Offcourse Literary Journal
ISSN 1556-4975 

  MORE OF ME DISAPPEARS, by JOHN AMEN. Cross-Cultural Communications, New York, 2005. Reviewed by Ricardo Nirenberg.



John Amen's first book of poems, Christening the Dancer, was reviewed in Offcourse #18 (Fall '03). Two of the poems in this new collection, "One Night in Arizona" and "Walking Unsure of Myself," appeared in #21 (Fall '04): they afford no more than a delicious whiff of the vast, many-levelled space of Amen's poetic practice that is displayed here, in this new book.

"Paradox is my native tongue," says JA in "Angelica Tells Her Story" (page 21): indeed paradox seems with him as native as our other more or less effective ways of coping with the world out there. Near the end of the first poem in this collection, "The Consummation," we are already shaken by the sudden, tragic truth of this (seeming) paradox: "In my imaginings, I am broken / by storms as violent as a mother's tongue." Elsewhere, "My mother was a young swallow / abandoned to my care" (page 37), and, "My mother is sleeping in a crib lined with barbed wire" (page 40). It is a poetic other-world consisting of inversions of the common place and common time, and we cannot fail to notice that paradox is pointedly not called a mother tongue; a paradoxical other-world made softer by words winking to one another (as in "The Consummation": "umbrage," "shadow," "still-umber"). Sometimes, the poet ends with a wistful question, as if wishing to bring us down, a bit cynically or perhaps shamefacedly, to this everyday world: thus, "The Consummation" ending, "How does it feel to be immortal?" Or the end words in "Angelica Tells Her Story," "If I forget, please, will you remind me?"

Which brings us to another level, those poems where the world is very much this one, this America of seedy, sodden violence, and the authorial voice is gamely immersed in it, as in the various "New York Memories" or in "Narcissism," in "So Many Lives"or "A Bad Trip." In all of those, ME is a large presence, as it is, too, in the poems we would call apocalyptic, where the seedy world meets its demise: poems like "In a Revolving Door" or "In a Day's Journey."

The title of the book, "More of Me Disappears," has, we feel, the sense of a desideratum or perhaps that of a prayer, and nowhere is the poet nearer his aim than in the poem containing the line from which the book takes its name, "Each day more of me disappears" (page 56), the one titled, "Vacillations," which, if pressed, I would declare my favorite. The two lines in the epigraph, "Tonight as always / There is no one to share my thoughts," by Chu Shu Chen, are more than just an epigraph; they seem like a pointer to where and to how is our poet's ME willing to disappear. John Amen's ME becomes that of a Chinese woman poet who lived almost a thousand years ago, and who wrote something perhaps approached to by this poor translation: "The shadows waving bamboos cast against my window, / The birds chatter in the sunset. / The time of crabapples and willow plumes is past, / Each languid summer day seems longer."

Compare it to Amen's "Vacillations 2.": "Dogwood blossoms throb in the twilight, / whispering in a code I cannot decipher. // Cicadas swarm like tourists; frogs / conspire behind every blade of grass. // The beauty of these days is unbearable. / August again—sleep feels like suicide."

At this level, we experience a confluence and fusion of times: here "The arsonist strikes a match; the .38 backfires," but "We cross many bridges, sleep in monasteries," too (pages 52-53). "There is so much left to translate" is the end line of "Vacillations 10," and it resumes the poet's assumed task. Sometimes translation means the transmuting of one's past and one's ME into paradoxes, offering us the pleasure of power, of feeling that intellect can handle the disasters of one's past. The highest and most noble meaning of translation, though, is what we get in these fourteen "Vacillations," a glimpse of what Chu Shu Chen would write were she living in the USA among us, or what John Amen would write were he alive in Sung-dinasty China. No wonder a press calling itself Cross-Cultural Communications has published this book: a must.



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