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Strange Theater by John Amen

Source: John Amen
Paperback, 112 pgs.
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Strange Theater by John Amen includes surrealism and introspection, as well as poems dedicated to individuals that speak to a broader scope of readers.  It is a peek behind the theater curtain at the backstage machinations of life and the true identity of the theater’s players.  Examining the roles of those on the stage, in the background, the understudies, and the roles that we take in our own lives, Amen takes readers on a roller coaster journey.

From "folk singer" (pg. 91)

of course you're suffering
that goes without saying
alone in yr own private tundra
staggering through the snow

Many of us feel alone with our suffering, and theater, movies, stories, and poetry often help connect us, creating tangential connections between our own suffering to that of others. Some of these poems often draw out the egoism we have about our own lives and suffering, like in “biography,” “ferry approaching in the haze/the monuments he built/he built for himself/for this reason are destined to crumble//” (pg. 17) Many of these players are haunted, haunted by their pasts, their futures, their missteps, and their inability to meet the expectations of others.

from "diaspora" (pg. 30)

last time we talked
I saw deadbolts turning in yr eyes
from light years away you demanded

Amen keeps his readers on their toes as they move from line to line and poem to poem, exploring the uncertainty in all of our lives as it plays out on the biggest stage. Strange Theater by John Amen is wonderfully disconcerting even among the most common of places and people. Imagine looking back on a body of work and seeing only a darkness — a future that hasn’t been written yet — and feel that insecurity that breeds alongside the wondrous possibilities, and you’ll know what it is to walk out on Amen’s poetic stage.

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About the Poet:

John Amen is the author of three collections of poetry: Christening the Dancer (Uccelli Press 2003), More of Me Disappears (Cross-Cultural Communications 2005), and At the Threshold of Alchemy (Presa 2009), and has released two folk/folk rock CDs, All I’ll Never Need and Ridiculous Empire (Cool Midget 2004, 2008). His poetry has appeared in various journals and anthologies, including, most recently, Rattle, The New York Quarterly, The International Poetry Review, Gargoyle, and Blood to Remember. He is also an artist, working primarily with acrylics on canvas. Amen travels widely giving readings, doing musical performances, and conducting workshops. He founded and continues to edit the award-winning literary bimonthly, The Pedestal Magazine.

The New Arcana by John Amen and Daniel Y. Harris

The New Arcana by John Amen and Daniel Y. Harris is highly experimental and mixes poetry with photos and art, and much more.  It is broken down into five sections, preceded by a list of dramatic personas in a couple of instances, which in fact set the stage for what comes next.  While experimental in form, there are traditional elements as well, including references to Greek myths and the journey of Odysseus.  Through this experimentation, readers must pay closer attention to the words, phrases, fonts, and other elements in the collection to discern meaning or the story.  This is a thinking reader’s book, but it’s also a book of pure lunacy and fun as the personas take over and yell at one another in a banter that just generates smirks and laughs.

“‘You really need to figure out what’s next for you, Sadie.
Math, theology, whatever. Why don’t you put out a book?’ (Jughead)
‘Well, Jug, the truth is, you’re my first book.
I’ve been editing you since we met.’ (Sadie)” (page 17)

In many ways, looking at the verse on the page and the conversation often resemble the complex nature of compositions made by musicians.  When looked at in pieces, these compositions can befuddle casual viewers, but when put together and played in conjunction, the music soars and fills the soul.  In this piece, there seem to be elements of Jazz, a musicality that leaps off the page in a mixture of elements that like the collaboration of Amen and Harris works well.  However, the improvisation can be overwrought in some instances.

“The patio party:  I’m tired of these spoiled suburbanites.
I prefer back-river ingenues and trailer-park bullies
brimming with rage and remorse,
perhaps a seance staged at twilight,
blood on a pool deck,
blood on the geraniums and forsythia;
the runaway’s bones, buried beneath the mad-blossoming magnolia,
suddenly singing to my neighbors.
I prefer a final showdown with the cops,
the proverbial shootout in the cul de sac —
everything at stake, all the time.” (page 35)

Many of these vignettes are about seizing the moment, stopping the procrastinating, and relishing the exuberance and exhilaration. There are moments about the aftermath of love affairs and tales about strange personalities. Arcana is a well used word here for indeed some of these verses and tales are mysterious and hard to understand, but these lines and mixtures of text and art require additional discernment on the part of the reader. However, readers also must keep in mind that not all of these vignettes are true or to be taken seriously — there is a bit of dry wit and sarcasm here in these pages.  The New Arcana by John Amen and Daniel Y. Harris is unique, confusing, fun, and even mysterious; well worth reading for a challenge, but definitely something that will take more than one read through.

About the Authors:

John Amen is the author of three collections of poetry: Christening the Dancer (Uccelli Press 2003), More of Me Disappears (Cross-Cultural Communications 2005), and At the Threshold of Alchemy (Presa 2009), and has released two folk/folk rock CDs, All I’ll Never Need and Ridiculous Empire (Cool Midget 2004, 2008). His poetry has appeared in various journals and anthologies, including, most recently, Rattle, The New York Quarterly, The International Poetry Review, Gargoyle, and Blood to Remember. He is also an artist, working primarily with acrylics on canvas. Amen travels widely giving readings, doing musical performances, and conducting workshops. He founded and continues to edit the award-winning literary bimonthly, The Pedestal Magazine.

Photo by Charles Weinberg

Daniel Y. Harris holds a Master of Arts in Divinity from The University of Chicago, where he specialized in the history and hermeneutics of religion and wrote his dissertation on The Zohar. He is the author of Hyperlinks of Anxiety (Cervena Barva Press, 2013), The New Arcana (with John Amen, New York Quarterly Books, 2012), Paul Celan and the Messiah’s Broken Levered Tongue: An Exponential Dyad (with Adam Shechter, Cervena Barva Press, 2010; picked by The Jewish Forward as one of the 5 most important Jewish poetry books of 2010) and Unio Mystica (Cross-Cultural Communications, 2009). He is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee.

For another perspective, check out Shiny Book Review.

This is the 29th book for my 2012 Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.

173rd Virtual Poetry Circle

Welcome to the 173rd Virtual Poetry Circle!

Remember, this is just for fun and is not meant to be stressful.

Keep in mind what Molly Peacock’s books suggested. Look at a line, a stanza, sentences, and images; describe what you like or don’t like; and offer an opinion. If you missed my review of her book, check it out here.

Also, sign up for the 2012 Fearless Poetry Reading Challenge because its simple; you only need to read 1 book of poetry. Please visit the stops on the 2012 National Poetry Month Blog Tour.

Today, we have a poem from John Amen and Daniel Y. Harris’ The New Arcana. The collection “is a multigenre extravaganza featuring verse, fiction, mock journalism and academic writing, drama, and art. Both referencing and transcending various literary precedents, the book is a pronouncement for the 21st Century, an exploration of and commentary on the fast-paced and mercurial nature of life in the 2000s”:

From Section Four: I (page 85)

I have built a panic room in order to insulate myself
    from all random reminders
       of the inevitable indignities to come.
    I play hopscotch;
I count marbles in the darkness.
    Give me chalk and geometric proofs,
    barely legible crossword puzzles,
    medical reports printed in red:  I'll prove my loyalty,
my commitment to the American dream,
by skipping through perturbations with dismissive
    hilarity -- the very locus of a psychic compost
       filled with rotting onions.

What do you think?