Jul/Aug 2015 Reviews & Interviews

there's just no telling / how this one is going to end

strange theater
John Amen.
New York Quarterly Books. 2015. 112 pp.
ISBN 978-1-63045-008-3.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! Almost exactly half-way through strange theater, the reader comes upon the title poem. In it the strange theater is the stage where dreams play out. The base scene includes a number of props: knife, gun, bed, mirror, genitalia. The protagonist is a narrator describing a woman's dream to her much as a D&D dungeon master is called upon to do.

you observe an enemy in the mirror sly & naked above your bed

The dream itself is a recurring series of juxtapositions of herself and a number of male figures, one her husband and the others vaguely described and all of them existing also and only as props.

The single actor—the woman—receives certain stimuli from the dream world around her but displays almost nothing that might be called a "fully realized emotional response" to them. There is a sense, also, in which she is only a prop, but she is the prop who represents the dreamer. The reader being by extension the dreamer—the person the narrator is addressing—she represents us all.

Again, the dream involves recurring scenes, the props being repositioned into a newly arranged tableau in each in order to illustrate a brief, strange story line and attendant word play.

the white-haired man loads his gun
points the barrel to his groin & fires a dry dream

Props and story lines are chosen to associate the erotic and a sense of menace. It is useless to try to find meaning in it all. The poet seeks to create a dream world and dream worlds seem always and only tantalizingly close to having a meaning.

Being the title poem, it might seem that the volume as a whole can be read as variations on the dream motif. The opening lines of "self-portrait @ 1 pm," the first poem in the book, can seem to validate that reading:

some days it's threading stone
to find the straight line
that runs between waking
& whatever countries might come next

But strange theater only passes though the dream-stage in the one poem. The relationship of the title poem to the others that surround it expands the theme by surreal descriptions implying more or less surreal realities of our waking world. The poet's waking experience of the world, and the world's waking response or lack of response toward him, can be difficult to distinguish from dream in telling ways.

Mostly, the dream-like context is adopted in order to allow some unfettered mental and verbal fun. Zeno's paradox and Kokoschka's painting comfort the reader with a promise that the strangeness of the theater will be just demanding enough. Here "clocks become decorative." In strange theater there is no assuring consistency of time or space. This is not done in order to reach some higher plane, but rather to free the poet to attend to his ironies unhampered by the need for mundane consistency. They will be present when they are present and absent when absent and you will not always know when the effect is intentional. There can be no inconsistencies. Your poet is pleased to serve you the sleights of hand that keep you languishing before the page.

This is not by any means to say that all is cheap tricks. The obligatory rebellion against God, for example, is not quite what it might seem:

—this the bearded giant's legacy
before his 6 manic days of doing commenced
he paced the edge of the deep
running the void through his fingers

how he was going to withstand being alone
all this sudden & unceasing time

Does this posit the actual existence of the "bearded giant"? Readers of Allan Watts will recognize this desperately lonely creator-God. The implications are truly mind-bending, whether meant as concept or article of belief.

The poem "the terror," in which the giant makes his overt appearance, is unusually metaphysical. Amen's command of his surreal style allows it to be one of the better poems in an intriguing and challenging volume. Did loneliness create the world? Did love create the universe? What does this say about the sense that order continually hangs by the merest of threads? About the sense that genuine contact is so prohibitively difficult? That violence undoes so much? Is the terror with which the poet responds an overreaction, a part he is playing? And finally, is this just all strange theater? Are we just looking on as the actors (ourselves inasmuch as we possess selves) merely play scripted roles no matter how deeply they identify with them?

As he comes to the end of strange theater, John Amen warns against looking for "the real him" in its pages.

look as much as you like you won't find me

Intentionally or otherwise it is a telling couplet. Should this be part of his persona—his role—then the lack of self-awareness (inasmuch as a persona can constitute a self) implies that he is aware of how much we depend upon our scripts. Should he genuinely think such a thing, his lack of self-awareness must constitute a compelling theme of strange theater. Either he or the character he plays is unaware that the more he absconds himself the more he reveals himself.

The narrator in "empty chair" tells us

my possible futures they converging they arc without flourish they might as well be weather reports in terms of caption I'm rarely where I think I am

As good a poet as John Amen is, at his best, these lines describe not a constructed transaction between personae being acted in the strange theater, but a genuinely personal insight. Arguably, unscripted moments are sparingly scattered throughout the volume.

Because he will include himself very much among the dramatis personae of the strange theater, the narrator is as much himself as any of us can be ourselves (whatever precisely that might come to). This being a volume of poetry, rather than philosophy or psychology, any objective analysis of the relationship between persona vs. self would be gratuitous and Amen does not attempt one. Even finding himself occasionally outside of the play—by conscious choice or by circumstance—can be read as his being in character.

Nevertheless, there is evidence that a part of Amen may be able to step outside of the play. Certain realities intrude:

I mean you want folks to know how you feel but the bills are nagging the car needs to be fed

This certainly reads as if the poet steps outside of the play long enough to have unscripted insights. But don't we all have bills to pay? And don't they force us all to obey our scripts? It is this toggling back and forth of the reader's perspective that can make this book unusually worthy of a reader's time and it is a toggling that the poet himself clearly experiences either consciously or subconsciously (or, probably, both).

Of course, the prosaic point is that if you reveal your true feelings you may not be able to get work as a result. Few people hire an artist (the poem portrays its narrator as a player in a band, as is Amen) to upset or disappoint them. Surely it is an experience common to many in the strange play, artist or office worker. It is even a somewhat common character-motivation on the contemporary stage (plays within the play, as it were). Many have more than enough sophistication to get outside of the play-with-a-lower-case-p.

Does John Amen step out of the (upper-case-P) Play? Depending upon which position we're toggled to, the volume becomes two very different volumes. His use of: the ampersand for "and"; ordinal numbers for "one," "two," "three," etc.; lower-case letters in most instances that upper-case would traditionally be called for; and "yr" for "your" might argue not. The original reasons for such typographical effects play little or no part in these poems. Today they are generally affectations. On the other hand, without satisfying his readers' expectations, among which are such baubles, how would he continue to be able to feed the car? That he yearns, however vaguely, to let folks know how he feels, is more problematical. Characters within the strange play become real to us because we share their feelings. Still, there is the question as to what other word would be more appropriate than "feel." The word "think" would probably give the line an ominous tone.

One who stands outside of the (upper-case-P) Play, for as long as he or she can stand the enormous energy drain of living in the wild, does have feelings. Because feelings cost energy, and the drain of merely surviving is already enormous, however, such feelings are kept to the minimum possible. A plethora of feelings tend to be among the more perfect markers that one is in the presence of a character gloriously within the strange theater.

Choose, as the attentive reader must, to read strange theater from one perspective or the other, the poet himself ends the volume with a cast party:

after the final show
we attend the final party
encouraging ourselves to stay in role


a week later
we're back to our usual improvisations
the hungry gas tank
illnesses that stalk us
the math that keeps us up all night

The immediate play within the play is ended. The strange theater feels like reality itself again. But of course it is not "& there's just no telling / how this one is going to end."


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