Strange Theater

Strange Theater


by John Amen

NYQ Books, 2015


ISBN:  978-1-63045-008-3








Reviewed by Paul Sohar


John Amen has a surprise for his readers every time he comes out with a new volume, even if in retrospect the novelty was adumbrated by earlier work; the Dadaist experimentation of “New Arcana” now seems to be the natural outgrowth or sharpening of the surrealist images of “At the Threshold of Alchemy” which in turn was only a step beyond the exuberant metaphors of his first two books. But where can you go from the poetry of the absurd, created by Dadaist automatic (or semi-automatic) writing? What can you build on a poetic literary creation designed – by definition – to dilapidate intentionality, the very foundation of poetry?  Only more of the same, more fragmentation, more archaeological debris of a dying civilization, unfortunately. But, fortunately, that was not the course Amen chose to follow, and that’s where the surprise comes in; in his latest output he pulls back from the arid landscape of the absurd and veers back toward mainstream modern style. Not all the way back, only close enough to parallel his own earlier version of mainstream free verse without though getting back in the same rut but instead  building on his original inspiration, continuing in the same vein now in a more mature, more confident voice. Perhaps in a darker tone. For example, images of family background, the structural framework of his earlier creations, have now bent askew, the strands of family relationships have turned more binding than nourishing. Maybe this new viewpoint comes with age in his case, but the sour view of closer or more remote fabric of society is still very much in vogue with the emerging generation of poets, at least from this reader’s perspective.


If this new development in Amen’s oeuvre sounds too much like mainstream American poetry, not to worry; Amen has reached this more somber, more stand-offish position by a route of his own and it’s not an attitude, not a mask conferred by workshops and MFA programs. In his case it seems more like a feeling of loneliness that he has brought back with him from the deserts of formal experimentation. Another thing he does not share with the professional practitioners of mainstream poetry is the cutesy technique of telling little inconsequential stories – or overblown dramatic rant – in a form whose main feature is the totally unexpected and arbitrary line breaks. It may be the musician in him that keeps him from stooping to such silly tricks; his lines are usually complete statements; they are poetic cadences in the otherwise free verse without syllable count or rhymes.  We could turn to just about any page for an example:


others will continue the tradition

an accountant yanking the trigger

the killer’s daughter  braving cold green depths

resurfacing with a key

that fits some generic lock

in a funhouse across the desert

(From “hands off”, p. 36)


This is a randomly picked sample, because all his poems sound like poems without ever sounding old-fashioned or artificial. Music in poetry should never go out of style –except for those who are tone deaf or actively celebrate evisceration of poetry.  The latter approach may be a valid experiment but not for those who have moved beyond such dead end adventures.


So what is left of the old original John Amen in “strange theater”[sic]? I am happy to report that inventive metaphors still abound, even to the extent of rich surrealist imagery that somehow manage to keep in touch with everyday experience. What helps – besides the deft handling and fortuitous juxtapositions – is the dedication that comes with many of the titles. Strangely enough, seeing a name there – even only initials – somehow compels the reader to feel a human presence and/or some incident, some personal contact that the images are meant to convey. Nowhere is this effect more vivid than in the poem “the son we never had”, dedicated to Mary, most likely the same  one who had a set of beautiful love poems dedicated to her in an earlier volume of poetry. Those love poems earned unanimous raves from all the critics, which makes the melancholy of the new Mary poem all the more affecting:



he studies us as we sleep

sifting through our trophies & urns

clutching his banister of space


he wanders the dim corridors

glimpsing a bedroom that might’ve been his

streaking invisible prints on panes & ledges

(p. 28)


Such personal confessions are rare; Amen has a chameleon’s talent for entering other lives and assuming other people’s identities. Many of the dedicated poems are written in the first person singular indicating another form of experimentation: stepping into other lives. It’s almost as if the dedication had given him a shorthand way of establishing contact with various forms of reality and the freedom to concentrate on the images the subject inspired in his mind. On the other hand, living his own life seems to be one grand experiment, a synthesis of acutely observed and felt experiences.


in fact I’ve spent hours in many rooms

accessed through many other doors

negotiating with court jesters

swapping strategies with professional eavesdroppers

3 days a week brokering deals

with gatekeepers & midwives of commerce

(“that door”, p.95)


And why does he keep opening doors instead of just minding the business of being a poet?  The answer comes in another poem appropriately titled “untitled #4”:


the rush of possibility’s my drug of choice

like the gambler who if honest

isn’t compelled by the hope of winning

but by the adrenaline of not knowing

right before the cards are revealed

(p. 95)



And it’s impossible not to hear the cadences in these lines. They may have been there in his earlier work, but now they set the tone. One normally associates cadences with prophetic speech, with biblical language, but that’s not John Amen. He has no pretensions of being a prophet, no mission to lead anyone to a promised land. He just wants to get things straight in his own mind; that’s the feeling I get, that’s why he refuses to throw words on the page in the pattern of a riddle that has no solution, like many of his contemporaries do.  There must be something else at play here, but what? Yes, we feel in the gut that cadences carry the weight of verities. Could that be Amen’s ambition? No, definitely not. Let’s look at another example, the first stanza of “folk singer”:


of course you’re suffering

that goes without saying

alone in yr own private tundra

staggering through the snow

(p. 91)


These are not words of wisdom, there’s no prophecy implied, no commandment intoned. There is nothing more than plain facts enumerated, observed, in a dispassionate tone that still conveys sympathy, even empathy. Fellow feeling, they used to call it, now it would be called sharing. Whatever else we call it, to me it sounds like good poetry. To me it seems, in “strange theater” John Amen is hard at work to rescue poetry from the jaws of irrelevance by reclaiming its most basic ingredient: musicality. And playfulness; let us feel free to enjoy the pleasures offered by Amen’s picture gallery, his highly pictorial language, whatever he has to say.



About the Reviewer

Paul Sohar ended his higher education with a BA in philosophy and took a day job in a research lab while writing in every genre and publishing seven volumes of translations. His book, Homing Poems, is available from Iniquity Press.  Recent translation credits include a recent book of poems by the renowned Hungarian poet Sándor Kányádi as well as poems by US poets for Hungary’s elite literary publication Magyar Naplo. He gives poetry readings throughout the United States and Europe.