BOOK REVIEWS

 

Reviewed by Jason Allen
Author: Brian Fanelli
WAITING FOR THE DEAD TO SPEAK (NYQ Books, 2016)
ISBN-13: 978-1-63045-025-0; 98 Pages


A Chorus of Ghosts: A Review of Brian Fanelli’s Waiting for the Dead to Speak

Brian Fanelli’s second full-length collection, Waiting for the Dead to Speak, is a powerful follow-up to his debut, All That Remains (Unbound Content, LLC, 2013), and like his debut, this collection contains a series of snapshot-like narrative poems that have been arranged to potently convey a larger narrative—Fanelli’s working-class roots and the winding path he’s trudged to forge a meaningful life. The reader is invited in as witness to his youth in an industrial town in northeastern Pennsylvania, to his painful experiences as a bullied kid, to his outsider status as a teen who found solace in punk music, to the complicated relationship with his father and the difficulty reckoning with his death, and to a myriad challenges in adulthood—working for low wages as an adjunct instructor, navigating romantic relationships and break-ups, protesting our government’s actions post-9/11, his desire for peace on many fronts. 

The opening poem, “For Jimmy, Who Bruised My Ribs and Busted My Nose,” pulled me in so close to the action it was as if the poet simply pressed play on a film and suddenly I was sitting in a movie theatre seat facing the big screen. Through precise details, this poem highlights the narrator’s painful experience as a kid who’s been repeatedly bullied, and we are invited in to watch with clenched fists when on this specific day he refuses to back down. Of course, this decision is one that guarantees a worse beating than usual from Jimmy, and, naturally, we empathize with the narrator first; but then Fanelli does something impressive and wholly unexpected—he empathizes with Jimmy, the kid who beat him up. The closing lines of this opening poem establish Fanelli’s contemplative tone for the collection, as he writes:

This poem is for the bully who never cried,
who hid belt lashes from us, who ran from the sound
of his father’s battered Ford tracking him down,

the son whose hands tightened to fists like his father’s,
who uncurled his fingers to study my blood,
and then extended a hand to lift me up. 

From here we are asked to ride along on a journey, and to pause along the way as the poet lingers on a moment, an image, a memory that triggers a visceral gut shot or harkens back to another time when the world seemed shrouded in static. We arrive at the title poem, “Waiting for the Dead to Speak,” and listen in as the narrator thinks about his mother, widowed for the past ten years. We’re aware that the urgency of the poem has everything to do with the narrator’s need to better understand his father, though he’s ten years too late to ask any of the questions he’s considering asking his mother. In the penultimate stanza, the narrator speaks to us as if he is preparing to speak to her:

    I want to ask what you do
    to call him forth because I haven’t said his name
    or visited his grave in ten years. I’ve had no visions,
    and I remember how you said
    the worst thing to do is to forget.

If the worst thing we can do is to forget, this collection is quite the opposite. Fanelli has not forgotten his father at all, but instead seeks to remember him as clearly as possible in order to finally know him, which leads me to believe that empathy and forgiveness are two of the predominant themes throughout this moving book. These narrative poems are more than mere memories; they are fragments that together form a mosaic. Just as memoirists do, this poet is grappling with his memories for greater understanding, perhaps even for some semblance of reconciliation, either with himself and the choices he’s made, or with some of the more ornery ghosts from his past.

Music is a prevalent theme as well, mainly the charged energy of punk bands and the working-class anthems of Springsteen. Many of these poems feature people who are similarly disenfranchised as those at the heart of those songs the poet has cherished, and we understand the drive toward protest. When we arrive at the poem, “Thanksgiving, After the Riots,” we are returned to the TV news in the aftermath of the Ferguson shooting and subsequent riots. By this time Fanelli has spent years as an activist, but rather than going the route of an angry rant, this poem is an especially effective protest for its quiet, thoughtful tone, and for its focus on the surviving family members of the young man who was killed by a police officer. The final lines resonate hauntingly: “This Thanksgiving, the Brown family sets one less plate,/ while children paint peace doves on boarded-up businesses/ days after no indictment.”

The world of this young century often seems overwhelming, out-of-control, irrational, a Sisyphean exercise of boulder pushing, as is expressed in the final stanza of the poem, “Surviving Winter”: “Never have I needed summer as I do now,/ after all those mornings squinting/ through an ice-streaked windshield,” but still, for Fanelli there is hope inherent in survival. 

