(Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015)
In Ben Fama’s debut full-length collection, Fantasy, one is struck not by how much of our contemporary culture (actual culture: smart phones, luxury cars, internet pornography, cyberspeak, etc.) is present, but by the contrast created with the rest of the poetry world at large and just how little of that so-called culture as been mined and foraged by active poets. Like the lightning-speed news cycle of our day, the poems in Fantasy move nimbly among a multitude of subjects but manage to posit lingering and troubling questions about the values of self and identity in a culture of disposability. If the internet and social media have created new synaptic pathways and receptacles within human consciousness, then Ben Fama has found a way to flush out the adorable cat videos, movie trailer parodies, and endlessly recyclable memes, and replace them with witty and urgent declarations about the emotional state of homo sapiens on planet Earth during these strange early days of this 21st century.
The first piece in the book, a prose poem titled “Sunset,” begins with a paragraph on active shooter situations that could be taken straight from an ALICE training manual. As if to mimic the modern attention span of the typical internet-dependent citizen, the poem changes subjects with each paragraph, growing increasingly poetic and surprisingly futuristic as it unfolds. One paragraph reveals that Angelina Jolie, in 2021, is a successful test subject for a “medicine” that not only cures cancer but also potentially leads to eternal life. The very next uses the presence of a Brittany Spears song in a supermarket as a launch pad for both reverie and elegy. Engaging in the fascinating play between perception and reality, Fama’s insistence on popular references highlights the preposterous omnipresence of a mass culture that at once repels and consoles, but above all sells.
In the poem “Los Angeles,” Fama states, “I want to create a product / too unstable to be marketed,” although the poem seems to acknowledge this as impossible. Then again, many products marketed as safe and user-friendly have turned out to be dangerous or even fatal to the consumer. The university I teach at recently banned hoverboards from campus, a puzzlingly futuristic announcement. Fama’s work makes one wonder: is poetry itself a product too unstable to be marketed? In “Sno-cone,” the poet explores the linguistic currency of brand names (“I’m Abercrombie / at the bus stop / completely lost”) and in “Odalisque” he successfully negotiates and critiques symbols of Western culture’s mass-produced opulence at a variety of pitches (“Driving back to New York City / Mendelssohn, Grieg, Liszt / It is Memorial Day / Drinking grappa on ice / From a plastic cup”). The work is indeed “unstable,” but only because it holds a mirror up to an equally unstable culture.
“Mexicali Twinks” is formed by multiple links between sexuality and commercial consumerism, in particular that corner of culture where the two ideas are constantly interacting: pornography. (Do I regret searching “tail plug” on Tumblr? I do/do not.) The poem is formed by a list of search terms (a list, one might say, of fantasies), some more random than others, that equate to a catalog of both desire and repulsion. Lack of punctuation in many of the poems allows for a free flow between image, syntax, and symbol that mimics both the alarming speed and mystifying randomness of the internet, particularly the beloved image search. In “Pearl Lakes” the poet relates a childhood memory of watching Unsolved Mysteries and being a little freaked out: “They showed the girl struggling with this guy, the kidnapper / His truck had a decal across the small windows / Behind their heads / Of a fish jumping out of water / A detail that was backlit by headlights / and pressed upon my consciousness[.]” The play of syntax vs. enjambment creates a remarkable tension in the poem.
Present in “Pearl Lakes” and other poems is a shade of hyper-confessionalism that mirrors the unchecked cult of ego currently rampant online and, of course, deep within the human condition. This self-obsession bubbles to the surface in the form of millions (or perhaps billions) of tweets, posts, selfies, and “likes” every day. Fama’s poem “Like,” presented in multiple unnumbered sections, naturally figures as a central piece in the collection by utilizing the language of texts and private messages to highlight how technology both connects and disconnects us: “I like your hair / I like your shirt / I like how you have a funny picture of Justin Bieber in your online photos” vs. “I think I’m in love with the world of billboards and magazines / It is so intrepidly based in fantasy / like things online[.]” The result is an unexpected and unsettling, but honest, harmony—the sound of several lonelinesses in conversation. This same conversation is developed in the multi-part prose poem “1280 X 768, 60HZ” that presents five alternating takes on the classic boy-meets-girl plot device. This is human desire and curiosity coming full-circle: the virtual world that was created as an extension of the physical now comes seeping back through the imagination.
There are some surprises better left unspoiled in Fantasy, particularly in the poem “Conscripts of Modernity,” a sort of cousin to “Sunset,” the book’s opening shot. Fama’s poems capture a time and a place, but they also point toward several terrifying futures. Both delightful and alarming, the poems in Fantasy serve as elegies for a culture whose meaning vanishes the moment it is manifested.
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Daniel Rzicznek is the author of two poetry collections, Divination Machine (Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press, 2009) and Neck of the World (Utah State University Press, 2007), as well as four chapbooks, most recently Live Feeds (Epiphany Editions, 2015). His poems are forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, Volt, The Pinch, and Sonora Review. Also coeditor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice (Rose Metal Press, 2010), Rzicznek teaches writing at Bowling Green State University.