ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998.


Strange Theater by John Amen, reviewed by Ricardo Nirenberg

John Amen, Strange Theater, NYQ Books, 2015. ISBN 978-1-63045-008-3.


Amen’s fourth collection shows an unequivocal increase in his mastery of thought and form.  His manner of experiencing is approaching total openness, no parti pris before reality, no preference for either darkness or light, but rather a sustained, baffled but articulate marvel at both:

“You unfold ‘what’s in front of you’
as if it were a love letter
you’re not sure you want to read”

Here, already in the opening poem, we encounter the paradox, which, a few lines below, Amen compares to the ones attributed to Zeno:

“Zeno’s paradox explains human effort alone”.

Zeno’s arrow that moves but does not move is like us, who quiver excitedly at Time’s love letter but aren’t sure that we want to read it.  We are reminded of Paul Valéry’s « Cimetière marin »: « Zénon! Cruel Zénon! Zénon d’Elée!/ M’as-tu percé de cette flèche ailée / Qui vibre, vole, et qui ne vole pas! »  Valéry, too, wrote to translate a bafflement.

Time is at the center from which radiate all paradoxes, all perplexities.  In the poem “The Terror” (page 23), we meet the Creator terrorized before His creature, Time:

“this the bearded giant’s legacy
before his 6 manic days of doing commenced
he paced the edge of the deep
running the void through his fingers

how he was going to withstand being alone
all this sudden and unceasing time”.

Time, however, is put on the deforming rack by dreams.  Strange Theater is strange because dreams can be strange, and it is theater because all dreams are theater.  And in those dreams we encounter shades, cruel ghosts, figures that we remember from Amen’s previous collections: Father, Mother, women who are soothsayers, palm-readers, sibyls or witches. In “On Restlessness” (page 99):

“face covered in mud
father’s belt chewing into my back
mother sobbing in the bathroom”.

“Castaway” (page 37), which contains some of the strongest images in the book, begins:

“each morning the woman in black
stretched out between the dunes
head propped on her palm
asks me about my dreams”.

Here the poet’s ego is abandoned in a desert island; in another occasion, in the dream-like “That Door” (pages 95-7), he is sitting at an old movie house, next to a woman, not described, who grabs his arm to study his palm, but he makes his escape:

“my departure is seamless
her face fading like a logo lost in a corporate merger
it was lifetimes ago I felt the tip of her finger
tracing the heel of my hand
waves of her breath fogging my company wristwatch”.

Amen’s skill at narrating dreams is remarkable; the way he suggests the absence of clear or definite contours, and the way he connects the presence of definite contours with corporation, company, and the practical imperatives of our technological civilization.  Near the end, in “Epilogue” (page 101), we are given a hint of how the Strange Theater started:

“we built a theater devoid of doors
my parents moved in after the consecration
renting an unfinished room near the steeple

they spend their days watching tv & fighting
drafting manifestos their fans’ll never see”.

The origins of the Strange Theater and the origins of dreams are one: the family scene and the family house, here masterly connected with church and the sacred (“consecration,” “steeple”).  And “Epilogue” ends:

“daddy Z & my mum the yammering Hera
holed up in their loft
decrying the conundrums of the world
while I hide here—

look as much as you like
you won’t find me”.

When the poet says, “I hide here,” it is this book he’s hiding in.  But then, to round the paradox, he says we won’t find him where we expect, we who are readers of this book.  The paradox of time is finally transformed into a paradox of the I.  John Amen, to our delight, has greatly grown as a poet since we reviewed his previous On the Threshold of Alchemy on issue #38, Summer 2009.

John Amen is the author of four collections of poetry: Christening the Dancer, More of Me Disappears, At the Threshold of Alchemy, and The New Arcana (with Daniel Y. Harris). His latest collection, strange theater, was released by New York Quarterly Books in February 2015. His work has appeared in journals nationally and internationally and been translated into Spanish, French, Hungarian, Korean, and Hebrew. In addition, he has released two folk/folk rock CDs: All I’ll Never Need and Ridiculous Empire. He is also an artist, working primarily with acrylics on canvas. Further information is available on his website: John travels widely giving readings, doing musical performances, and conducting workshops. He founded and continues to edit The Pedestal Magazine (

Ricardo Nirenberg is the editor of Offcourse.

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