The ghosts of each of our pasts await our inquiries; the tragic moments we share through the larger eye of the media also call for our attention along the way. In Waiting for the Dead to Speak we are implicated and asked to empathize with everyone, even the bully that beat us. Brian Fanelli has stitched together a patchwork of powerful narratives that add up to a much larger story—and we are right there with him, hopeful even as the season grows colder, in quiet contemplation when the collection ends: 

and now you kneel in dirt because you learned
what it means to garden and when to lay the tarp
so what blooms can withstand
rare frost and sudden bursts of wind. 


Jason Allen’s work has appeared in Passages North, Oregon Literary Review, Contemporary American Voices, Cream City Review, Ragazine, and many other venues. His novel, Levitation, was a semi-finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, and his poetry collection, A Meditation on Fire, was published by Southeast Missouri State University Press.


Brian Fanelli's most recent book is Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books). His poetry, essays, and book reviews have been published by The Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, Main Street Rag, [PANK], and elsewhere. He has M.F.A. from Wilkes University and a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. Currently, he teaches at Lackawanna College.
 

 

Reviewed by Jeff Worley
Author: Charlie Brice
FLASHCUTS OUT OF CHAOS (WordTech Editions, 2016)
ISBN: 978-1625491817; 104 Pages


Reading Charlie Brice’s newly published first book-length collection, Flashcuts Out of Chaos, here’s what you won’t find.  Discursive poems that take ontological issues for a long ride. The lyrical, sometimes spiritual, reflections of Mary Oliver. The faux-intellectual Jabberwocky of Jon Ashbery.  Or the deep-image probing of the subconscious where a stone might be taking notes.

No, Charlie Brice is a storyteller. What you’ll find in this sure-handed and memorable collection are life sketches that explore specific moments recollected by the speakers Brice employs, events that are by turns serious or comical, or sometimes, as Joyce would have it, jokoserious.

“Verse storytelling” is the term poet and critic Jonathan Holden uses to describe these poetic utterances, stories that have a beginning, middle and (usually) end spoken in everyday language, but with the difference that the stories are “heightened” linguistically by the various tools of the poet—metaphor, imagery, allusion, irony, hyperbole, and sound effects—to reassure the reader that what he is experiencing is “poetry.” Reading Brice’s poems is like sitting next to a convivial, artfully lubricated man at a bar and listening to him tell stories.

Sit back and listen to one of the strongest poems in the collection, “Daydream”:

Those cottonwoods were thrilling,
they danced like ballerinas,
and sometimes went mad
throwing their white blazon
all over the city like furry confetti.

“He daydreams,” my mother
read aloud Sister Susanna’s
terse and torrid critique.
“What’s a daydream?” I asked.
“It’s when you look out the window
and stop listening in class,”
my mother said.

But the music I heard/
saw out that window:
The Nutcracker Suite—
elephants skittered like leaves
across the sky, Jesus jumped
from his cross and chased
Lazarus to life.

Someone picked up the end
of a river and found frogs
reciting the Baltimore Catechism.
Streets rolled up into concrete
spirals like the toffee we bought
in Jackson Hole.

“Don’t daydream,” my mother said.
Sister Susanna, so gray, read
everything to us third graders
out of a black book packed
with prayers, please, and
purposelessness.

Out the window she danced
like a sailor, wore a parakeet
on her shoulder, a patch
over one eye—Sister Long
Joan Silver yelled,
“Ahoy, matey,” and swilled gallons
of rum while the St. Mary’s Marching Band
played Mussorgsky, “The Great Gate of Kiev.”

“Stop daydreaming,” my mother said.

There’s a lot to admire in this poem. The third grader’s imagination, his daydreaming, not only works as convincing counterpoint to Sister Susanna’s “black book packed/ . . . with purposelessness,” but it also fuels the fun of the poem, rollicking down the page and taking us along. 

Once back home and confronted by his mother about his wandering mind (and the reader is mindful, of course, that a child heavily into daydreaming and shape-shifting images just might become—horrors!—a poet), I like that the kid recalls his daydreams while being lectured by his mother. The frame and following refrain of “He daydreams” (line 5) clues us into this humorous touch, since what the mother says can’t have taken more than a few seconds.  Her echo of the nun’s admonition simply sets off the child’s imagination again.

And look at the action-packed imagery in the poem. Cottonwoods “danced like ballerinas,” “elephants skittered like leaves” (terrific), “Jesus jumped/ from his cross,” and the ending image, of Sister Susanna as a one-eyed sailor sporting a parakeet on her shoulder has the effect of a laugh-out-loud (supply your own emoticon) crescendo.

