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Brian Fanelli

because i did not die

Because I Did Not Die

By Nicole Santalucia

ISBN: 978-1599540948

October 2015

Bordighera Press

Reviewed by Brian Fanelli

The Cannoli Machine at the Brooklyn Detention Center, the opening poem in Nicole Santalucia’s Because I Did Not Die, sets the themes—family, Italian American heritage, and addiction—that are a thread throughout the book. Santalucia’s latest work is bold in its subject matter, and shows a willingness to go into the cave and tackle past demons. The poems are unflinching in their handling of the personal, something fewer and fewer contemporary poets are doing in the decades following the height of the confessional movement that saw the ascension of Plath, Sexton, and Lowell.

Several of Santalucia’s poems deal with parents realizing that their children are addicts. The opening poem, for instance, finds the speaker’s dad in the Brooklyn Detention Center, trying to come to terms with the fact that his son is jailed. “This is the first time I saw my father afraid,” the speaker confesses. And yet, the only comfort he finds is the chance to stand in line at the cannoli machine with all of the other fathers. The Italian dessert, at least, is something familiar and comforting.

Throughout much of the book, the brother is a ghost, floating in and out of the family’s life, recalled through memories that the speaker has seen through glimpses. In the poem Golfing, for instance, the sport is used as a metaphor to refer to the brother. The speaker recounts running into the woods and imagining her brother’s ghost teeing off: “I never thought he’d be strong enough/to swing back at life.” The poem is also interesting because it shows the speaker adopting some masculine characteristics, perhaps learned from her brother and dad. The opening lines feature her swinging, grunting, and throwing the nine iron into the sand pit, traits usually associated with men. The slight gender-bending, which occurs in other poems, too, is one of the most fascinating aspects of the book.

The book also addresses a second or third generation Italian American’s attempts to better understand her heritage. Someday I Will Learn Italian recounts watching a grandparent learning over the stove, preparing pasta. There is a distancing between the grandparent and the children, and not only because of language barriers. Throughout the memory recounted in the first stanza, the children always face the grandparent’s back. After the poem digs into the speaker’s past, which includes stealing wine bottles at the grandparent’s funeral, the poem concludes by connecting the past with the present. The speaker sees aspects of the older generation in herself, including some typical Italian traits, such as talking with her hands.

Other poems shift between New York City and Binghamton, or Johnson City in upstate New York. The poems about those scrappy, often forgotten New York locations could be a snapshot of a lot of American rust belt towns, in that they capture the poverty and the sheer struggle to survive. The conclusion of the book’s final poem, Johnson City, reads:

There are blank toe tags and broken chairs

for sale on front lawns in this town.

This is Johnson City.

Old ladies sweep their porches

then the sidewalks

The K Mart has bedbugs

the people don’t know why they have syphilis

They wait for five o’clock in this town

they stand in traffic and wait for a miracle

Yet, this book has plenty of optimism, including stories of the speaker and her family surviving. Other poems celebrate gay marriage and the speaker’s relationship to her wife. Indeed, there are plenty of miracles in Because I Did Not Die, and Santalucia’s willingness to spill her guts should be commended.

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fanelli

Brian Fanelli is the author of the chapbook Front Man (Big Table Publishing) and the full-length collection All That Remains (Unbound Content). His third book of poems, Waiting for the Dead to Speak, is forthcoming from NYQ Books. His poetry, essays, and book reviews have been published by The Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, The Paterson Literary Review, Main Street Rag, Blue Collar Review, and other publications. He has an M.F.A. from Wilkes University and a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. He teaches at Lackawanna College.

emily vogel

 

First Words

By Emily Vogel

ISBN 978-1630450168

June 2015

NYQ Books

Review by Brian Fanelli

emily vogel

Though the northeastern winters serve as a background for several of the poems in Emily Vogel’s collection First Words, there‘s a tenderness and intimacy beneath the book’s howling winds and snowfall, a celebration of love between the narrative’s speaker, her husband, and their firstborn daughter. First Words, however, is not simply a collection of love poems or meditations on motherhood. There are larger themes at stake, including language, the metaphysical, and a country increasingly prone to violence and hyper-consumerism.

Frequently, there‘s interesting juxtapositions of images at work. In the poem “First Snow,” for instance, the winter setting is referred to as “a strange euthanasia of gray.” Certainly, the image evokes the loss of life winter causes, but it’s contrasted with the love between the speaker and her partner, who is referred to as “the essence of song/in a warm room.” The husband is something constant and reliable, a foundation, and as the poem says, they will always return to each other.

In another poem, “White Christmas,” the speaker drives home and throws herself into her husband’s arms. Again, the husband—and the sleeping infant in the next room—serve as something stable. All but the closing stanzas contains Christmas images, but the carolers have faces that “reflect dimensions of apprehensions,” and the speaker imagines that that they are pondering “guns/bank accounts, the magic of a blinking digit.” These images cause tension and reflect the capitalistic aspects of the holiday, but by the end of the poem, family is the anchor, something pure and true.

