From the first listenâ€”and Iâ€™m punning here, since this chapbook begins with a poem called â€œFirst Listenâ€â€”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 â€œgunfire,â€ â€œslam,â€ and â€œmachine gun speed riffsâ€ on page one. Here is discordance, with mention of bleeding fingers, screaming guitars, deafening amps, and â€œdistorted chordsâ€ by page three. Fanelliâ€™s got a story to tell, and its heroine will not be wearing glass slippers; sheâ€™ll be in pink combat boots.
What screams louder to me than the chipped Harmony Sunburst guitar, though, is the collectionâ€™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.Â Family and peers presents the first dividing line.
â€œI see myself at CafÃ© Roach,
hanging with people father calls freaks, burnouts
hair red, green, or blue.â€
The almost exclusive labeling of family members as â€œfather,â€ â€œmother,â€ and â€œson,â€ 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 doesnâ€™t entirely feel at home there either. Sometimes he is â€œpulledâ€ to punk shows, other times he does finds â€œa rhythm.â€ His discomfort with his hunter father is evident:
â€œMy hand trembled when father handed me his rifle.
I winced, turned away, vomited
as he plunged his knife into the deerâ€™s guts.â€
But his friends are also a source of anxiety:
â€œMy knees stop shaking
when Iâ€™m home, feet planted
firmly in my bedroomâ€¦and away from Eddie,
who staggers to his car,
swerves all the way home.â€
The speaker is caught between his dadâ€™s hands, calloused from the hammer, and his friendsâ€™, 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. Â Â â€œI see youâ€™re still writing/fabricated bullshit,â€ says an ex-lover with â€œClash lyrics inked on her arm.â€ There are acceptable and unacceptable inkings, and once again the speakerâ€™s caught between. Heâ€™s drawn to tattoos, but heâ€™s also drawn to journalism and poetry. And he wants to help others find their voices, too, which leads to more conflicting sentiments; in â€œFaded Tattoo,â€ the speaker rolls his sleeves down over his tattoos so he can interview for a teaching job with the principal, â€œa man I would have sneered at/when I was 18,â€ at a school â€œwhere Bach matters more than the Clash.â€
What adds to the readerâ€™s experience of this subtle alienation is the writerâ€™s distant tone. Thereâ€™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 fatherâ€™s friends, he focuses on how well they knew him, and we see that he knew him, tooâ€”the intimacy belies the abstraction of the label â€œfather â€:
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 itâ€™s more complicated than that. The speaker, too, knows where the battered Ford sits, knows the cadence of his fatherâ€™s slurred voice. Shouldnâ€™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. Thereâ€™s some good work with verbsâ€”â€œSheâ€™ll neverâ€¦see her skin spot and leatherâ€ is lovelyâ€”I would have liked to see more of that. Thereâ€™s some rhythm and alliteration: â€œâ€¦bass note booms, thwack of a steady snareâ€¦â€. But I wanted much more of thatâ€”I wanted the poems to be loaded with assonance, alliteration, sprung rhythm, line break tension, enjambment, musical play to reflect the sounds suffusing the speakerâ€™s earlier life that now echo in his quieter one. But thereâ€™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 willâ€”or shouldâ€”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. www.gretchenprimack.com.~~