Feb 24, 2014

Dante Di Stefano Reviews Brian Fanelli's All That Remains

All That Remains
Brian Fanelli
Unbound Content, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-936373-46-8

Coughed from the Dust of Old Ghosts

            In 1952, the great Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh argued for a parochial poetry. The provincial poet, Kavanagh argues, “does not trust what his eyes see until he has heard what the metropolis—towards which his eyes are turned—has to say on the subject.” The parochial poet, on the other hand, never doubts the artistic and social validity inherent in his home turf. All great poetry, perhaps, draws its internal strength and coherence from a parochial view of the world. Brian Fanelli’s debut collection, All That Remains, demonstrates an allegiance to the parochial that Patrick Kavanagh would approve.  Fanelli’s poetry details a spiritual biography, a coming of age story set in northeastern Pennsylvania and grounded in the working class experience ghosting through the hardscrabble remnants of once-prosperous factory and coal mining towns.
            Fanelli finds poetry on the streets of Scranton, in memories of childhood friends and family, and in the people he encounters every day, those who “speak in a dustbowl growl like Dylan” and who roll up their “sleeves like Woody Guthrie.”  Fanelli ends the collection with an Ars Poetica that enumerates the tributaries feeding his poetry. The final poem, “Where Poetry Exists,” reads:
            I tell my students poetry is found
            in empty mineshafts that run under
            their old town, that it exists
            in the history within jagged rock walls,
            dirt that streaked miners’ faces,
            dust that caked their boots.
            I tell them poetry is found
            in the lines of their great-grandfather’s hands,
            scarred from toiling in the town’s black underbelly.
            I tell them poetry is found
            in conversations construction workers have
            at diners, that it exists in the details
            of what they say, how they say it.
            I tell them poetry is found
            in the kiss between a husband and wife, home
            from a 10-hour shift, and their long sigh
            after they collapse on the couch.
            I tell them poetry is found in labor
            of men and women who still populate
            their hometown, that to write it seriously
            should be as habitual as waking
            to the alarm clock’s buzz and meeting the work day.

For Fanelli, poetry exists in community, in the difficult daily tasks that constitute living; all of Fanelli’s poems reflect a simple unshakable belief in the power of human connection.  “Where Poetry Exists” also makes clear the poet’s belief that poetry must praise, must not forget the toil scarred hands of ancestors who made sacrifices that went unnoted.
            There is a refreshing humility and simplicity to this collection, which serves as an antidote to the hipness that afflicts much of contemporary poetry. The speaker in Fanelli’s poems is a devoted son, a music lover, a teacher, a keen observer of small town life, a man who misses his dead father and honors his memory with his words. In “After School Drives,” Fanelli writes of his father: “I missed those after school drives, the chance/ to fill silence with conversation, even those moments/ he crooned so off-key even I had to laugh.” These lines emblematize the gentle spirit at work throughout the course of this book, the spirit of a poet unafraid to enter into a dialogue with profound loss and its attendant regrets.  This sense of loss underwrites even the love poems in All That Remains.  Ultimately, all that remains for Brian Fanelli is an abiding faith in poetry and community, coughed from the dust of old ghosts.

All That Remains can be purchased through Unbound Content


Feb 17, 2014

Karen Weyant Reviews Neil Shepard’s (T)ravel/Un(T)ravel

Neil Shepard
Mid-List Press, 2011

ISBN-10: 0922811881 ($13)

            True travel writing is an art not found within the glossy guides that adorn big name bookstores and souvenir shops.  Indeed, travel writing is a journey of sorts.  Writers who embark in travel writing do more than merely catalog people and events. Instead, they blend the outer physical journeys of their travels with their own inner journeys, recording their own perceptions to come to new realizations about themselves and the world. Neil Shepard’s latest collection of poetry, (T)ravel/Un(T)ravel does just that.  His recorded travels take him to the many ends of the earth, from Europe to China to Bali. But wherever he goes, whether he is exploring busy marketplaces or sacred places, Shepard wrestles with the outer hardships of physical travels while exploring his relationship with the world around him.
            Many of the poems in Shepard’s book find the narrator lyrically cataloging present travels and his place within these events. In “(T)ravel/Un(T)ravel: Monkey Forest Road (Ubad, Bali)” the narrator explains:

            Pinned under mesh netting, I awake
            to mosquitos and geckoes, brash anjing
            howling outside, fighting cocks bruising

            the air. The market’s squawk is a block off
            where women smelling of raw fish, their breasts
            burst from their shirts, and men hawking

            and emptying their nostrils on the sidewalk
            shout Mister! Mister! This morning I can
            roll over and refuse it –

But of course he doesn’t refuse.  In spite of the fact that he could “roll over, and burrow deeper” into his “wife’s awakening flesh,” he doesn’t.  Instead, he prepares to rise and face a place that is unknown to him, asking, “How will I arrive there unscathed and prepared?”
            This single question follows Shepard throughout this collection.  It’s true that he  does not leave the tribulations of travel out of his poems.  In(T)ravel/Un(T)ravel: Choler” the narrator explains that “heat withered our patience” and in “Duzi,” set in the Taklamakan Desert in China, the narrator describes his travels as the following: “Seven hours of irritable, ass hard, desert bus ride” that makes his travel companion sick. But mostly, we see a narrator navigating a world that both frightens and intrigues him. In “Corfu” he gives the grimness of poverty and disease its own beauty as he describes “beggar-widows huddle in their black shawls” who have “eyeless stares, worse than/the eye of the all-knowing, two black holes for sockets” and whose “hands rise from scaly limbs” as “they beg with their missing fingers.”  Mystery lies in other poems.  In “Ghost Talk” the narrator admits to losing himself “to the puka dance” and joining in to the “Marquesan chants in the Catholic Church/with a baptismal font made of dolmens/and an altar of bamboo spears.”
            Certainly, the present is very much a focus of this book.  However, history, especially literary history also haunts much of the collection.  For instance, “By the Bard’s Water” finds the narrator standing by the Avon contemplating both the work of Shakespeare and the mortality of life, and in “Punting on the Cam” he asks the question “How many ghosts in this river/crowded with punts” while answering with a list of names, including Milton, Coleridge, Byron and Wordsworth, “nearly half/the voices of English literature floated/here in their green years over the water.”  A personal favorite  is the touching “Keats House, Hampstead Heath” where Shepard gives a tribute to Keats’ life, exploring the physical place where some of Keats’ best work was written but also the place he fell in love with Fanny Brawne, a romance hindered by both poverty and illness.
            Shepard approaches the world with a reporter’s eye and a poet’s insight.  He avoids merely cataloging what he sees.  Indeed, it is like he explains in “(T)ravel/Un(T)ravel: The World Goes Away,” that he sets out to make “the tour books disintegrate.”  As a reader, I’m glad that the tourbook does disappear.  For in its place, we get an honest and heartfelt look at our world without sentimentality and without fear.