Review by Erica Goss
John Amen’s latest collection, Illusion of an Overwhelm, takes the reader on a disquieting ride via the psyches of multiple narrators, shape-shifting through intertwined lives observed close up. Amen exposes the forces that simmer under the surface of the banal, but unlike too many contemporary poets, he does not revere the quotidian. Instead, he understands it for what it is: the barest of veneers over the anguish of everyday life.
The book is organized into four sections. “Hallelujah Anima,” the first, contains eighteen poems that deal, each in its own way, with Anima, a female character holding power over the speaker. She is anima in the Jungian sense: the female side of a man, or anima, the part of the psyche that is directed inward. In either case, Anima controls the hapless speaker, taunting him, manipulating him, and then discarding him. In “5,” he describes the cost of this emotional upheaval: “My moods streak & swing, rotating / like stock images on a website.” Later, in the poem “11,” he writes:
The sham I see in the world
is the sham I see in myself…
Some say there’s no such thing as rehearsal,
I say that’s all there is.
Yet he knows he’s lucky to have survived this journey. In “Grace,” Amen writes “My years / have been punctuated by small salvations / I can never explain.”
“The American Myths,” the book’s second section, is a piercing look at race relations, power, and guilt, both collective and individual. A character named “J” “slurps diet soda,” “haggles over refills,” and “dry swallows three Ambien.” The poems that make up this section contain three stanzas with six lines each, which barely contain their fury as they lurch through the rage, moral contamination and shame of America: “A black son…/ needs a white father like a dinosaur needs a meteorite” (“18”).
In “My Gallery Days,” Amen invents a persona whose loopy, engaging voice takes us on a roller coaster ride through the world of an artist: drugs, grants, jobs, lovers and friends, who are as often as not betrayers. The ironically self-destructive tendencies of the creative class, those who toil in “spattered rooms,” are expressed with uncanny accuracy: “You pawned our sketches to Mr. Pharm, who attended / the opening, a final Rx hoopla to hang my gloat on” (“4”).
The poems in “Portrait of Us” are more tender than those in the previous sections, but no less intense. As Louise Glück wrote in her essay about Hugh Seidman, “love in these poems is longing and pursuit of the past.” In “5,” Amen writes, “I cry for the lovers we were,” even though he’s accepted that “it’s possible / to love things / just as they are, / a woman / just as she is.”
Illusion of an Overwhelm explores what lies below the surface of ordinary life, its risks, joys, and disappointments, with language that is fresh, daring, and complex.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 19, Issue 3.
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