ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


John Amen's "Illusion of an Overwhelm" reviewed by Ricardo Nirenberg

John Amen, Illusion of an Overwhelm, NYQ Books, 2017. ISBN:978-1-63045-048-9

Offcourse has been reviewing John Amen's books of poetry ever since Christening the Dancer, of 2003.  This new collection, Illusion of an Overwhelm, offers new pleasures, and presents us with new matters for judgment.  The poet divided his book into four sections, of which the first and last are similar, but very different in diction and theme from the middle two.

Anima is the protagonist of the first section, "Hallelujah Anima."  Classical Latin made a distinction between masculine animus, the thinking, knowing power of the soul, and the feminine form anima, that power of the soul whereby we live, the "vital principle" or "nourishing force."  The word took on a dazzling variety of meanings on lips or pen tips through the ensuing millennia: from the world-soul, anima mundi, in translations of Plato's Timaeus and of the Neoplatonists, to the successive manifestations of the divine female among the Gnostics and the Kabbalah, where the Hebrew nefesh corresponds to Latin anima, culminating, closer to our days, in Carl Jung.  The Gnostics seem to have been in the poet's mind, judging by the epigraph he chose for this section: "And is sin not a tunnel to God? – Anonymous."  The same mutual dependence and coincidence of opposites appears in the first four lines of the first poem:

"The purpose of desire
is to propagate desire
& its concomitant recoil:
ambivalence is truth."

This is quite an opening.  It has a formidable gnomic energy, as well as a modern taste: an Heraclitean fragment, one would guess, with a Newtonian touch ("concomitant recoil").  It's the sort of poetic utterance one finds e.g. in T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets.  Modern and at the same time eternal, as Baudelaire prescribed that all art should be, in his Le Peintre de la vie moderne.

That memorable tone is sustained through the first section.  Anima can be the American soul, as in the poem "after Amerika" (page 16), or in poem #7, where Anima is tucked together with a rattling shovel in the poet's truck bed, "under the tarp, whispering the Lord's prayer."  A memorable line among quite a few memorable lines.

"The American Myths" is the title of the second section.  Here there are more characters who recur, supposedly mythical ones, but I can't say I recognize any of them with any certainty, the way I recognized Anima.  There is J, who opens the action (page 33):

"J scales a ladder up & up a steep pitch of memory
toward a smallish star…"

There is a White God, toward whom J seems to gravitate; a lot of Jacksons, which often stand for $20 bills; there is a Dr. Kilgus who whets his blade, hacks a beef cut and saws a turkey; the black son (of a white father?) who may be, or may not be, J himself.  There is the mother, who is said, on occasion, to be dead.  Could J stand for Jesus?  No way: this J seems addicted to booze and hypnotics.  My best (but surely poor) guess is that J is Michael Jackson, who has the right, I suppose, to be considered an American myth.

When I began the third section, "My Gallery Days," I breathed familiar air.  Here's the Lower East Side of NYC, here's Tompkins Park, facing which my wife and I used to live back in the mid 1960s.  Three of the poems appeared in this journal, Issue #67, December 2016.

"Portrait of Us," the final section, was worth waiting for: it is a glorious return, a poetic ascension from the singular and degradable to the eternal.  The portrait is of us (says the title): the poet and who else?  The other is, we figure, Anima incarnate, but her woman flesh and her voice are here no more.  The things she touched, the garden hose she tugged:

"Markers so singular biodegrade, mulching
the amnesia from which a leafier knowing might emerge.
Or so I pray: & let love be my tether
even as I swallow an unchosen death,
that flash between knowing & deliverance.
What drives the blood to surge, a galaxy to rise & unravel,
that music never dies, the rest a kicking stillbirth." (page 80)

And that's the music these final ten pages play.  Unforgettable duet:

"Though all names are forgotten,
this remains: we uttered what the creator can't;
the one music it needed from us,
this is what we gave." (last lines; page 89).


Ricardo Nirenberg is editor of Offcourse.

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