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Christening the Dancer
Poems by John Amen
Uccelli Press
$11.95, 71 pages

Reviewed by: Steve Mueske
Book rating: 7.5 out of 10 stars

View John Amen's poems in three candles' archive


John Amen has, in relatively few years, created quite a stir in the online poetry scene. He established a strong Internet presence with his acclaimed literary ezine, The Pedestal Magazine, which, in three short years, now boasts over 11,000 visitors per month. Not bad for a literary journal, eh?

But the real story here is that he publishes exclusively online. Every one of the poems in this harrowing collection were first published online, some of them right here in three candles. Don't for a moment think that because of this he has taken the easy road. We all know there is a mountain of terrible poetry online. Amen's work is challenging, thought-provoking and, yes, quite often disturbing. His images are violent, unusual — and his various speakers vacillate between noticing the world in all its strangeness and beauty, and memories of abuse, alcoholism, and mental breakdowns.

Many of his personas are intimately involved with the business of defining a sense of self, illustrated in this passage from "Reclamation".
I held fire and ice in one hand
and witnessed neither sleeping;
walked to the swollen river,
after the rain ended,
and painted myself with mud.
Here the speaker desires to recreate himself ontologically. This is different than seeing oneself reflected in the mirror, in memory, or in the actions of others. This is an elemental construction of being.

Fred Chappell, North Carolina's Poet Laureate, writes "In these lines anger, exasperation, and a poet's fury deliver a world that Magritte would recognize, that Max Ernst would celebrate." Thomas Lux calls this "an intense, vivid, and stunning first book." And both of these are true, but if I were to be honest, I'd say that although Amen's voice is highly original, some of these poems do become over-the-top at times. I'm not prudish, by any means, but I would like to see Amen rein in just a bit here and there. I really don't want to see "planets / spinning above me like severed testicles," for example, and I doubt many others do either. As a reader I know that he does not write for mere shock value — his is a genuine search for an artistic being-in-the-world. The challenge, of course, is how to go about doing that when you are writing about rising out of waste and not drag the reader through a kind of personal hell. I find that Amen is at the height of his powers when he looks outward or inhabits a persona, such as Apollinaire, or Osip Mandelstam, as in this excerpt from "Osip Mandelstam's Last Letter":
Should you receive my letter, Nadezhda,
think of me, on the outskirts of Vladivostok,
snow packing like a coma, my dreams
still as dazzling as wild flowers.
Oh God, Nadezhda, the sun
is an old friend whose name I have forgotten.
It will be interesting for me to see how Amen's voice metamorphoses, how he investigates new themes and continues to publish and grow as an artist. Uccelli Press is to be lauded for taking a huge chance with its first book. Despite the fact that all of these poems can be viewed for free on the web, these poems, as Ace Bogess, editor of The Adirondack Review notes, "deserve this more tangible form." John Amen is a poet to watch.

View John Amen's poems in three candles' archive

Poet's Biography:
  John Amen received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He has published poetry and fiction in various magazines and journals and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has traveled extensively as a performing musician, both with a band and as a solo act, and has released four full-length recordings. He is also an artist, working primarily with acrylics on canvas. Further information is available on his website: In addition to his literary, musical, and artistic endeavors, Amen founded and continues to edit the online literary bimonthly, The Pedestal Magazine. He has lived in New Orleans and New York, and currently resides in Charlotte, North Carolina.

© 1999 - 2003, by the poets featured herein.