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Illusion of an Overwhelm
by John Amen

Review by Erica Goss

Illusion of an Overwhelm by John Amen
(2017, NYQ Books)
$16, Paper

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.

Erica Goss served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, CA from 2013-2016. She is the author of Night Court, winner of the 2016 Lyrebird Award, Wild Place and Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets. She is co-founder of Media Poetry Studio, a poetry-and-film camp for teen girls: www.mediapoetrystudio.com. www.ericagoss.com.

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Review of Grayling, by Jenifer Browne Lawrence

Reviewed by Joannie Stangeland

Jenifer Browne Lawrence
(2014 Perugia Press)
$18 Paper

In Grayling, poet Jenifer Browne Lawrence invites the reader to enter a world between woman and fish, a realm below the surface where being is swimming, sometimes catching, sometimes being caught. These poems both plumb the depths and trail through the water like fingers dangled from a boat.

This play between surface and under the surface—what’s felt or intuited—is braided throughout the book, starting with the first poem, “Casting,” where “her shadow / swam into a fish / spooled from her reel” and later “her legs refused / to fuse into a tail / as planned.” On the surface, the poet is fishing with her father. Under the surface swim questions of identity and security: “Kneel at river’s edge / if the father you love / has been drinking / again.”

Lawrence skirts the narrative, inviting the reader to generate the connections, to make the story. In some poems, the title sets the context while the poem zooms in on the details. “On the Day of Her Father’s Funeral, Six Birds on the Line” goes on to describe a memory of fishing at age six, “nobody / wading to set her free.” “To Moclips with No Ash to Scatter” etches a shoreline where the one mention of death concerns the firs.

“Whose Hair Swings Like a Wind-Coarsened Mane (prelude),” which lopes across the page in three-line indented stanzas, speaks of a wrecked barge making
“a fine barn when the tide was low

shelter for a foal, beachgrass

bedding piled inside, seaweed pawed and popped”

then asks the reader “Who knew / the track would bruise with blood, / the swell of water draw horses out to sea.” Lawrence lets the images stay open, doors through which the reader can plumb his or her own past, and does not explain the track, the wound, or even the horses’ departure, the ocean’s lure.

Readers can look for clues in “Whose Hair Swings Like a Wind-Coarsened Mane (reprise),” but will find no obvious connection. The poem talks about watching, with a sister, a black-and-white movie of a village girl being suffocated by a “ring of white- / hatted women” who “look down at her, each of them / wearing the same unreadable face.” This poem is set in a narrow prose block, and although prose poems came out of the surrealist movement, this is one of the most narrative poems in the book. The unsettling comes from the title—its relationship to the earlier poem and its mysterious association with the rest of the poem.

Other poems speak of a father, his drinking and his death, of a mother, and of becoming a mother. The sister in “The Sister Next to Be Born” is possibly the same sister in “Year of the Dog,” which refers to “the shirt she’d been wearing when / the driver didn’t stop—.” The reader can create the history of this family or let the images stand or race on their own. Either choice fulfills.

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 18, Issue 2.

Joannie StangelandJoannie Stangeland’s most recent book is Into the Rumored Spring from Ravenna Press. She’s also the author of two chapbooks, and her poems have appeared in Superstition Review, Tulane Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and other journals and anthologies. Joannie helps edit The Smoking Poet and Cascadia Review.

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The Only Way Is Forward: A Review of The Cartographer’s Ink by Okla Elliott

Reviewed by Ruth Awad

Cartographer's Ink
The Cartographer’s Ink
Okla Elliott
(2014 NYQ Books)
$14.95 Paper

The Cartographer’s Ink (published by NYQ Books) is Okla Elliott’s first full-length poetry collection – the culmination of years of lived experience, seasoned craft, and reflection. There’s a reason the words “historic,” “philosophical,” and “geography” populate the praises of this book. How else do you describe poems that trace the intersection between what’s animal and human, insignificant and monumental, past and present?

You might expect chaos to come from this kind of ambition, but you’d be wrong. One of the things I admire most about The Cartographer’s Ink is the way Elliott carries and threads his thematic interests throughout his poems. The desire for connection, empathy, and self actualization are never far from the surface of these pages, no matter if he’s writing about the phrase “a hot minute” or Seoul, writing in blank verse about Stalingrad or letting his lyricism reflect on Sir Isaac Newton and “a beacon for other lonely bodies.”

For example, consider the prose poem, “Helpless.” He writes,

There’s nothing to say and I know there’s nothing to say and she knows there’s nothing to say. But I tell her how the Hangul alphabet was invented and that there used to be politicians who wrote poems to teach their people the joys of literature.

It’s not the first time history seeps into Elliott’s verse, but perhaps this is the most vivid example of how he uses collective human history to illuminate the deeply personal histories we carry with us (in this case, a friend’s miscarriage). There are things we understand implicitly about the poem: who hasn’t been a witness to another’s sorrow and felt the inadequacy of words as a vehicle for comfort? At the same time, isn’t language the salve we seek out in times of grief and confusion–isn’t it the way we make sense of the world as it spins on, oblivious to our suffering?

And maybe the most artful achievement of this collection is the argument for empathy, even in moments that threaten our comfort and our imagination. In “Blackened,” for example, Elliott writes about German soldiers marching on Stalingrad and allows the image of “feet froze blackly in our boots” to carry the weight of his philosophical statement: suffering is suffering is suffering. Our best hope of making sure that suffering doesn’t lead to more tragedy is to learn from it.

Those decisions – what we decide to take from our experiences and what we decide to leave behind – haunt the pages of this collection. Sometimes those decisions aren’t so much ours to make as ours to bear. In “Stars of Orion,” Elliott writes,

If we had not seen so many flashes of road
If we had not seen ourselves at night
If we had not seen our parents dying
If we had not loved and not loved
If we had not enjoyed small cruelties
If we had not been born

These hypothetical, trailed-off questions illuminate the heart of this collection: a search for understanding and an invitation to follow Elliott through the woods and across the seas with a map he has so carefully made.

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 18, Issue 2.

Ruth AwadRuth Awad has an MFA in poetry from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She won the 2013 and 2012 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize and the 2011 Copper Nickel
Poetry Contest, and she was a finalist for the 2013 Ruth Lily Fellowship. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and two Pomeranians.

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