Oct/Nov 2003 Book Reviews

Murdering Myself for a Living (A Review of Christening the Dancer)

John Amen
Ucelli Press (2003) 72 pages

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

John Amen's Christening the Dancer begins with "Ghosts of Spring" in which

Each year the kudzu rampages,
wielding its spear of breath...

The lines are among the few restrained lines in the book. The poem is good but not exceptional. Three poems that are not as good follow, and then the reader comes upon the poem "Tradition":

The father suckles his belching gun;
by day, chasing ghosts through peach orchards;
by night, a dim room
where drunkenness settles like soot.

With this poem the book is off at a gallop, and the rider never looks back.

Although advertised as addressing "themes of abuse and dysfunction," the reader will be grateful to discover that this is not another confessional tour de wound. The style is a mix of writing-program and surreal, with the emphasis resoundingly upon the surreal. While the themes are present, they do not commandeer the poems. The imagery which carries them is fresh and energetic. There are considerable signs of life.

Not that the terms "writing-program" and "surreal" are exact or necessarily connote stylistic positives. The mainstream, writing-program aspect of the poems works because it is a stabile launching-pad for the surrealist fireworks. It speaks highly of Amen that he has this kind of command.

For all the appreciation we may feel toward the Andre Breton surrealists and their collective rebirth in 1925 as an anti-artistic movement against the French colonial war in Morocco, it also speaks well that theirs is not the brand of surrealism practiced by Amen. Based as it was on automatic writing and other "automaticisms," Breton surrealism was fated to an erratic half-success at best. In terms of poetry, that surrealism has not weathered well.

Instead, the poet of Christening the Dancer properly goes back to Apollinaire (who coined the term "surrealism"). He is also familiar (but perhaps not familiar enough) with the Madrid Arts Club branch of the movement. The Club was—largely through the agency of Ramón Gómez de la Serna—the seedbed for what would, in the years to come, flower into the surrealism of Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel and Federico Garcia Lorca. That branch would eschew automaticisms as their raw material and choose childhood fantasies, dreams and delirium.

Having spent their most formative years away from the international centers of art, Dali and Lorca had the luxury of a first growth outside of the whirlwind and the spotlight. Madrid had just enough of a cosmopolitan atmosphere to take itself seriously. They were only able to make their way there often enough that they were aware of the contemporary movements but were forced to develop their own styles. Actually, that they developed styles, in the traditional sense of the word, made them questionable surrealists at the time and the finest painter and poet respectively of the movement.

What is best in this book is informed by Apollinaire. "But when I came to the city," the poet writes,

a restless soldier in need of war,
I began murdering myself for a living.

Or perhaps what is best are those moments when Apollinaire steps up to the microphone, the lead singer of a Punk band:

It becomes a habit, to never let a
thing die—devouring caffeine pills,
making love while playing chess on a cell phone,
terrified to yield to that persistent Satan, sleep.
No one can be still long enough to crawl into a cocoon,
why else are there so few butterflies in our midst?

There is true insight in these poems. The language they are packaged in—influenced though it may (and should) be—is, in the final analysis, the poet's own.

All of this said, there is a failing, here, which is common to most first books of poetry. There is little modulation. The images are strident throughout. They require careful reading not because they are fine (and they often are) but because they come one on top of the other from first page to last. Even surreal poetry needs pacing, transition and a range of tone. The reader who does not constantly rein in will miss much of what this book has to offer.

What is most promising in Christening, in fact, seems to be aware of Lorca. Lines like,

Gored by the horn of the bull,
I bled on wet moss,
offered my breath to the stones...

are Lorca-esque through and through. They may be a little too derivative as yet, in this one isolated example; but they suggest modulation and intermediate tones.

Whatever Breton's poetry may have lacked, he had a knack for manifestoes and serendipity. In a lecture he delivered in Brussels, Belgium, in 1934, we find the following:

Were one to consider their output only superficially, a goodly number of poets might well have passed for surrealists, beginning with Dante and Shakespeare at his best. In the course of many attempts I have made toward analysis of what, under false pretenses, is called genius, I have found nothing that could in the end be attributed to any other process than [surrealism].

While he did not mean to say as much, Dante and Shakespeare were the surrealists of their own day. Their better work was better because it included metaphors beyond the boundaries of the consciousness of their times: it expanded what being human could be about. Moreover, many of those metaphors remain surreal to this day.

Dali and Lorca realized this fact, while Breton only coöpted it in order to give his surrealism a patina. Lorca would have cited Góngora (1561-1627)—the, at times, shockingly modern Spanish poet—as another historical surrealist, and he would have been equally right. Although Lorca's poetry contained no overt Gongorisms, part of its richness came from the license he possessed to appreciate and quietly to incorporate the old master into his work.

This is something, again, which the reader will not yet find enough of in the poetry of John Amen. Many will consider that lack to be an advantage. But, after a first book, a poet generally wants to publish another. Soon, more than energy and image are needed—no matter how exceptional.

Be that as it may, it is enough (and more) for this book. Christening is a remarkable first effort and a book worth reading all ordinal considerations aside.


John Amen, a man of many talents, is also the editor of a particularly fine Internet poetry journal, The Pedestal Magazine.


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