, conflicted.”
And here are the ending lines of Eliot’s Wasteland:
“Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih”
That is, roughly, “Give, be compassionate, be self-controlled. The peace which passeth understanding.” Both Eliot and Amen reach out to Oriental wisdom to stanch the wound cleft by Western reason.
John Amen has more than one intriguing string to his bow and many piercing arrows in his quiver. Right before his longest poem in this collection—a love poem where Mary is the name of the beloved—there is a prose poem, “Birth of Evil,” a myth of origins where hatred is hatched from rejection and banishment. Lucifer is evil because God expelled him from heaven, but Lucifer is but a mirror image of God. There’s an ancient Gnostic story to the same effect: once Christ, the Son of God, leaned over the deep well-shaft which connects heaven and hell and there, at the bottom, reflected on the waters, he saw his own face, which was the face of Satan.
Then, right after “Birth of Evil,” the long, memorable love poem to Mary. Here we also find mirrors, and lines as lovely as these:
“You’re away, Mary, and I sit by the sweltering door,
TV on mute. This evening is a sick Jesus. The sun
jabs my eyes with sharp fingers, and I pray to napkins
and salt dispensers, count ravens and yellow finches
in the neighbor’s yard. We were born to dash off murals
in the face of a hurricane, to die amidst our incompletions,
paint streaming in the gutters. This morning, I wrote songs
in the ficus grove, imagined you wielding a pitchfork,
cherry blossoms in your cleavage. Two angels made love
in the daffodils; a devil leered from the hollies, hand
on his groin. I offered him a papaya, and he returned
my guitar. Now my left thumb burns, and I keep hearing
the elusive mantra: Love is a mirror that hides no flaws.”
I have chosen these lines among many in “Portraits of Mary” because they afford a glimpse at the unity underlying the diversity of voices in this book. The sea has many voices, says Homer; yes, but all of them come wrapped in whiffs of brine. Themes from other poems in the collection are gathered here—domestic utensils and appliances, the envious gardening neighbor, incompletion, women seen as lovely witches, the devil, mantras, mirrors, plus the deft touch of the ficus grove (ficus, fig, Mediterranean symbol for the female genitals).
Here may be a place to slip in some negativity, the few flaws in this beautiful book. In the first part of “Portraits of Mary” we have:
“Is she real?—composite
of electricity and clay, personality suspended,
spirit unfettered by comfort or routine. It’s iconic,
hair blown back in the autumnal winds”
and at that word, “iconic,” I stop and wince. Mary, iconic? I have nothing against “icon” when used as in the title of the poem I mentioned above, but the adjective “iconic” is modish, and, unless used with several grains of ironic salt, until further notice we should avoid it more than the swine flu. One more negative bit: in the third part of “Portraits of Mary” the poet evokes the rejecting mother,
garbed in sable, the goddess with mammoth breasts, smothering hands,
labia lined with incissors,”
and from the utilization of Jungian and Freudian tools (which recurs in other poems in the book) we get a sense that the poet is not yet prepared to deal with that painful subject in his own words.
But enough carping. There is enough, more than enough here to celebrate. Read, for instance, the following prayer for color:
“Early evening, already
we have seen two possums shrinking in the foxglove.
I’m tired of these eyes
that take in only shadow. Father,
rearrange me, invert me, heal
the colorblindness. Show me
an antidote to the grayness, convince me
nothing in my rolodex will banish this hunger.”
Poems such as these, and there are plenty in this book—John Amen’s third—keep resounding in the mind the way great poetry does, the way the sea keeps resounding inside a conch shell. The way Homer’s words keep sounding at the end of the hexameter: polUphlOIsbOIo thalAssEs.