In these narrative excursions Brice gives us a “family” of characters who appear and then sometimes reappear on stage in subsequent poems, giving the book a sort of theatrical feel. Most prevalent in the book are a series of nuns—Sisters Marino, Susanna, Silvester, Johanna, and Humbert (she “never met an opinion she didn’t express”)—who in their severity and no-nonsense approaches serve to emblemize exactly what the daydreaming students and general goof-offs want nothing to do with. 

In tapping this ensemble of characters (an unnamed father and mother, and various other family members and friends) and in so many of these poems focusing on the Sisters, Brice pays homage to a poet who, through my reading anyway, he most resembles—Paul Zimmer. Zimmer’s early books were populated with an ensemble cast: Lester, Wanda, Rollo, Thurman, Imbellis, and others.  And with titles like “Zimmer’s Head Thudding against the Blackboard,” it’s as if Brice and Zimmer went to the same Catholic grade school. There’s a strong sense of mischievous play in the poems of both writers.

Several of Brice’s poems also dust off and celebrate the coming-of-age late 1960s and ‘70s. In “Bank of America,” which recalls the San Francisco (actually, this happened in Santa Barbara) hippies’ burning down the Bank of America, the narrator says, “The psilocybin/ I’d ingested Picassoed his [Gil’s] face.  I hear his voice,/ but can’t find his mouth.” Another snapshot gives us the narrator at age 16, playing drums in an otherwise all-black soul band (“The Kansas City Soul Association”), and in another poem we see the speaker, at age 19, doing the dirty work in a Denver hospital as a result of becoming a conscientious objector during the Viet Nam War.
If there’s a main “theme” in this book, it’s that for Brice’s narrators, religion just didn’t “take.” Here is another one of the book’s best moments, “Born Again”:

You want to be born again?
I’ll give you born again: live,

savor each breath,
inhales and exhales,
the blossom of tomatoes and oregano
exploding in your frying pan,

the smell of garlic and olive oil,
the grand bouquet of basil,

your lover’s eye-sparkle,
her lilting voice, Pavorotti’s tenor,

Jim Harrison’s novels—
everything that makes it so hard

to leave our troubled planet.
Stay near to those with whom you

shared your brindled years: comfort
them, stroke their dying hair, smell

their fragrant mortality.  They
walked with you along this path,

this path that appears then disappears
like a sleigh inside a blizzard.

That’s beautiful, Charlie.  Thank you.
 

Jeff Worley’s most recent book is A Little Luck, which won the 2012 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize from Texas Review Press, and his poems have appeared in over 500 literary magazines over the past 35 years.  His website is jeff-worley.com. Jeff lives in Lexington, KY.


Charles W. Brice's first poetry collection, Flashcuts Out of Chaos, published by WordTech Editions, 2016. His poetry has appeared in The Atlanta Review, Avalon Literary Journal, The Paterson Literary Review, Spitball, Barbaric Yawp, and elsewhere. He is an International Merit Award winner in the Atlanta Review’s Poetry 2015 International Poetry Competition. 
 

 

Reviewed by Jim Reese
Author: Kevin Carey
JESUS WAS A HOMEBOY (CavanKerry Press 2016)
ISBN: 9781933880556; 68 pgs.
 

In Kevin Carey’s second full-length collection of poetry, Jesus Was a Homeboy, he sets the tone and theme from the opening poem.

The sky flashes and I think, 
when did the lightning start to scare me? …
There are days now when everything
frightens me, my own impending death,
the quick dark skies
and their wild bursts of light,
the violence in everyone waiting to erupt,
the randomness,…

Carey’s a writer and filmmaker with an distinct eye for the ordinary. He realizes what makes these everyday moments extraordinary and oftentimes hauntingly strange. Carey is always observing and asking the bigger question—what’s all this mean? He’s a poet who has outgrown his invincible attitude and reckless way of life that millions of American middle-age adults can’t seem to confront and change about themselves. In these poems he digs into some of his darkest, suppressed memories and confronts them with the same raw nerve he had when the events unfolded, like in “A Holiday Poem,” where he is corrected by his father for telling the same story an hour ago at the Thanksgiving table—where his sideways antics are not appreciated:

…I am the drunk nephew, 
the drunk brother, the drunk son, 
and everyone can see me.
But I know my father sees his father, 
reckless (and I would say more brave) 
but liking the drink more than a person should.
He sees my future, maybe, long afternoons
in a Chelsea barroom, weekend benders, 
a soggy liver, jaundice and dying in a sweat-soaked bed.
He hates what he sees, he’s been through it already, 
and once is more than enough.
Someone passes the pumpkin pie
and I think I hear him say, No thanks, I’m full.

