Uccelli Press, 2003 (ISBN 09723231)
Christening the Dancer is just the type of book I've been anticipating for years now, yet something I expected not to see for a long time to come: a genuine held-in-hands volume of an author's poems that were published exclusively in online literary magazines. To look through the acknowledgments and see such familiar names as Blue Fifth Review, Small Spiral Notebook, The Drunken Boat and Disquieting Muses, without the more traditional magazines like Ohio Review that poets typically need to get a book published in the first place, was as much a thrill as a surprise. Add in the magnificent title poem, "Christening the Dancer," that first appeared here in The Adirondack Review, and I confess I was so intrigued that I bumped John Amen's collection in front of several other volumes waiting to be reviewed.
Of course, a book of poems with such a background is a risk for the reader. Anyone who has waded unrelentingly through online magazines as often as I have knows there are far too many hacks and beginners seeing print on the web. A new magazine pops up every day, featuring perhaps one good poem surrounded by two dozen that would make even a friendly high-school English teacher cringe. I knew going in that I might find a work of genius, a tedious mass of useless words, or some combination thereof. In this first book published by the new Uccelli Press (itself an offshoot of the online literary magazine Branches), that didn't turn out to be a problem. Amen's poems were all the best of what internet magazines have to offer without the trite, banal, pointless verse that pops up as often as conspiracy theories and SPAM from the Nigerian general. These poems are fresh, vivid, wild, and a joy to read.
Sometimes Amen writes with a simple beauty that strokes the reader like a tender thumb as in "Reclamation":
You should have seen me,
mother, on those red hills,
singing as I tore down fences.
Wisdom, like the wind, came in gusts.
At other times, his verse seems to have been carved from the bones of a brilliant madman, language fluttering left and right in big words and bright metaphors that toy with and seduce the reader. A good example would be these lines from "Trying to Remember":
I have passed through tollbooths,
wrestled tigers as thunder went fetal;
and still, that thing in my chest
that closes like a hand squeezing a ball
yanks me back to this room
to stare into a darkness that doesn't flinch.
Recommendation: Everything about Christening the Dancer makes it a perfect addition to the bookshelf. The author and publisher took a huge chance by publishing a book of poems almost all of which can be looked up for free on the web. Still, no online reading beats the sensual feel of a slick, gorgeous volume in the hands. And gorgeous this book is. The cover (featuring a painting by Amen also called "Christening the Dancer") is a rippling mix of oranges and umbers, bright blues and subdued greens that make the volume radiate outward as if the reader is holding a box of light. The poems within are equally as vivid, equally as sharp. They deserve this more tangible form where they aren't destined to disappear into emptiness as poems on the web will do eventually. A good book to read, and a first of its kind for this reviewer. Give it a shot.