ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


John Amen's "Dark Souvenirs", reviewed by Ricardo Nirenberg. NYQ Books, 2024

Having reviewed five previous poetry collections by John Amen, I would be justified if I felt like an expert in this business.  In it, however, expertise doesn’t count: Amen’s poetry, his prosody, his mood, the tone and tensions of his voice, vary from book to book.  The present collection strikes me by the dominant somber ambience, a modern leçon de ténèbres.  The third poem, the one that lends its name, “Dark Souvenirs,” to the collection, begins:

I studied your craft,
how you drove the demon of gluttonous age
from its hiding place,
freeing the infant who starved for 84 years,
pang & its host
dismantled with a single twitch.

Is that number autobiographical?  Is Amen eighty-four years old, just like me?  I don’t know, all I know is that I tremble at the thought that I still have to dismantle pang and its host and drive the demons from their hiding places, thing I haven’t done yet.  The poem ends:

Memory does its best
to salvage a keepsake
—pulp, bullet, bone,
a new constellation in the night sky—
but symbols are lost,
art fails, except as it screams at the dead.
I hope what remains of you
can recognize my voice.

That a new constellation in the night sky is a keepsake, just as are pulp, bullet, and bone, is something my memory will certainly do its best to salvage.  The dismal notion that symbols are lost, and art fails, except as it screams at the dead, seems surpassingly strange until one is reminded of our supreme poets Homer and Virgil, both of whom secured the success and survival of their epics by including in them a katabasis or nekyia, a descent into the realms of the dead.  We already see how appropriate the Shakespeare quote from Antony and Cleopatra as one of Amen’s three epigraphs:

“Then is it sin
To rush into the secret house of death,
Ere death dare come to us?”

As we go on, the mood becomes more tenebrous, and the reader more timorous.  The poem “Arc” brings back my mother to me.  This is how it begins:

Ma’d rave
how a possum fell
from a rotten sycamore
the day she brought you home from St. Bartholomew’s.
A bad mark, she’d say, in the Book of Vengeance.
When I revisit the forced rhymes of our magnolia days,
I’m leveled by lies, hate-storm,
barbed couplets piled in a shallow grave.
I see her in dreams: Ma scattering
possum bones in the ivy, declaring our father dead.

How much would I have given for that first line!  “Ma would rave” sounding like “Mad rave.”  Mother, mad.  Mother declaring our father dead.

Acquire, read, and reread Amen’s Dark Souvenirs, if you dare.


John Amen is the author of five collections of poetry, including Illusion of an Overwhelm, finalist for the 2018 Brockman-Campbell Award, and work from which was chosen as a finalist for the 2018 Dana Award. He was the recipient of the 2021 Jack Grapes Poetry Prize. His poems and prose have appeared recently in RattlePrairie SchoonerAmerican Literary ReviewTupelo Quarterly, and Los Angeles Review, and his poetry has been translated into Spanish, French, Hungarian, Korean, and Hebrew. He founded and is managing editor of Pedestal Magazine. His new collection, Dark Souvenirs, was released by New York Quarterly Books in May, 2024.

Ricardo Nirenberg is editor of Offcourse

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