Reading John Amen’s At the Threshold of Alchemy reminded me of what makes art memorable to me: revisiting a piece and finding another layer of richness, incongruities that are honest and far surpass the smooth blandness of an over-polished piece, and a willingness to take risks into emotional territory where there aren’t winners and losers, just life. As in previous collections by Amen, Christening the Dancer and More of Me Disappears, At the Threshold of Alchemy he investigates the past and searingly cuts through the layers of family, love, betrayal, delusion, and guilt. At the Threshold of Alchemy is full of references to mythology, Eastern philosophy and religion, the commonplace and familiar (hospital bedsides, family meals, and love with all of its complexities). What is most delightful is how Amen creates poems where juxtapositions and contradictions linger rather than consolidate emotions in a smooth rendering of experience. This sense is nowhere more evident than in his poem, “Dark Zen:”
The sky is a pile of blue thread at my feet.
I am worried that I will not
grab something important before I evaporate.
By the time we finish the poem, the narrator has discounted commonplace spirituality: “Prayers flutter to the ground/ like propaganda dropped from warplanes.” Instead, the narrator requests what his “Dark Zen” leads him to: “For Christmas, give me fame and a sledgehammer.”
Amen declares that his work is ambitious (needing “fame and a sledgehammer”) from the beginning of the collection. In the opening poem, he declares his scope: “It is audacious,/ but every day, without fail, I must lick the divine.” (“Purpose”). And in so many ways, Amen gives himself over to moments crowded with family, memories, and realizations, making these concerns as “divine” as they are ordinary. In the poem “Between,” for example, Amen mixes his sometimes overly gracious palette with a more sparse and surreal poetic line:
I don’t know what is happening, but if feels like big music.
Shame is the chair the monkey sits in.
Sometimes I forget that I’m blind.
I walk around, worshipping eggs and static.
Look, a purple balloon tangled in a crape myrtle.
Not everything God tells me is worth repeating.
As a whole, many of the poems have a raw, unpolished nature to them (to their benefit). “Between” stuck me as quite authentic in how the medium receives the message (poem, love, image) and has to make some kind of sense of it. This isn’t the only poem with art as its central trope or dominating metaphor. In the sequence “History,” not only do we have the narrator returning to several scenes of the crime, so to speak, but we also have quasi-theatrical characters in each of the poems in this series: the detective, the composer, the farmer, the minotaur, the jester, and the renderer. Occupations and identities linger behind these short poems which sift through history: family photographs, a grandfather’s wingtips, windows, and chandeliers. And don’t we occupy a position when we encounter history? The narrator of this series does, working through a present tense investigation of those occupations anyone investigating their past must inhabit, because, as Amen suggests, history is presently tense as much as it is past event.
Amen also investigates women: their roles, as objects, as subjects. “the women at the breakfast table” recounts the roles women inhabit as sisters and daughters, but emerges like a still life painting. A similar prose poem, “the woman in the shower,” continues the idea of women as both real and imagined subjects. But in this poem, the woman as iconic image gives way to the uses of women in history and religion. I enjoyed how Amen indulges in divergent renderings of women and their effects on the lives of sons and lovers, artists and brothers. In many of these shorter poems, he avoids the “I/Thou love poem” that can grow tiring and worthy of only a single read.
By and large, the two longer sequences, “Portraits of Mary” and “Missives,” spool out and won’t reward a reader looking for consistent narrative thread or conclusions that encapsulate experience. This is one of Amen’s talents: he doesn’t bend a poem to obvious beauties and easy, sentimental conclusions. His ability to accumulate imagery and narrative drive while flailing in the “meticulous yoking of polarities, precise conductions, balanced symbioses. . . ” is refreshing. (“Portraits of Mary xvii”). The journey “Portraits of Mary” takes the reader on includes some wonderful images that hold the sequence together (in the divergent way that appreciation, wonder, and despair hold relationships together). In one instance of “Portraits of Mary” the narrator shrugs off the failed connection lovers may have in a short observation: “Some days you just write off” (“Portraits of Mary v”). In another instance, the connection between the couple of the sequence is expressed more lyrically:
… Lightning on the horizon.
Yellow irises. The amaryllis with its cartoon-blooms. Look,
Mary, our blessings, they hang in the air like dragonflies” (“Portraits of Mary vi”).
In this case emotion is evoked through landscape and the natural world, a connection we see throughout this particular sequence. But this isn’t just a sequence with “white roses,” “bougainvillea,” and “cherry blossoms;” Amen isn’t merely flower dropping. While the setting for the sequence is a home where two lovers live, the range of emotions is far from fixed and florid. Mary on a pedestal, Mary as mythological “”kali towering in heels,” Mary as a “lotus floating in your own third eye:” these configurations of the beloved are touching and raw, real and, thankfully, unpolished. (“Portraits of Mary”).
Amen’s “Missive” series captures the mind and the surreal conversations one might have with themselves. In “Missive #11,” Amen loads the poem with declaratives: “Please don’t/ dangle your limericks from a wet balustrade…. Register/ yourself prior to secession. . . . Keep all points pertinent.” Much of this sequence invokes the working of the mind and its need to make sense of things. What’s admirable about the book and this series is Amen’s acknowledgment that “The brain is a messenger with blood on his hands”(Missive #18). In parts of many of the poems in this collection, there is a price for the images memory retains, and Amen is unsparing in with the messages his brain has reproduced.
The end of the collection ( “birthday,” “Enough is Enough,” “Salient Matters,” “lineage,” and “Dharma”) are some of the poems I found myself returning to again and again. There are lines that summarize the tone and themes of the entire collection: “shadow is envious of bone. fever rises in the mercurial gloom. is what I salvaged worth touting?” (from “birthday”) and “Yesterday/ I released the handle of momentum,/ watched things dissipate, dissolve,/ other things being born in vortices.” (from “Dharma”). The self-questioning that Amen does is largely a continuation of themes from his earlier collections Christening the Dancer and More of Me Disappears. But this is why reading this collection is such a delight: poems that bristle with energy that rarely falls flat, juxtaposed abstract surrealism with everyday life, and an intense and honest portrait of couples sorting out need, imagination, and desire. The intricacies of thought, the vulnerability of language to the imperfect machinations of the brain, and the steadfastly real pains and pleasures of family, love, and friends: these are qualities that will send you back to many of the poems contained in At the Threshold of Alchemy.
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