The second line of Ben Fama’s chapbook New Waves, (Minutes Books 2011), is “All I want is my life/ to matter somehow.” And it seems that this book sets out to execute that statement despite the line’s futility. I say this with sincerity since it’s an important aspect of the human condition (especially for writers) but remains an ungraspable, continuous pursuit. In short, this is a book composed with clear-minded longing. The cultural awareness is unpretentious, the feeling is real, and the structures are solid.
There’s been a post about Ben Fama’s poetry brooding in me since his last chapbook, Aquarius Rising, came out from Ugly Duckling Presse in 2010, and that’s because his poetry sticks with me. The word “hipster” has been thrown around a bit in reviews, but I find the term superfluous and dismissing. The difference between Ben Fama’s poems and many of his so-called hipster contemporaries is palpably clear. Some think it taboo to talk about things like texting and internet in poetry, but this calls to mind Ezra Pound who wrote “The artist is always beginning. Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery is of little worth. The very name Troubadour means a ‘finder,’ one who discovers.” Using off-limit terminology indicates the poet bending expectations, respecting the readers’ ability to move forward in thought. It is authentic ventures unto the brink of expectation I find most engaging in new poetry. Most importantly, the poet remains unequivocally loyal to the poem that wants to be written. Certainly that is the case with Ben Fama. How can we live in a culture so deeply entrenched in electronics and digital communication without interacting with it emotionally? Being “timeless” isn’t about removing the contemporary but about writing a good poem. Period. In this new collection, the poems feel they are exactly as they should be, even with their flaws. But flaws are imperative, essential to development, and are what make the poems here stunning.
Deeply entrenched in the occult, Fama explores known and unknown realms of human life. The speaker is concerned with prophecy, but in his impatience or frustration, he himself begins prophesying. He’s looking into a crystal ball, asking why the hell things happen this way, then taking on the roll of soothsayer himself: “Ivan the Inconsolable, / don’t forget how good things are. / You know you can always / sleep in the grass.” With all his questioning and yearning the speaker is still thwarted—with love (lots with love) with family, even with divination itself. But this yearning is what drives the poetry. To pause for a moment over the ending of [This world repeats a soft etc.]
Once I was a teen king
thundering over the peasants.
I was born in the image of Steve.
Once I was a farm boy
on the level of clouds.
Float me back to those heights.
I remember yellow heat
in my yellow clothes and
an idea like a campfire
telling me it wasn’t sure
I’ve ever done the right thing.
Now when it asks for cures
I retrieve an amulet from a secret
altar of things that make me calm
to look upon, and when it asks
Fama, where is your love now?
I think about eating poutine
from the small of her back.
In his interview with Ben Pease on Scattered Rhymes, I learned Poutine is a dish consisting of French fries topped with fresh cheese curds, covered with brown gravy or sauce and sometimes additional ingredients. What’s so arresting in this poem is the speaker’s concern with the enigmatic “idea,” something carried over from childhood maybe—something organic—perhaps even those first moments of real self-doubt. Indeed, the speaker is deeply concerned with the self (more universal than egotistical) exploring complex, layers of self-identity and self-assessment. The “idea” tells the speaker “it wasn’t sure / I’ve ever done the right thing.” The “idea” is purposefully vague, but seems as if it is the voice of the universe or the mystical, shrouded in the speaker’s consciousness. The voice of the universe is in some ways, indifferent, even cruel in this poem. I feel that the poem teeters on a concern with mortality. The occult, the “altar” of items that calm the speak down from these thoughts, again drive him to another question: “where is your love now?” To counteract the gravity of that epiphanic statement, the speaker reverts to a kind of ridiculous eroticism. In a way it’s a defense mechanism that appears (lightly) throughout the book—but somehow Fama manages to make the line both beautiful and absurd, just like poutine.
None of the poems have titles, and while the chapbook is a mere fourteen pages, it’s probably best. There’s a sense of long operatic movement in which each line functions for the whole pulse of a song. The first line of the book situates you in its realm: “The only colors in this world / are yellow and orange.” He doesn’t see things in black and white, but rather two vivid colors—as if this is a new perspective on old traditions. With all their contemporary airs, the poems have a classic feel. This hybridism is a strength Fama wields with finesse, and one I hope he sticks to. Adding to this traditional feel, the settings are, at times, deeply pastoral. It’s another element of yearning, as is his obsession with the mystical (a motif also explored by such poets as W.B. Yeats). However binary the world in Fama’s poems is, everything is turned backward, questioned yet paced at such a speed that we’re lulled out of absolutism. We’re in a place of melancholy, but it’s lit-up like a sun, and the wisdom in the voice helps the reader find it more relatable: “I wake heavy, I don’t know why.” The musical calm is perhaps one of the most striking elements; calm that resists the sometimes overt anxiety (“People want / me to do certain things but I won’t if it’s boring”). The book is wrought with a tone that adds fluidity to the dualistic system, keeping it interesting. The opening poems pull you in and carry you weightlessly throughout, the first lines burning in your mind until the last moment. New Waves is elegant, quietly devastating, but with an aura of hopefulness and clarity. He’s talking about gchats while wrapping the reader into the earnest futility of desire. The speaker seems young, but not naïve. He’s lost, he’s looking, he’s examining.
The poems are intimate, but there are gaps of information. They aren’t necessarily confessional, as they give much space for the reader to do work. Delicate if not obscure references to the speaker’s past (“I was born in the image of Steve”) are mixed with flourishes of the surreal, and again there’re vague illusions to the speaker’s concern with mortality (“If I leave / leave a lock on my tomb.”) The poems are concrete, and still there is always a question of reality:
My therapist says
I use writing as
a perceptive model
that allows me to
This passage seems almost a wry reference to the confessional poets, but we are quickly brought back into Fama’s unique landscape: “though my paradigm / remains immature and / I bring toxic energy / to new relations.” The humor and intimacy in the language allows for the reader to enter in completely, but without the feeling that we’re being told what to feel or how, nor does it employ the opposite effect of leaving us cold.
Ultimately, when I leave Fama’s chapbook, I think what is most important is that there’s passion. It seems such a simple thing, but it’s so often an elusive asset. In New Waves, healing and destruction are simultaneously experienced; ecstasy and pain are the same beast, yet the work is never overwrought. New Waves is a homage to love lost, to the mystical, to immaturity stained with experience.
The last lines of William Shakespeare’s King Lear have just come to mind. This collection feels like the wisdom realized after a long, insane escapade of emotional thwarting and general human grievances. Somehow, comingled within youth and folly and agedness, is the need to be (in its many forms) passionate and open. I don’t mean open as in confessional, nor do I mean that one has to write like Ben Fama does—rather the opposite: that what is sometimes lacking in new poetry is a patience and honesty with one’s inner workings. What is happening is Fama is interacting with his own surroundings and experiences with an astounding clarity. He doesn’t shut out what he experiences intellectually and casually. What is important to him becomes important to us. He doesn’t care about what he “ought to say” in pleasing an audience, he says what he feels. As writers, we needn’t stifle that unique element of how we each interpret reality. We can bring forth, with all its faults and strangeness, how we exclusively relate with the world. And this is the direction Ben Fama is going in with stunning, mottled vigor. As Albany says:
The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, not live so long
–King Lear Act V, Scene III