Review by Willie James KingAt the Threshold of Alchemy

by John Amen

Presa Press
P.O. Box 792
Rockford, Michigan 49341
ISBN 978-0-9800081-5-9
2009, 85 pp., $ 13.95

“Purpose,” the first of 42 poems in At the Threshold of Alchemy, the third collection of poems by John Amen, is aptly placed, because the persona in this poem deftly defines the alchemist’s task, which is that of helping us to find the panacea that will transform us from a state metal into a state of gold. It is the very first poem, in which the speaker says:

Body, slave to gravity and the passage of time,
is not the thing to which I dedicate songs. I have
dressed the eternal in the fig leaf of the ephemeral,
but how delicate, this balance. How thick, these
defenses. Truly, I am in love with what pulses
beneath blush and bone. Courting what never sleeps,
what gives rise to mortal dreams….

Another brilliant move Amen makes in this collection is commingling images that are mythological, biblical, as well as those involving cultures, i.e., East and West. For instance, in the poem, “Both of Evil,” the speaker says:

At first, autonomy was encouraged. That changed
after the rift, when He banished his eldest. A sarcasm
circulated, that He would have blamed Lucifer’s mother
had that been possible, but clearly we were all immaculate
extensions of Him, knew what we were afraid to say,
that He couldn’t bear to see Himself echoed in Lucifer
and so chose to oust him….

In the short, but pithy, and poignant poem, “father,” we find the speaker pleading for intervention, compassion, a reason to further believe and witness, asking, as many are asking now, in Haiti, Chile, in the wake of disasters, “father, truly where art thou?/ your subterfuges and tireless rage, the/ volcanoes in your abdomen. blinded in the November leaves, left to/ wander a gauntlet of breasts and high-pitched voices, i stutter in the/ darkness, offering my prayers to an effigy.” We can identify with the speaker’s discontent, and his distrust as to whether of not the deity worshipped, sought after here, is for or against him; after which he has cause to question his own power as human. He asks, “With which generation did the/ hand of man become synonymous with destruction?”

There are the “Portraits of Mary,” poems that consist of twenty. These are well-
crafted poems. The Mary in these poems is the mother of Christ and the persona’s
earthly lover, at once. In the first of these poems, numbered i., he observes:

Mary in Clifton Park beside a crape myrtle:
Her capacity for heartache, her lack of self-
Consciousness: I’m humbled. Mary riding

A riptide of tears, dancer on a browning landscape,
Goddess of joy, arrow lodged in her spine,
Drunk on disappointment. Is she real?

In the two previous tercets, one finds that the erotic and the divine are twisted, intertwined also, in an brilliant use of double-entendre.

Whether the image in these poems is mythological, biblical, Western, or Eastern , the poet weaves each interchangeably with images that are mundane in order to create a world where all are interspersed. We see this clearly in the opening lines of the second in this twenty-poem sequence, which reads: “Mary stirs up the dormant chi—essential oils,/ chants at noon, statues of Ganesha and Shiva.” Then, in the fourth in the last sentence, the speakers offers this: “I slithered/Through lifetimes to find you,/ Mary, mercurial-Athena, chameleon-Venus, my cosmopolitan gal.”

The poems that make up this fine collection are metaphorically daring, lyrical, and lush. Neither word nor image is wasted here. In “Missive # 18,” one is mesmerized by the poet’s insight, his accurate use of language as demonstrated in these lines: “Despiteyour magnolia plans, civil servants/ still conspire by the coffee pot. Ants writhe/ in the doughnut box. I’m certainly not interested/ in souvenirs or anything to do with figs. Your/ mouth is an azalea, your tongue the bloom of sin./ Ditto, shadow man. Appetite is quite incorrigible./ Pluto never blinks.” And, in “what I haul along,” the images are razor-sharp. One must pay attention as the words in these poems offer a magical blend of immediacy to experience, as these that are offered: “my mother is eve is my wife. Her footprints have hardened in the soft clay/ of my brain. She removes me from he will. Fluffs my knee prints from the/ cushion at the foot of her bed. Lifetimes later, the sky still rumbles when i/ draw thin lines in the moss, retrieve my testicles from lockboxes and/ cadenzas of despair….”

The poems in At the Threshold of Alchemy are love poems. Many demand several readings due to the poet’s intricate style, his broad use of imagery that make up his tropes. I highly recommend this book to all.


Willie James King’s poems appear in such journals as Alehouse, America, Obsidian, Southern Poetry Review, Willow Review, and many others. His current book is The House in the Heart, by Tebot Bach, with a foreword by Cathy-Smith Bowers.

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