The Moment We Finds Ourselves In: A Review of John Amen’s Illusion of an Overwhelm
John Amen—Illusion of an Overwhelm
NYQ Books, 2017
Page Length: 89
John Amen’s Illusion of an Overwhelm continues the experimentation in language that was evident in his last few collections of poems, especially The New Arcana (NYQ Books), co-authored with Daniel Y. Harris, and strange theater (NYQ Books). Amen’s latest is a collage of voices and personas, a mix of the physical world and metaphysical one, and an examination of where we are in this present moment, specifically in the way that it addresses hyper-consumerism and carefully incorporates everyday speech into the stanzas, including text speak.
At times, it can be difficult to keep track of all the voices within the collection. The first section, “Hallelujah Anima,” contains a number of forms, including prose poems and narratives that veer into surrealism. It also includes several references to American consumerism, such as images of the American suburbs, strip malls, and gas stations. The second stanza in the 9th poem reads, “I bargain with a salesman/saying I won’t be a servant,/the salesman riffing who do you think you serve?/I have to admit I serve myself./Someone pumps a car horn, I turn my head,/I’m shouting your name into a cellphone,/condos & gas stations as far as I can see.” In the 16th poem, the speaker admits, “I’m not Odysseus or Iago, rather/a prime number running his errands, shuffling/through the strip mall, through bloom & wither,/ which is to say my souvenirs remind me/I don’t actually exist.” In past collections, Amen has mixed references to literature or art with the everyday or pop culture, and he does it especially well in “Hallelujah Anima,” drawing attention to our hyper-consumer culture and notions of identify lost in the American ‘burbs.
The second section, “The American Myths,” is just as layered as the first and introduces a new cast of characters to address the undercurrent of racial issues and greed that permeate the American political system. The 7th poem in particular left me wondering if it was written in response to President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, more specifically the way that Obama’s image became a staple of pop culture, a black face plastered on Shepard Fairey posters, with the word HOPE in large letters. There is reference to a “shrine erected in 2008 in honor of the lost boy” in the first stanza, and the poem concludes:
Now’s his chance to sway public opinion, white
God as his personal Super PAC. The black son
thumbs-up for the camera, toothy on the billboard.
The black son roaring on Super Bowl Sunday.
This is how he storms the world; that’s payback,
baby, manifest destiny, that’s o bless America.
The third section, “My Gallery Days,” contains voices of hipster artist characters and isn’t afraid to address how capitalism and favoritism have infected that world, too, namely who obtains grants, who doesn’t, and who lands showings at big-name galleries. The final section, “Portrait of Us,” contains long, meditative poems that combine the physical and metaphysical worlds. Again, images of everyday domestic space populate some of these final poems. The second stanza of the fourth poem reads:
A moment ago,
you were tending a potted amaryllis,
we were discussing a menu for Friday,
whether fish or chicken, beans or broccoli.
I yearn for the details once disdained,
a sugar pack under the leg of the dining-room table,
the Persian rug we moved an inch to the right,
lightbulbs that needed changing.
Heartbreak’s the beauty
we’re handed is already seizing:
I’m in love with what I call you,
but these illusions, so hypnotic,
have no place in the clouds.
Like several other poems in the book, that stanza illustrates how Amen’s work is able to root itself in common images, in this case, the American ‘burbs, and then suddenly push to something deeper, in this case, notions of love and identity, before the poem concludes with the lines, “All I remember is how it destroyed me/to think no trace of our love could endure.”
As I read and re-read Illusion of an Overwhelm, I continually thought about this moment in American history, a moment that has given rise to a president who reduces his thoughts to 140 characters, a moment when a former president can make $400,000 for giving a speech to Wall Street execs while his party claims to be connected to the working-class, a moment so dominated by pop culture that it has produced a celebrity president. The book again proves that Amen’s ear is attuned to American language, including text speak, similar to the way that Whitman, Ginsberg, and Williams were able to capture the American idiom in their body of work. If they were writing today, they would probably be using hashtags and emojis.