Sunday, November 8, 2009

Review of John Amen's "At the Threshold of Alchemy"

Review (First Published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)
At the Threshold of Alchemy
by John Amen
Presa Press (2009) 84 pages, $13.95
ISBN 9870980008159, Poetry

Had John Amen sought my advice before publishing At the Threshold of Alchemy, his third collection of poetry, I would have suggested some reorganizing. In my opinion, the book begins slowly, and that is a big risk to take in a time of short attention spans and instant gratification. Poems like “Purpose” with its flat statement, “I am in love with what pulses / beneath blush and bone” and its rather unsavory conclusion, “every day, without fail, I must lick the divine,” seem too plain, predictable, and off-setting to earn the self-aggrandizement they contain (sorry, John, just being a critic). Fortunately, however, I didn’t stop reading when the first half dozen poems failed to engage my attention, and hopefully, others will also read beyond the first few poems. Those who do not will miss some damn good poetry.

The heart of this book is the middle, where Amen seems to become less self-conscious, somehow less aware of his own presence, letting the “characters” speak for themselves, and creating a tour de force of poetic imagination and archetypal imagery clothed in personal symbolism. The voices in this strongest section of the book range from a disconsolate angel to an ingenuous generic speaker who is less poet than person.

My favorite short poem from the book, and one of my favorite poems so far from 2009, is “Birth of Evil,” a poem of religious questioning which suggests that the Fall might be the fault of God (“Who can fault Lucifer for what’s ensued? Rejection / is hatred’s fodder. Banishment breeds pathology”) and in which the relationship between god and this speaker-angel sounds disturbingly like that between many grown-up sons and their fathers today: “I hardly see Him / anymore. I can’t remember the last time we spoke.” Other noteworthy short poems consist of intimate examinations, perhaps even personalizations, of archetypal figures, such as the untouchable temptress in “the woman in the shower” and the support group in “the women at the breakfast table.”

In many ways, however, the best poem in the book is the longest. “Portraits of Mary” is a series of twenty 13-line cantos that show the speaker’s perception of his lover at various times, from various perspectives, and in the process shows their relationship in this same multi-dimensional manner. The cantos are as quirky and individualistic as any honest portrait would have to be, and it is in these “snapshots” that Amen’s archetypal imagery and surrealistic perceptions blend into a creation that is more accurate, more true, more meaningful, and more memorable than any photo album could ever hope to be. Perhaps canto xvii explains why Amen most successfully finds his poetic stride in the subject matter of this poem as the speaker says, “You’re teaching me, Mary, to fall in love with particulars,” from which point he concludes:

God’s gallery may well be all about us,
but his studio remains hidden: master laboring in bottomless
subspace, drafting, detailing the infinitesimal--life itself

his life’s work, magnum opus he can’t bring himself to finish.

1 comment:

  1. Scott - I think you make an interesting point here. I rarely put down a book I have started but I have read quite a few poetry books lately that are extremely slow to start and I wonder if some of these poets are, in fact, bucking the convention that you must start and end with your strongest poems?

    I've heard John read some of the Mary poems and I look forward to giving the print version a read through :)