Book Review by Martin Abramson
At the Threshold of Alchemy
by John Amen
$13.95, 85 pp, Paper
Writing perilously At The Threshold of Alchemy, John Amen occasionally crosses over that crucial threshold to places where this reviewer fears to follow. Thankfully, most of the works in this collection remain this side of the mystically obscure and are well worth considering.
The collection offers many short pieces and several lengthy ones. Mr. Amen who typically composes in 12-syllable lines (sometimes expanded into prose-like periods of fifteen to twenty syllables) employs a quasi-conversational tone that partially conceals a deeply underlying poetic core.
Love is the theme of many of these pieces, a frequent subject being the author’s wife, Mary. These poems display great depth, often concealed by a deceptive clarity.
Simply your profile
as you sit in the eggplant dusk
on the edge of the bed.
That I could somehow touch
your future lives with my love.
You were driving, and I was mesmerized
by October, the wonder glow, your secrets
sitting between us like a chaperone.
…You really were a Texas girl, Ellen.
I’m glad I kept this snapshot, you on that terrace
in a purple dress and Stetson, watering a bougainvillea.
The tribute called, “Portraits of Mary” is the longest piece in the book at twenty 13-line stanzas. And Mary resides at the epicenter of the author’s identification with alchemy. Ecdysiast, goddess, white witch, lioness, maiden, crone, Kali, Persephone. She is “tapped by the divine”. “Masks/ crumpled at her feet”; “colored stones and purple orchids” fill her hallsit’s easy to see why the poet adores her freedom and artistry. But his terrifying memories of a smothering “mother despising me” create a second, sadistically fantasized Mary who inspires “protracted/ scenarios of bondage”; visions of “mammoth breasts” and “labia lined with incisors”. He then becomes a “ravenous swine/ groveling at Circe’s feet”, a viper who has “slithered through lifetimes to find you”. He perversely wails, “The comfort you create/ wrangles me; I am, I suppose, in love with barbs/ and brambles”.
Mary’s human side is also evident. She is seen “rummaging/ in the…sofa for loose change…her sugar levels plunging’. She rides “a riptide of tears…arrow lodged in her spine”. Yet the poet maintains, “We’re collecting ripe moments,/ rushing towards death”. And he concludes, “Mary, our blessings, they hang in the air like dragonflies”.
While Mary, “tired of being responsible, wants/ to skip through the desert in cowboy boots, topless”, he’s running errands and doing the laundry. At the mall, she buys shoes and chocolate, and on the way back, stops to rescue a dead hawk. As he struggles with dozens of household necessities, she insists they “feng shui every room, eliminating all traces/ of entropy and disrepair”. But he “can’t/ bloom in a place where nothing is broken”. “Envy wanders the suburbs” as Mary peacefully sleeps and her lover dreams of: “The bloody knife in the hamper. The pistol/ rattling in the drawer”. He wonders, “For how many lifetimes have I played the saboteur?” Yet there is no resisting
…Mary naked in the doorway. Mary folding
sweaters in the kitchen. Mary meditating. Mary modeling
a green belt. Each image…a mandala
at the turnstile of oblivion.
Stanza viii is a powerful depiction of the contrast between a Jew (Amen) and a Christian (Mary); the former ranting about the Holocaust, the latter tending the garden. While she “basks in her/ emerald sea of Anglican protocol…buoyant with logic and Greco-Roman efficiency”; for him, “Smoke belches from the drains./ Ghosts everywhere, their tattoos still blazing”. And later: “She tosses me a Coptic cross wrapped in a snakeskin”.
Her example teaches him “to fall in love with particulars”, to appreciate “a meticulous yoking of polarities…balanced symbiosesatoms, protons, neutrons/ quarks, antiquarks”. And when she leaves, “a heaviness/ pervades the house” as the poet darkly ponders the “divine energy passing/ through doomed animal forms.” He concludes: “Please Mary, wrap up your explorations./ Come home soon…”
Several of these poems speak of friends, alive and dead. In “Triptych”, Levine pours out his paranoid terrors en route to the Mental Health Center. Elsewhere, the author is seen drinking all night with friends of the comatose “Martin” whose self-destructive habits led him to a fatal collision. “Jim” cannot conquer his addiction to booze “…a force field/ palming his brain, his soul in the grip of a current stronger/ than love or logic”. Jim, who, after ignoring endless efforts to help him, stopped returning the author’s calls. When he sees Jim’s ‘jowly’ mug staring up from the obits page, the exasperated author simply grunts: “Fuck you, Jim”. In “Icons” he remembers Scott whose repressed rage suddenly emerges when he beats a mugger bloody. “
Some of the most affecting poems tell of the author’s mother; her life and death. In “Burying the Story”, we’re told how, in the year he and his wife ministered to her cancer, the stress “gutted” his libido and resulted in the wreck of the marriage. In “What I Haul Along”, alluding to his mother, he mentions that he will “…retrieve my testicles from lockboxes and/ cadenzas of despair”. “Salient Matters” begins with his mother’s funeral and the terrors that reverberate through the author’s young life and finally result in his addiction. In “Enough is Enough”, the author realizes that his mother “…was simply a child sent to a boarding school too early”. After her parties, fights between his mother and his furiously jealous father would have the youthful author “…running a mad gauntlet between house and lawn,/ engineering truces between mad giants”. Haunted by their strife all his life, the liberated author finally avers, “Valerie, Bill, I no longer need to keep your graves unmarked”.
An attempt at surrealism called “History” begins, “The detective whispers to the nun,/seven girl scouts held hostage in a library.”
“All Night (or Kyros: The Eternal Moment)” takes first place for name-dropping. Practically every famous or notable person you ever heard of is described doing absurd and outlandish things during the course of a Walpurgisnacht that hop scotches all through history and across the globe.
“Rampage” seems to be a derivative of “The Waste Land” complete with quotes in German, French, Russian, Greek, Italian, Chinese; and, of course, endnotes.
“Gnostic” succeeds as surrealism thanks to more carefully controlled language and strong details:
…you collected rusted
padlocks and frayed wallets. your rooms were filled with blank journals and
unused paints. you wrote songs on your father’s guitar.
So much of this material is shot through with biographical agony that we are tempted to quote Mr. Amen’s “Enough is Enough”. Still, there are things to admire in “Culmination”, “”Birthday” and the seven “Missives”.
There is fine poetry and lots of it in this volume. Even the blemishes are vivid and engaging. Yet this reviewer regrets that the poems mentioned in the last few paragraphs were not replaced by work up to the distinguished level of the rest. Mr. Amen wields an arresting style and imaginative brilliance; I look forward to reading his next poetic oeuvre.