Beyond the Scorpions’ Violins: John Amen’s “Strange Theater”


strange theater, by John Amen. New York, New York: NYQ Books, February 2015. 108 pages. $14.95, paper.

In strange theater, John Amen has written a remarkable, if emotionally difficult book of poetry that plumbs the dark nature and forces of humanity, set against our intellectual striving for human dignity and meaning in a technological age. Cloaked in the style and language of Albee and the theater of the absurd, from which this is an outgrowth, it is a further step than the writers of that time made into the stark, unfinished spaces where the gods of our past still wait for Godot not just along the roads or among the tired furniture of empty rooms, but among the hyperlinks and anxiety of a multicultural multitasked society that is blind to the engines and individuals that drive it.

Amen sets the perimeters of the theater early, placing a contemporary working-day man in the realm of Homer’s epics on the one hand and Judeo-Christian mythology on the other—”the ark primed and ready for sailing / towards an open sea you glance back / stone idols perched on distant cliffs / white shirts hanging in the evergreens”—placing a stage setting for the epic journey he proposes into the dark nature of mankind that we must go through to discover what if anything of beauty and dignity might be left worth making note of in our time on earth.

The journey across that stage is difficult and often horrifying. To begin, “you let the miniature scorpions / crawl across yr palm on Saturdays they waltz / dragging along their violins”—violins alike in effect to the lyres of sirens that destroyed so many of Odysseus’ men, whose music distracts and draws one in even as it seeks to tear one’s flesh apart. And the tearing of flesh and of morality, along with sexual depravity and the murder of women and men in a ghost-like ghastly mirrored setting—where the poet sees himself—is intense and deeply disturbing. But to find meaning, and to find beauty, the poet must explore the most horrifying visions and experience … and so he pushes on, and eventually through, without taking his eyes from the carnage of a life without structure in the world of the absurd. In this, John Amen is very like Homer and very like Dante, who each in their own cultures drove almost beyond sanity to try to find a place of home and rest that they and others who were willing to take the journey with them might call “truth” or “home.”

But Amen is taking this journey with only the ghosts of Homer and Dante to guide him, and he is taking it in a contemporary world of klieg lights and hyperlinks and cell phones and videos—where human contact is hard to find and is separate from human understanding—where it is almost impossibly difficult to touch the humanity lying behind the commercial signals of data interchange. And so, “the scream of history’s heard via two shotguns kept clean / supposedly for recreational purposes.” The poet shifts from one set of mythological images to another, and from traditional poetic forms to prose forms—one set of references to another—while the intensity of disquiet grows. And the only way to get through is to go on forward through whatever comes.

What comes is an eventual emotional understanding that there need be no understanding. What is needed is a belief in what is. There is a lot of horror, yes, but the vibrancy of existence itself lies beyond that if one agrees with Amen that, as the title of one of his last poems states, “the real problem is doubt.” Let there be no doubt then, this is a mighty book and a mighty undertaking. There may be no Dantean Paradiso at the end of it, but there is a “purgatory”—a poem giving cleansing for initiates of understanding and for redemption and rebirth. The titles of the closing section of poems lay out the message well, though still spoken in the theater of the absurd: “a modern romance,” “on reincarnation,” “self-portrait @ noon,” and “guilt by necessity.” And in the final poem, “epilogue,” John Amen writes “we built a theater devoid of doors … renting an unfinished room near the steeple … look as much as you like / you won’t find me.”

This is a journey worth taking if one hopes to find oneself in the shadows.

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Jared Smith is the author of eleven volumes of poetry, multimedia productions in New York and Chicago, two CDs, and numerous publications in the applied sciences. His poems, essays, and literary commentary have appeared in hundreds of publications in the U.S., Europe, and China. He holds a master’s degree in poetry from New York University and studied under The Great Books Program at St. John’s College. He has taught at New York University and La Guardia Community College (CCNY), and worked as a Director of Education and Research at GTI, as an Adviser to several White House Commissions under President Clinton, and as Special Appointee to Argonne National Laboratory. He lives in the foothills of The Rockies.