Carey doesn’t beat around the bush. And that’s why I like his poems. Life is too short for second helpings so he dishes it all out—piling truths and absolutes high—like so many poets could never do. If you want poetry carefully crafted and correct, don’t look here. But, if you want poetry rooted in hard work, redemption, unflinching voices and character, then come on in. Carey is our eyewitness to the past. With a photographer’s eye to the present and beyond he is able to catch the daily grind and how each of our own actions are so very crucial to those closest to us. He shows us how what we do parallels to the greater good. We’ve all got to be chipping at the iceberg and Carey understands this quite well:

…and this next part I am certain of: 
there’s a kid I once knew
bouncing a basketball
on the playground, 
he his five feet tall
with an untucked Celtics jersey
over his shorts to his knees, 
he is standing at half court
looking toward the tilted half-moon backboard, 
yelling over and over again, 
Can I get a witness?

That kid is all grown up and he still wants a witness—and I think wants us all to hold ourselves accountable. That’s the message I come away with here in Carey’s book. I’m going to be honest with you reader, it’s New Year’s Day 2017, it’s Sunday, I’m skipping church (don’t tell anyone) and I’m the only guy on this college campus. I came here early to start my New Year’s resolution—I am going to make sure I write every day. No more excuses. I’m making time for myself. These books aren’t going to finish themselves. And I am excited—I’m thrilled about my resolution because what I fear is that I won’t have enough time to tell everyone these stories I have brewing. And I pass Carey’s book on my desk—this new one with the great title, Jesus Was a Homeboy, and I pause and thumb through the many dog-eared pages and I re-read one poem and then re-read another and I realize this is why I am full of energy today—this is what motivates me—writers who are able to make a difference with their words. Writers like Kevin Carey who truly care about people and are able to capture the important things of this life we are granted, however scary and fragile it seems at times. 

We all want to tell our stories—I believe we all want to make our mark. And in reading Carey’s new book it helps me calm down a bit and pause—to quiet this urgency and void I will try forever to fill. I guess, maybe today for the first time, I’m not so concerned with how big of a mark I feel I need to make with these chapters of my life, but rather the quality of the brand I can burn. Jesus Was a Homeboy is a great example of what we can do with the time we have here—of what we can do with our own poetry—how the power of words can heal. That’s what this book does so well. Carey has an unapologetic and inimitable voice that comes straight from the heart. Spoiler Alert: Here’s his take on heaven.

Heaven

A middle-aged woman in a gray pant suit let me in through a stone gate with roses climbing over the top of a trellis. You’ll love it here, she said, it’s always sunny and 70. The grass was green and the trees were turning fall colors and the ocean spread out on both sides of me as far as I could see, white-capped waves exploding against a rocky shore. A few wispy clouds hung in a blue sky. I walked into a park with a neat trimmed lawn where a picnic was in full swing, lots of folks playing guitars in front of crossed-legged hippies, singing folk songs or ballads with words like fella and train whistle. I saw groups of teens in jeans playing catch with a football, a few throwing Frisbees. There were no cars in sight but I did smell marijuana. A guy with black framed glasses poured me a cup of tea from a pewter pot. He offered me cookies and sliced strawberries on a small white dish, as he added cream to my cup. Just the way you like it, he said. I spent most of the afternoon chatting with folks I didn’t know, small talk about the earth and being human. At one point we played basketball, four on four, and I hit every shot I took but no one seemed to notice. There was small square pizza slices and cold beer for lunch and everyone in the park had a dog doing tricks, jumping through hoops, rolling over, playing dead. I took a nap in the afternoon under a willow tree, listening to someone reading a story by James Baldwin. When I opened my eyes they were all gone. It was just me, the sun setting over the ocean, a cool breeze on my face, and everywhere I looked there were baby rabbits jumping. 

 

Jim Reese's book Really Happy was published by New York Quarterly Books in 2014. Since 2008 Reese has been one of six artists-in-residence throughout the country who are part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ interagency initiative with the Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Kevin Carey is an Assistant Professor at Salem State University. He has published three books – a chapbook of fiction, The Beach People from Red Bird Chapbooks (2014) and two books of poetry from Cavankerry Press, The One Fifteen to Penn Station (2012) and Jesus Was a Homeboy (2016).  His website is at kevincareywriter.com