A review of Strange Theater by John Amen

Reviewed by Elvis Alves

Strange Theater
by John Amen
NYQ Books
Paperback: 112 pages, February 3, 2015, ISBN-13: 978-1630450083

John Amen’s Strange Theater lives up to its name in that it is a strange book. Most of the poems are written to people we do not know. It appears that they are friends or acquaintances of the author but we are not sure about this. It also appears that he haphazardly throws words together to make sentences that do not make sense but somehow are able to tell a story. In this way, Amen reminds me of Federico Garcia Lorca.

The prowess of Amen’s wordplay is best seen in the title poem, Strange Theater, which comes at the middle of the book and covers nine pages. Each of its forty stanzas serves as a vignette. They focus on the interaction of a wife, husband, and a white-hair man in a room; sometimes the room is in a hotel or a private house, with the addition of a gun, knife, mirror, and other happenings like mockingbirds slamming into the window (60). While reading this scene, I was reminded of the movie Magnolia with frogs raining from the sky.

There is also a nice Shakespearean reference, specifically the Merchant of Venice, “you offer yr daily lb to yr husband…today sliced from yr right buttock, tomorrow drop a breast on the scale” (58). The shortened yr shows up too constantly throughout the book and can be a distraction at times. But to keep focus is to appreciate the schizophrenic dream-like delirium of Amen’s work, in particular as displayed in the title poem. At the end of it, we are told, “knife in yr right hand gun in yr left , you can’t cut you can’t shoot the voices.” It is at this point that you realize that you were taken for a wild ride and want to stay on board for more fun.

Fortunately, there are other poems that offer the same sense of intellectual adventurism and free play as the title poem. In Postcard, one gets the impression that a man drives home to see his aging parents until Amen lets us know, “…my father now bellowing from the upstairs bathroom, voice rising over a blast of flatulence followed by the roar-in-the-walls of the gulping toilet. “Hey, is that my goddam prodigal girl?’” (53). The gender/sexuality of the visiting child is not clear here. One gets the sense that Amen wants it that way. The father figure shows up in other poems, like in Inheritance (54), and some poems that populate the later part of the book. In Inheritance, a dead father leaves behind certain stipulations, such as that a surviving daughter “drops her vegetarian schtick” and that the surviving son be cured of his “incorrigible agnosticism,” before they inherit his war crime memorabilia (and other possessions).

I must admit that even though weird and off-putting at times, the poems that touch on the father figure are the strongest in this collection because they are still relatable (or at least seem plausible in the real world). I contrast them with another quirky piece, An Incident Worth Reporting, that I do not like. Amen reports the incident, “…an actual, bona fide Neanderthal—masturbating in the median” of a highway and who magically disappears when another driver is alerted (55). This piece is reminiscent of something from the mind of the comic Seth MacFarlane and not from that of a promising poet like Amen, who I imagine, wants to be taken seriously. Fortunately, there is less premature musing in the collection and more of that having to do with a talented poet putting good work into the world—yes, quirky at times, but good. For this, Strange Theater is worth the read.

About the reviewer: Elvis Alves is the author of the poetry collection Bitter Melon (Mahaicony Books, 2013). Find out more at www.poemsbyelvis.blogspot.com