Front Man By Brian Fanelli (A Review By Gretchen Primack)

Big Table Publishing Company


From the first listen—and I’m punning here, since this chapbook begins with a poem called “First Listen”—Brian Fanelli sets the reader up for music. Not the melodious, harmonious kind you might imagine when you hear the word, but rather the uncomfortable, cathartic kind.

Front Man’s music is suffused with violence, issued out of the gate with language like “gunfire,” “slam,” and “machine gun speed riffs” on page one. Here is discordance, with mention of bleeding fingers, screaming guitars, deafening amps, and “distorted chords” by page three. Fanelli’s got a story to tell, and its heroine will not be wearing glass slippers; she’ll be in pink combat boots.

What screams louder to me than the chipped Harmony Sunburst guitar, though, is the collection’s exploration of the in-between. Throughout time and space, this speaker has one foot on either side of some line or another, and this incapability to feel true belonging is touching and lonely and painful.  Family and peers presents the first dividing line.

“I see myself at Café Roach,
hanging with people father calls freaks, burnouts
hair red, green, or blue.”

The almost exclusive labeling of family members as “father,” “mother,” and “son,” denying individuality and stressing roles, adds to the feeling of displacement and distance but also cements a relationship. We think the speaker is going to side with his peers, and he certainly dives into that mosh pit. But all along, we sense that he doesn’t entirely feel at home there either. Sometimes he is “pulled” to punk shows, other times he does finds “a rhythm.” His discomfort with his hunter father is evident:

“My hand trembled when father handed me his rifle.
I winced, turned away, vomited
as he plunged his knife into the deer’s guts.”

But his friends are also a source of anxiety:

“My knees stop shaking
when I’m home, feet planted
firmly in my bedroom…and away from Eddie,
who staggers to his car,
swerves all the way home.”

The speaker is caught between his dad’s hands, calloused from the hammer, and his friends’, calloused from bass strings and drumsticks. These are lovely parallels, and this reader felt an ache when she realized that neither makes perfect sense for this poet.

The callouses that the speaker eventually settles on are made by a pen. That causes divisions, too.   “I see you’re still writing/fabricated bullshit,” says an ex-lover with “Clash lyrics inked on her arm.” There are acceptable and unacceptable inkings, and once again the speaker’s caught between. He’s drawn to tattoos, but he’s also drawn to journalism and poetry. And he wants to help others find their voices, too, which leads to more conflicting sentiments; in “Faded Tattoo,” the speaker rolls his sleeves down over his tattoos so he can interview for a teaching job with the principal, “a man I would have sneered at/when I was 18,” at a school “where Bach matters more than the Clash.”

What adds to the reader’s experience of this subtle alienation is the writer’s distant tone. There’s an observational quality to the poems that places the speaker in more of a participant observer role than that of a true actor. It goes further than someone reflecting on past experience; one actually feels that the experience itself was fraught, was laden with ambivalence that forces the speaker to a not-entirely-present status.

Interestingly, there is more rawness in the poems about family than those about music known for its rawness. When Fanelli writes about his father’s friends, he focuses on how well they knew him, and we see that he knew him, too—the intimacy belies the abstraction of the label “father ”:

They know his dented Ford, know just
where it sat in the lot as he slurred Johnny Cash songs
at the bar. Who better to circle his bed, and hold
his calloused hands, worn thin now?

Of course, the question appears rhetorical, but it’s more complicated than that. The speaker, too, knows where the battered Ford sits, knows the cadence of his father’s slurred voice. Shouldn’t he hold the calloused hands? That ghost answer lingers in the poem.

I would have liked to see more tension in the form of the poems. There’s some good work with verbs—“She’ll never…see her skin spot and leather” is lovely—I would have liked to see more of that. There’s some rhythm and alliteration: “…bass note booms, thwack of a steady snare…”. But I wanted much more of that—I wanted the poems to be loaded with assonance, alliteration, sprung rhythm, line break tension, enjambment, musical play to reflect the sounds suffusing the speaker’s earlier life that now echo in his quieter one. But there’s much to be grateful for here in these poems about longing for belonging, a quiet search for self-determination among loud and sometimes hostile elements, a willingness to linger in the discomfort of alienation that makes us wonder if the search will—or should—ever end.

~~Gretchen Primack is an administrator and writing professor with the Bard Prison Initiative. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, FIELD, Best New Poets 2006, New Orleans Review, Tampa Review, Poet Lore, and many other journals. Her chapbook, The Slow Creaking of Planets, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2007. She lives in the Hudson Valley with a beloved human and several beloved rescued animals.