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Spotlight on: The Troublesome Amputee by John Edward Lawson

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The Troublesome Amputee by John Edward Lawson John Edward Lawson, The Troublesome Amputee

Poetry is subjective. It is probably the most subjective form of creative expression. It is nearly impossible to predict what poem an individual will appreciate, even if you know their past likes, just because poetry affects each person in a particular way. In any other form of writing, there are rules to be followed, even if they are just the basic rules of grammar and punctuation. Only in poetry is the author allowed -- nay, encouraged -- to throw all perceived rules out the window for the sake of art.

The only artists with perhaps more freedom are those who work with abstract ideas -- the product of a poet at least has to be readable to someone who speaks the language, even if the words aren't necessarily familiar. An odd subculture has developed of horror writers who are also poets. Who knows why these delvers in the depths of the soul choose to express themselves in verse as well as prose, but the horror community fully supports their efforts. There has even been a Bram Stoker Award for poetry since 2000, and even though many of the same names recur each year, there are always enough collections produced to fill out the nominations.

Dark poetry's practitioners are some of the more respected names in the field, so don't think these are just fly-by-nighters trying to foist their high-school musings on an unsuspecting public. Including The Troublesome Amputee author John Edward Lawson, some names horror fans will surely recognize are Tom Piccirilli, Charlee Jacob, and Michael A. Arnzen (who wrote the introduction to the present collection) -- Stoker winners all for at least one volume of poetry (in addition to their novels)!

John Edward Lawson is an author, editor, and publisher. As editor-in-chief of Raw Dog Screaming Press, he has been responsible for not only bringing terrific new voices like Matthew Warner and Ronald Damien Malfi much-deserved attention, but also is a forerunner of the bizarro movement. More importantly to this review, however, Lawson is also a poet with four collections to his name. Of the dozens of poems included in The Troublesome Amputee, only eight have been previously published, including one in Dead Cat Poet Cabal (coincidentally, the last poetry volume I read before this one) and two in Bradley Sands' bizarro magazine, Bust Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens. As Michael Arnzen states in his introduction, the poems here are for the most part about loss, and the book is divided into three sections, each titled with a different aspect of limb loss: (1) Apotemnophilia (desired amputation in order to overachieve despite the handicap), (2) Acrotomophilia (or "stump fetish"), and (3) Disarticulation (amputation via the joint instead of cut bone). The metaphor is not so hard to grasp. The first section contains primarily the horrific pieces, the second section's contents are primarily the funnier ones, and the more political works are in the third.

All poetry tries to reflect areas of human experience, dark poetry just limits itself to life's more unpleasant aspects. Among the many subjects covered in The Troublesome Amputee are abortion ("Visiting the AbortAretum"), online snuff films ("No Protection, or: Trojan Strikes Again"), culture misappropriation ("Full of Flava"), grief ("Casket Climber"), and even fad diets ("Infomercial"). But through all the troubling descriptions, Lawson keeps a sharp sense of humor, which makes the often depressing subject matter easier to handle (and sometimes even pleasant). For example, in "Jung's Diet," Lawson describes a group of doctors' interest attaching electrodes to a woman's ovaries so they can see "the dreams of human eggs." After a short description of the results, however, he ends with, "It wasn't long before the scientists decided to detach those electrodes" -- understatement at its best. Following "Jung's Diet" are a series of limericks with their own sort of appeal that Edward Lear never even considered.

Other highlights are "Hairy Trigger," which follows the circular thinking of an almost-troublemaker, and "Marvels of Horror," which turns Lawson's skewed vision on the much darker side of comic book heroes. "Plunder Revisited" shows off some pirate wordplay. "Lovable Lamb Chop the Mutilator vs. Super Virgin Dragon Girls" is a wonderful exercise in absurdity (with just a pinch of scatology). But nothing compares with the rampage of the "homeless zombie tongues" in "Will Work for Food," a surprisingly rereadable bit that just may be the best example of Lawson's peculiar vision.

Arnzen's introduction helped me out a lot with The Troublesome Amputee. Understanding the underlying theme makes a poem more readily accessible to the inexperienced poetry reader (like me). After all, this isn't anything like the poetry we studied in school, so it requires a different mindset to get around. The title work, "The Troublesome Amputee," is a highly visual (and relatively long, giving us an opportunity to really get into the topic) disturbance -- a narrative verse of a daily struggle that occurs in a familiar setting and yet is like nothing you would ever want to experience.

The result of all this is that I believe I am now a Lawson convert. The Troublesome Amputee has opened my eyes to new possibilites in poetry, and I am eager to seek out more of his work. Lawson has a way of getting under my skin with his words, making them memorable long after the pages have closed. That said, I wouldn't recommend reading many of the poems in one sitting; there are so many ideas and images that come so quickly that I needed time in between readings to process things properly. Too much may lead to some sort of mental or emotional overload.

(For those looking for further samples, videos of Lawson reading his work are available on the Raw Dog Screaming Press website. And for those who are already fans and cannot get enough of Lawson's skewed scheme, a hardcover edition of The Troublesome Amputee is also available. Called the "Scarred Edition," it is just ten dollars more, but also contains Lawson's now-out-of-print 2002 collection, The Scars are Complimentary in its entirety, including all the illustrations.)

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