Oct/Nov 2017 Reviews & Interviews

The sham I see in the world...

Illusion of an Overwhelm
John Amen.
NYQ Books. 2017. 96 pp.
ISBN 978-1-63045-048-9.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! "The purpose of desire / is to propagate desire / & its concomitant recoil." Illusion of an Overwhelm begins with the Anima. At first it seems like a bit of a commonplace with John Amen's usual sprinkling of striking one liners.

Some people say there's no such thing as rehearsal,
I say that's all there is.

While the Anima is inescapably Jungian, the book is not. While the Anima dealt with in any real way pretty much guarantees the reader is about to enter a world of Jungian archetypes, the Twitter contractions, emoticons, and ampersands here make it clear we're encountering those archetypes in the wild. The effort here will be to not maintain perspective by observing at a distance.

Amen can be expected to highlight the fact, throughout, that he does not stand outside much less above the fray:

I'd kill Jesus for a bullhorn

Can't be much more self-aware than that. Or is it his persona that does not? Is he self-created—his own character—perhaps even bereft of a self to be aware? Is he aware of his delusion of self-awareness?

The sham I see in the world
is the sham I see in myself...

Or is his subconscious operating him like a puppet on a string? It is the one question that will not be explored. While there will be opacity here—and plenty of it—it will be the opacity of transparency.

There is a lack-of-identity politics at work. In a tellingly Kafka-esque touch, the narrator in this volume has become "J". The characters are hopelessly trapped in a perfect freedom. Three strange men in suits have arrived at his rooms to inform him he is not accused of having committed a crime. He worries his co-workers will discover his secret.

On one level, Illusion of an Overwhelm reads like especially well written web poetry. The poet's growing excesses, from one volume to the next, are fully explicable as the conditioned habit of escalation in the mad rush to capture a public's impossibly divided attention. His weapon of choice is a common one: the feeling that the structures of our life are collapsing:

IRAs, 401 Ks, insurance, a world of
pyramids & smoke, prescriptions and proscriptions that might
win you admission to a grand gala that fizzled long ago.

The natural world is being dismantled, the source of balance and balm its myth provides converted into a perverse unreality:

Woods are for sale, perfect for a parking lot,
owners will throw in antique sculpture of the
mother strapped to a flowery rood...

The archetypes crumble. God is white. The father is white. The mother is one moment breast feeding the black "doll," the next is hung upon the cross, the next is an anime character giving "her lurid lap dance."

We might find some small amount of comfort in the fact that the question "Is this going too far?" can still seem obvious.

I'm the black son; doesn't matter if this is factual,
it's my life story, the metaphor that locks my throat.

On the one hand, a poet hasn't gone far enough if he or she hasn't gone too far. If this fact is the source of the black son imagery—with its conventional anti-archetypal father and heavily medicated Mother Mary—"The American Myths" section is exploitation at Milo Yiannopoulos levels. On the other hand, the definitions of "too far" and "exploitation" have crumbled along with all the other structures.

But we were warned from the beginning that we were entering a world of collapsing archetypes. If the reader can successfully remove the detonator wires in the proper order, the images can fruitfully be explored at a surprising number of levels. To discuss what those levels might be, however, is extremely unwise without having gone through bomb squad certification. That's way beyond a book reviewer cert.

The last two sections form something of a contrast. The narrator is unconcerned with his color or the color of anyone else. There are only briefly parents in the camera shot. The paraphernalia of age is nowhere to be seen. The miasmic evil of accommodation is a distant thing. The poems have all the positive energy and dissipation of art, drugs, sex, and periodic stops at rehabs and psych wards. All the positive energy of having forever.

The world of the black son is almost nowhere to be seen. He stops by the family home once just long enough for the reader to understand that the narrator of the last two sections is the same person as the narrator of the first two.

I hear the gangs hollering near the airport
as I circle the house where my mother,
wry Medea, forever mumbles to herself
in a room stale with doilies & potpourri,
one more Valium behind the curtain...

The distinction between truth and falsehood being obliterated, it does not matter whether the poet's (or, for that matter, the narrator's) flesh-and-blood mother ever took a single valium.

Does the poet of Illusion of an Overwhelm tenuously-masterfully observe from outside of his creation? From outside himself? Or is this the latest of an escalation of excesses? This was the ambivalent question I asked in my review of John Amen's previous volume Strange Theater. I find myself asking it again. Quite possibly the best of signs.


• Read Gilbert's interview with John Amen.

• Check out Gilbert's aforementioned review of Amen's Strange Theater.


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