reviewed by Sarah Trudgeon
“I want to create a product / too unstable to be marketed.”
Ben Fama’s first full-length poetry collection, Fantasy, is a mess. The poems are fragmentary, casual, sporadically punctuated. The word “basically” is used ten or more times. The bedroom is a tomb, the bath is a tomb. Some poems feel like a Tumblr feed; most feel as if they were carefully typed on an iPhone somewhere New York or L.A., drunk, while doing something else—and then carefully rewritten by Ben Fama, lyric poet. Like the Internet, they suck you in.
The poems are about all the old themes—love, death, sex, capitalism, alienation, depression, “report[s] as to the nature of man, as to his own nature, as to the nature of his ideal of the perfect [ . . . ] as to the degree to which he suffers or is made glad…” (Pound)—as we experience them in the age of the selfie. Though experiences still don’t last, status updates somehow do. When, in the poem “Like,” Fama writes, “Your agent comes in on roller blades, wet and horrible / I like it,” he manages to somehow make it the Facebook “like” we hear first. The poems are
so intrepidly based in fantasy Like things online and literature, all the immaterial world I mean the actual world we live in all the time
The self is a Fantasy, and a Fantasy of the Fantasy; our ideas about how to repackage a lived experience as a Tweet or an Instagram are now a part of it. The speaker of the poems—and there is usually a speaker—is, like everyone on the Internet, variously predatory (“Girlwithcat2.jpg: “I found you/ on Gothtrash.com/ and saved your picture/ to my computer desktop”); judgmental (“Like”: “Probably more coverage than you need for a plane ride though”); dejected (“R.I.P.”: “Sandy missed the link/ I said it’s ok/ I mean whatever/ I start feeling bad”); in love (“Elle”: “i would/ make out/ with you/ hold hands/ smoke weed/ etc”); and stoned (“Sno-Cone”: “soulmate to simulate/ we split an Adderall”).
Most of Fama’s language is repurposed, swiped from conversation, literature, film, pornography search terms, an Esquire article about Tom Ford. This is the language of someone who grew up watching “Unsolved Mysteries”; who has watched and rewatched “Twin Peaks”; who has read Proust and David Foster Wallace (and knows the essay he wrote about “Twin Peaks); who listens to Erik Satie while flipping through fashion catalogues; who participates in social media with a consuming self-consciousness. This is the language of the Contemporary Poet, Internet Flâneur—my language, the language of Fama’s readers.
The poems are packed with celebrities, fashion moguls and public figures: they make the Fantasy after which, in a world where it is possible to talk about one’s “brand,” we fashion our world and our selves. Here, the poet does the fashioning. In “Like,” L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa calls the speaker “for advice”: “He wants details.” (I think of Kathy Acker: “‘Do you want to fuck me, scumbag?’ President Carter said to me.”)
The way Fama pieces it all together is fragmentary, but above all, lyric, spoken by the “I” that packages and repackages itself in real life and on social media sites, multi-self-conscious at all times. They are like Tumblr: the invention comes in the intersections. The poems are euphonious! Take, from “Fantasy,” the lines:
This is a love note To a Fire Island lifeguard Tuscano shearling And mauve champagne I should never talk Even after two sips Though that’s when I can.
The passage feels metrical, almost formal: the alliteration of shearling, champagne, and should; the assonance of “Fire Island lifeguard” (a refrain throughout the poem); the slant rhymes between champagne and can, the talk of a love note. Whose voice—or voices—are these? Or, in the same poem, the lines:
The prism refracts But the stone is cloudy All that comes through Are the deeper obsessions Arvid Nordquist and dry shampoo Cocaine and Pellegrino
The speaker mocks our “deeper obsessions”—champagne, shearling, expensive coffee—and obsesses over them. The poem imitates lyric poetry and is lyric poetry; it rhymes and doesn’t rhyme. There’s something eerily unforgettable about the lines:
I typed Principal Dancer Into YouTube And drank To see the discourse And the honor
How can we tell the dancer from the online video of the dance? Fama draws out the sounds and rhythms of everyday speech and all of our old and new words: “YouTube,” “hashtag,” “selfie,” the cringe-worthy “normsy.” Everything is horrible and wonderful. “A frat house in full sun” (“Hunno”) is perfectly disgusting. Each poem, like a stream-of-consciousnesses, splices a variety of dictions and idioms together. Take a passage from “Hunno”:
a bad table at Spago late nights at Katsuya the cute couple from that pay-as-you-go site “Come over at do bring coke now”
If we divide the section into thirds, we have the posturing voice of the first couplet, the illicit, demotic voice of the second, and the direct quote, stoned typos and all. The poem later continues:
kiss me a final sunset April folds its snow you are shitfaced and find a place to lay down in the park you fall asleep and someone steals your backpack but only your work computer was in there I’m just a California boy having two or three people in love with me like having money in the bank
The first few two lines here are almost lyric parody, but as we move into the narrative, the line “but only your work computer was in there” goes on just a little too long, the longest in the poem so far, and it’s a kind of slippage—it’s a kind of wink, a little break in form that could only be made if there were a form to begin with. The last three lines of the poem are then basically pop lyrics—dismissive, not to be believed.
In contrast, the end of “Flâneur” is fiendishly Baudelairian:
I stayed and shopped again A surprising second erection After you’ve just finished And you know it’s time.
These poems are playing with poetic traditions, and stealing—from ad-speak, news-speak, authority-speak. Take the prose poem “Sunset,” the first poem in the book, about Fama’s experience in Active Shooter Training, which he was called upon to take as a university employee in New York City, but which dredged up memories of the 2007 shooting at Virgina Tech, where Fama went to college:
you need to plan what to do when you encounter an active shooter situation. in your workplace and commonly visited public area, it’s advised to plan now to increase your chances of survival. visualize and plan escape pathways, hiding places and available objects you’ll improvise as weapons [ . . . ] 95% of the time, shooters profile as white males 18-44 years, who have a trail through psychiatry, therapy and are actively maintaining a diary and social media blog.
The poem, incomprehensibly and totally naturally, goes on to include paragraphs that detail conversations with friends, what it’s like to live in New York, the week’s news cycle, a bad night, and, finally, a Fantasy in which Angelina Jolie holds a press conference to say she’s taken a wonder drug that will allow her to live forever. (It sounded so almost-true that, even though the date was given as 2021, I couldn’t help quickly Googling “Angelina”.) Another prose poem, “Conscripts of Modernity,” towards the end of the book, makes similar disjointed and surprising moves. (One wonders how some of the other poems in Fantasy, for example, “Pearl Lakes,” might look in Fama’s prose.) The prose narrative “1280 X 768, 60HZ” rewrites Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings,” making it, unbelievably, not excruciatingly boring!
“This work won’t last,” writes Fama. Maybe not. But I have Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” stuck in my head, and Fama’s refrain in “L’Officiel Hommes” an ode to the ineffably cool singer, composer, and writer Dev Hynes, a fantasy if there ever were:
a melody dev hynes after hours dev hynes dev hynes dev hynes on the cover dev hynes