Review of Brian Fanelli’s Waiting For the Dead to Speak
Brian Fanelli’s most recent book of poems, Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books, September 2016) arrives at an important time. Its pages navigate many contemporary realities with a refreshingly plain-spoken, colloquial syntax that when examined closely, are also elegantly wrought. In the same way that some lyric poetry relies upon certain syllabic and phonetic architectures, Fanelli utilizes simple narrative devices such as repetition of ideas, ordering his poems in a Whitmanesque manner to create layers of meaning. He invites you with a steady whisper—here it is, this world, in all its tragic and revelatory beauty.
In an October podcast with WVIA Public Media, Fanelli, who has published two other books of poetry—Frontman (Chapbook, Big Table Publishing, 2010); All That Remains (Unbound Content, 2013)—claimed he worked the hardest on this particular book of poems, saying, “in some ways [it is] the most personal… most political.” The personal as political is a very American idea, that may have its roots as far back as Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Indeed, Fanelli’s work functions much like Whitman’s—democratically, thoughtfully, pointedly.
Speaking on the Troubadours and Raconteurs podcast, Fanelli described Whitman as an obvious “pioneer in free verse,” adding, “[he] broke down traditional forms… put poetry in a very American language.” Fanelli also praises William Carlos Williams, a poet he sees as one of the first American poets to write about “common” subject—frozen plums, red wheelbarrows—often scribbled on loose pieces of paper between doctor visits.
If Fanelli intends to be the echo of Williams and Whitman (specifically from the last couple paragraphs of Whitman’s Preface to Leaves of Grass)—“the proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it”—he is well on his way.
Fanelli does not write as a person might expect of an English professor. He has a youthful, roving, and recursive mind. There is a simple, pure, working class wisdom to his verse. He ruminates upon the past as you might expect an older man to, but he makes frequent references to the plain artifacts of a contemporary zeitgeist: going to punk shows, Occupy Wall Street, diners, Facebook requests, Youtube, the Iraq war, teen angst, X-Men comics, The Clash, the X-Files. It is a beautiful synthesis of a self-absorbed Millennial culture and the poetic, reflective impulse that tries to transcend that culture.
At times the collection can feel randomly structured or repetitious, but this suits Fanelli’s narrative style, which seeks out familiar conflicts and situations across contexts, looking to flip them upside down. In telling these brief stories, the reader is asked to jump across many subjects and back and forth through time while the poet assembles a patchwork experience. In Waiting for the Dead to Speak, the whole is in the pieces, the fragments, the snapshots taken from an uncertain angle.
The title poem in the collection has been discussed in several recent interviews and reviews. And, while it is an intense poem not to be missed, there are perhaps other poems that reveal Fanelli’s poetic courage, in being willing to bear witness to collective experience, even when bearing witness is painful or difficult. For example, in “Writing the Last Word,” the speaker reflects on a journalism assignment to write about a homicide: “You don’t ask why he was shot before / four months ago, if he pushed drugs. / You write he was a family man, community man, / whatever his wife says because you know / this will be the last time his name appears in print.”
This poem has a universal human quality that is perhaps in contrast to“Waiting for the Dead to Speak,” in which the speaker seems entirely absorbed by his own grief, reflection, and subjectivity. Fanelli seems in “Writing the Last Word,” to be intentionally surrendering to that old Whitmanian echo: the collective, democratic truth that we all, in the end, have very similar wants and needs while living and dying, and that ultimately we all face the same end. It is in poems like this one where Fanelli shows he has perfected the art of poetic surrender, of surrendering to the ordinary world in a way that reveals the world as it is. Indeed, the title poem reveals such a truth: that the dead cannot speak, that loss is loss, irreversible and unaccountable. Where some might present a more softened, palatable version of reality, Fanelli struts out of the dark and speaks of the world’s darkness by name. He brings you in, opens your eyes. He doesn’t let you look away. He is asking you to carry this with you. So you carry it with you.
Brian Fanelli’s poetry, essays, and book reviews have been published in many national periodicals and journals, including The Los Angeles Time, World Literature Today and The Paterson Review. He is also a local staple. Just last week, on October 28, Fanelli was the featured poet at Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, Pa., and will be making rounds in November through River Reads Bookstore and Buffalo Street Books, both in New York. His next local appearance will be in York, PA at King’s Courtyard Artists’ Collective on November 18 at 7 PM.