John Amen and Daniel Y. Harris’s THE NEW ARCANA from NYQ Books is an unusual book. It posits poetry as a tesseract — a four-dimensional look at a traditional cube — and is original in scope and execution. THE NEW ARCANA uses as many forms as authors Amen and Harris could, including but not limited to: mock autobiographies, faux academic writing and journalism, and poetry of as many types and descriptions as possible. All of this was intended to get at the poetic version of Bill Clinton’s “Third Way” — a different way to approach poetry than is normally the case.
Before we go any further, this might be a good time to ponder the definition of the word arcana. According to the online version of Macmillan’s Dictionary, arcana means “things that are mysterious and difficult to understand.” This definition is absolutely essential to remember before you dive into the ocean of words Amen and Harris have provided, as otherwise you might not follow their reasoning.
Some of those words are quite meaningful, as this poem from p.12 shows — note that the line breaks are correct, but the way the poem looks on the page is different than what I’ve been able to render due to the WordPress interface:
I’ve grown weary
of my residual self, for whom change
is a game of mercy with a suspicious stranger.
La vérité en peinture — clamped, sifted, raked, rotted
down to inherited imagery
through which I am again deceived.
Wait, not mercy after all,
but a clashing of fists — mea culpa.
(poem quoted in its entirety — BC)
As this poem is in Part 1, which is all about a love affair gone bad and the very strange occurrences that follow from that, it’s especially appropriate. And while it shows a postmodern sentiment, it’s still comprehensible to most lovers of poetry and is not so arcane that it can’t be understood in context or out of it. (A neat trick, that.)
In Part II, there’s this poem about suburban life that rings true (from p. 35):
The patio party; I’m tired of these spoiled suburbanites.
I prefer back-river ingénues and trailer-park bullies
brimming with rage and remorse
(first three lines quoted — BC)
As this section is about an extremely unusual person, her quest for plastic surgery, and whether or not she’s a genius — a section that weaves poetry, faux journalism, and more into its eclectic mix — and she’s the suburbanite in question, this poem packs an extremely powerful punch.
The strength of THE NEW ARCANA is in its willingness to take risks. Some of them do not come off; I especially did not understand the four lines of “Mistress, I’ve forgotten my safe word” at escalating volume (shown by the use of font-size and bolding) on p. 99. But it’s good that Amen and Harris are willing to experiment, as they blend postmodern sentiment with more traditional forms of poetry, academic writing, and more.
And these risks mostly pay off, as THE NEW ARCANA is the most eclectic and innovative anthology I’ve ever read. Bar none.
Now, is this an easy book to read? Far from it. There are sections that read like plays for a few pages, until the section abruptly ends or transmogrifies into something else. There’s some material that’s obviously not meant seriously (such as faux biographies of people who exist only in the authors’ minds, complete with obviously bogus pictures), mixed in with some trenchant observations, then mixed further with some rather odd assessments regarding sex.
But is it a good book for poetry enthusiasts?
Upon reflection, I think it is. So long as you know going in that this is a postmodern anthology of sorts — and that due to its experimental nature, some pages seem to have more resonance than others — you are likely to enjoy the unusual angle of view authors Amen and Harris have come up with.
And their subtle, yet biting wit and sly amounts of dry humor are well worth the price of admission.
Poets and poetry enthusiasts should get a great deal out of Amen and Harris’s work, especially if they give THE NEW ARCANA more than one chance to work its wiles and captivate their attention.
— reviewed by Barb