Ben Fama & Natalie Lyalin
reviewed by J. Mae Barizo
The poems in Ben Fama’s chapbook Aquarius Rising expose a narrator trapped somewhere in the commingling worlds of pop-surrealism and nerdologyy. Do these worlds ever commingle? Apparently they do. The urgent voice in the poems—especially in “Girl,” “Angel Youth,” and “Glitter Pills”—resides in the world of dreams and desire, both staples of this sleek collection.
While some of Fama’s lines are permeated by a post-adolescent angst, the poems themselves—which invoke imagery of the planets and the sea—often radiate with a cinematic sheen that makes his world seem glossily appealing: “do you forget like I do /the middle name of a cloud /you sometimes loved?” he writes in “Terrarium.” This type of unguarded delicacy yields attractively to Fama’s smart-ass intonation, bequeathing to the poems an exceptional balance between fearlessness and unpredictability. Yet Fama sometimes seems to be a precocious student of indulgent hipsterdom, making the collection feel like an odd collage of pop culture and modern fetishism. Somehow the poems lend themselves well to a barely-masked narcissism that makes some of his verses sound like pages ripped out of your high school diary:
You had red hair and wanted us to lay Your clothes were soft but I didn’t want to … Did you pour hot lava in the game console? and in the title poem, “Aquarius Rising”: give yourself a kiss because you’re awesome
The standout work of the collection is unarguably the last poem “Tauromachy,” which marches onto the page like a long and fabulous dream-sequence. The voice seems far removed from the glistening “I” of “Glitter Pills” which says “To live a serious life/ that’s a fucked up thing” and “if I get old wipe the dust off my tits.” The narrator in “Tauromachy” has a uniquely touching aestheticism which seems to acknowledge the constricting environment of couplets while at the same time illuminating the form in such a way that the syntax becomes secondary to the implicit elegance of the poem:
come wielding the scent of theoretical children what this is has nothing to do with love happiness exists only if it can be spread across a grouping of days
While some of the lines sound like elaborate fortune cookie axioms (“think you’re safe here and you’ll be kissed” or “try doing something beautiful”) the poem as a whole serves well as an extraordinary conclusion to a not quite ordinary collection.
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The first poem in Natalie Lyalin’s Try a Little Time Travel, “Two Small Vampires” begins with the lines: “Dear heart, we ate snow today. / Something happened to our country.” This is not a graceful juxtaposition, but it need not be. In the course of the poem Lyalin skillfully transports the reader from descriptions of immediate sensations to a constructed world that is both modern and primeval, tossing into the lines images such as peasants, villages, and chivalrous battles which conjure up a humanity far from the helter-skelter of our reality It is not easy to use the words “propaganda” and “motherland” in a poem without sounding antediluvian and, at worst, contrived, but Lyalin is in no danger of either; her vocabulary is driven by her craft, which shines.
These poems, defined by disappearances and departures, are firmly riveted in a sense of place. She goes there and goes back from there. She takes us walking. “The galaxies tried to part us. We were then/ Pardoned from the war crimes.” There is a beautiful gravitas that infuses even the most capricious of phrases. These signals of survival and warfare fasten the reader to poems which, for the most part, are delicately instilled with whimsy. This procedure of placing calamity and playfulness in close confines usually works for Lyalin. In the weaker poems, the careful balance between the two slopes awkwardly when the poems are loaded with superfluous statements which flail unconvincingly towards an uncertain end, such as in the poem “I Want To Lead All These Lives,” which concludes with this lengthy dream-like sequence:
I slapped my hand Away from my own chocolate cake. I scared myself in the dark And turned myself over and over. I said to some people, let me take you To the Promised Land, I rode a chariot, I grew a giant beard. It took me Months to trace myself back to myself. As I’m my own father and mother And all the geese that ever flew past your wide-open windows.
This type of child-like solipsism is cute until it becomes quirky. But quirkiness is not an obvious flaw. Mostly, Lyalin’s voice, with its startling metaphors and surreal representations, focuses on the interiority of the narrator as well as in the worlds that she traverses; it is a voice which is molded and informed by a deep understanding of both time and self. The title poem displays this elegantly:
Say hello to ancient England, And tear out a hair strand, This is your tether for returning..
World battles an epidemic. You Are unaware, small in stature, This is good, this is time travel.
These poems, filled with pearls, glass, geese, snow, all describe a landscape which conceals the interiority of the narrator while simultaneously exposing the instability of “self.” This vulnerability in the face of “time” (which “goes left and right and crushes things”) makes many of these poems glow with a type of otherwordly patina.