≡ Menu

Minutes Books

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
interpret reality—

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

Reach into the cloud
architecture, almost to the stars.
I lived where they are made
growing up as a kid.
I just wonder what people
are thinking sometimes,
or what happens to ideas
too un evil to endure.
Out there near the edge
the ferocactus has begun to bloom.
I heard once some skaters
were murdered there.
Today I would only
take advice from an angel.
She says soon you will grow
into a beautiful girl.
Soon you will become a planet,
moons and everything.
Sometimes I feel so happy
I forget I’m going to die,
then I go to the desert
with just my sticks
and wait for the shaman.
He always comes.
And raises a temple up
from the dirt, to give to my life
a gleam of delirium, that I may
accept the final results with grace.

Dear Mary Anne, I’m listening

This is where the world begins

When I lay on the bridge the city flattens

If we lived together I wouldn’t be bored right now, making stuff etc.

The doctor got off the couch

Said I’m not dying but he can’t be sure

I put my head in a cloud and really learn to breathe

Just in time for the wedding

The same picture in every horizon

A woman having her hair bobbed and a deserter from the navy

are the images for the full moon today

Once I lived in a place where the mountains would

glare down upon our symbolism and noise

Before you, the pattern of reality changes

A balloon ride is right around the corner from your office

Where the meaning is new but words have the same vibrations

Live a life on one

Smart people have the worst nightmares they say

To lay a pattern in order to survive a future crisis

Did you see what they did to Heather?

Yes I understand completely

Hot wind untangles complicated worries of the day

And blows all the tarot cards off of the table

Am I wasting my life?

Watching the leaves go like that toward the sky

What is the river doing?

Staring up at the bright ass sun

I want to make something two thousand people like

Daylight blankets what’s cared for and not cared for

Shitfaced, I demand human touch

Dreaming, I cosmically rule

The doctor’s a surfer

He rides from the window to my room

I filmed it in Seattle

At night I return to the sea

The facts in this case haven’t changed

Moon in Aquarius pushes us forward into our vision of the future

This morning they mowed the lawns

All day the breeze blows sweet

Here I made a memory

You can have it

Shake out the quilt of everyday talk

To get at a vision of light and pleasure

Where on water each ship is a promise

White sails of white satin sorrow

Roll your neck to the left and the right

To receive a change in headspace before a funeral

Or a mystical gift like a polka dot dress

A nap drifted in and out of my mind

All things for santeros, but forget all that

Here I am brand new

Lush as a dream, too punk for a sad heart

If you see the doctor tell him I said happy birthday

Tell him the panther caps are in the mail

And the black candles I never burned

Tell him my palm lines say wherever people go people are in love

Tell him I’m in the countryside with all my sorry breaths

Tell him I’m on my knees with my hands to the sun

Tell him he’s trapped, sure to make a tragic move

Tell him about the tulips with the pistils made of crystal

Tell him inside me there is an unsunny afternoon

Tell him to take his eyes out of my neck

Moon in Gemini squares Jupiter making today for releasing things forever

Like a fraying black cape or unreliable refrigerator

There’s a light outside that is too bright to bring in

And a Chevrolet wrecked at the edge of the trees

Before wet weather bird cries come quick on the air

Grope at the sky and pull down black clouds

In them sew the last days

Here becomes worshipped what is easy to understand why

A death prophecy everyone always will never talk about

My first friend died in another country while I slept

The second left the note: Yes, this is exactly how it feels!

She is, I’ve heard, still alive, combing down snows from the side of a mountain

It melts into a creek where the farm kids bathe

Their symbols are all the rainbows

They grow into music

Then they get birds and the behavior of birds

The old get public parks

Let the dying have a view of the mountains

Stars are for later

Pull me through a dream

Every idea, of course, is a spell

Mix four ounces of rosewater and pour it into a bowl

Carve one side of a thick white candle with a quick portrait of yourself

Rub a layer of amyris oil around the side of the candle and inside the grooves

Place equal parts frankincense and copal resin in a cauldron

Slowly light the edge of the mix in a crescentic circle

Light the candle

Insert the end of the blade into your hand

If you see light stop immediately

Cut past remorse and future trepidation

Tilt your palm toward the center of the bowl

A turn in weather provokes emotional rush

Memorize the shapes as the drops touch the water

Memorize the sounds

This is what you own

Reach through the sunny dust of day

To ripple the still with your exorbitant limb

Farther out than earth ships could be

Lean out the scene of a moving car

To go into it means to make a mark in the dirt

Moon in Aquarius pushes us forward into a vision of the future

An entire forest just for you

This world repeats a soft etc.
Invisible wind,
open up and feel.
It must be a part
of the daily breezes
that roar down the mountain,
the mountain you prefer.
I live inside a crystal ball
that only sees behind me.
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.

POSTSCRIPT

SUPERMACHINE

Brian Eno bio and a youtube
Barbara Guest’s Forces of Imagination
Twin Peaks
Scorpio Rising

Fama Links
New Waves Tumblr
Aquarius Rising
HTML write-up
Fama at notnostrums
at I am a Natural Wonder
Fama on Eno