Other poems address larger cultural issues and undertones of violence. “Sequestering,” for instance, references zombies, claims of God as a hoax, and fears of getting shot in the supermarket. It‘s as though these references are threats to the safe domestic space, where the newborn daughter “gasps delightedly,” the husband laughs at old movies, and the snow, too, acts as a protective barrier.

In “Events,” Vogel again employs some apocalyptic imagery to address society’s larger ills. One section of the prose poems reads, “The war proliferated like neighborhoods/like families, like vacations in exotic places. A fire burnt/down the city.” The poem is one of the most biting, in that it also tackles indifference and hyper-consumerism with the concluding lines, “And then everyone involved got into their/warm cars and drove around, with no particular destination/in mind and thought a lot about what happened for a while.”

The end of the book circles back to family, with a poem dedicated to the author’s daughter. “Dear Clare” is a mix of memories of the daughter’s infant years and mediations on her future, and it includes the line, “I wonder if one day you will know/that poetry can often be as basic as a bank receipt.” On the one hand, Vogel has a knack for writing about the ordinary, about images of snowfall and her daughter laughing at images on TV. On the other hand, this collection constantly pushes deeper. Despite the violence that may exist in the world, Vogel illustrates how relationships and love stand as a stark contrast to those ills.

 

grapes-of-wrath

 

ALL THAT REMAINS

BY BRIAN FANELLI

ISBN: 978-1936373468

OCTOBER 2013

UNBOUND CONTENT

all-that-remains-front-cover

Here’s a challenge for all of you poets out there. Get a copy of Brian Fanelli’s All That Remains and try to write like him. At first blush it does not seem an insurmountable challenge. Fanelli’s work is approachable. He does not brandish his technical prowess with intimidating sestinas. There is no pandering to theory, nor does he flaunt his erudition by quoting obscure thinkers or having his characters speak in Latin. (Though there are some well-placed references to Bob Dylan and horror movies.) What we do find are rusting towns and their hard-working denizens, whose horizons are limited through no fault of their own. We also catch moments of tenderness and regret and glimpses of youth with chances seized or lost.

While All that Remains is best consumed end to end, I am going to focus first on a poem that appears in the middle, After Working Hours. The people inhabiting this poem are not poets or artists or academics or urban professionals. The woman works in a grocery store. The man works construction, and the images and sounds of their work day follow them home and further still into their dreams, but they wake to love and consideration as he pours coffee and she touches his hand, “feeling warmth between his calluses and cracked skin.” These are not people with careers. For the couple in this poem, a job has little reward beyond the monetary. The drudgery exacts both a physical and psychological toll, but the simple affection between a man and a woman makes it something that can be borne.

Perhaps the most refreshing attribute of Fanelli’s work, in my opinion, is that he has overcome the temptation to write about oneself. There is always an “I” in his poems, and the “I” is usually the poet (though not always, as in Speaking from a Sick Bed),  but the poet exists not to tell about himself and what he has been through, but to tell the story of the people around him.  Summer at the Press Plant is more about the alcoholic, good-natured horror movie buff Frank, barely holding on, than the poet who is looking back to when he was “19 and home from college.”  How I Remember Her ponders the fate of a female activist who surrenders the barricades because of motherhood and marriage to a man “she loves sometimes, when he’s nice.” While we may be curious about the poet’s true feelings for this woman, who is clearly a friend or more than a friend, the poem is not about unrequited love, but about the forces of life and time that make someone, once passionate and vigorous, quit the battle and surrender. The poet may not approve of his friend’s choice of a mate, but, if there is any judgment, it can barely be discerned.

In fact, there are few judgments rendered in All That Remains. Fanelli opts not to expose the violence, resentment, and ignorance that are often fellow travelers with hopelessness. He is not an ironic writer, not looking to poke fun at or criticize his subjects. His hard-working blue-collar characters are not racists or homophobes, not bullies or reactionaries. In fact, save for a passing reference to “decisions of law makers and kings,”  “some senators and congressmen”  actual villains are hard to come by in All That Remains.  The people in these poems toil in dignity seemingly without residual bitterness, the cause of their fates unmentioned or distant.

I decided to set myself a challenge and write a poem like Brian Fanelli. I tried my best to transcend myself, to write about marriage and fatherhood from the perspective of someone who has a job, but no career (or no job at all), who works with his hands instead of tapping keyboards, who is too exhausted and concerned about how he will pay the heating bill to concern himself with questions metaphysical or mundane. I found it is not easy to capture with wit and humanity lives that are near your own geographically, but further in terms of class or race or gender. Fanelli writes about fates that he himself has escaped, but he is unwilling to turn his back, to say: “I’m out of here. You’re on your own.”