A Fabulous Civility: Review of Ben Fama’s ODALISQUE

Ben Fama. Bloof Books, $8 handmade chapbook (16p)

As she launches into her brilliant defense of novels in the early pages of Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s narrator opines:

“And what are you reading, Miss—?”  “Oh!  It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book . . . .  Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of The Spectator, instead . . . how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name . . . .

Substitute “a chapbook” for “a novel” and Interview for The Spectator, and little has changed since then.  Of course, Austen wrote for readers who would appreciate this point of view, who would get the joke – and, just as the problem remains the same today, such readers are still around too.  It’s not that one wants poetry alongside ads in the glossies, these readers will tell you, but it might not be so bad if the ideal situation were the ordinary one: if fine poetry editions were as accessible as mainstream stuff, no big deal.  When Ben Fama writes, in a poem called “Tumblr Skies” midway through his new collection Odalisque, “I’d like to perform something / not dominated by industry,” one gets the feeling that these readers are his people, and that they’re paying attention.
The speaker of these poems invokes the Parisian flâneur, that solitary hip pedestrian of the nineteenth century who is always out for a long stroll, and whose leisurely appearance is a protest against the division of labor which makes people into specialists.  Fama memorializes and revives this long-extinct ethic in “Flâneur”:

It’s an honest joy
To be shocked by beauty
In the 21st century
I was shocked when my lover was caught stealing
From Dean & Deluca
I was thinking of a line
By Robert Hass
The floor manager stopped us
We simply went to a different store
A requiem for leisure, pleasure, thought
I cannot take your high school friend’s
Hoop earrings seriously
And every picture on my phone is obscene
Seriously, look at it—
All these fucking effetes
Boring travel stories
Details of somebody’s dreams
Champagne condensating
On leather seats
All summer long

Traveling unmolested among the general populace in Ben Fama’s poems, so to speak, it dawns on us, facing the dullness and callousness of existence, that we aren’t responding to our fellow humans in kind, but rather that we’re addressing them with a fabulous civility.
Just as the work of a Florentine poet must necessarily represent the same atmosphere and way of life which produce that city’s traditions of architectural ornament, sculptural proportion and oratorical harangue, so too does a New Yorker’s art exemplify that city in its familiar character as a nexus of the social, commercial and political aspects of life.  Fama’s work is so much of its element that he can write a poem like “Los Angeles,” named for localities where a very different industry lends its charm to everything else around it:

What does it take to start a new life?
You take lonely trips to the city
you are interested in moving to.
Saturate the market with your resume.
During interviews order both coffee and juice.
Masterfully handle the acceptance of ontological incompleteness
by affecting the persona of the applicant they want to hire
a winning assurance that you never intend to realize
obvious to all parties six months into the job.
John Paul Gaultier staged his Chic Rabbi
collection at Fashion Week FW’93
Very beautiful, very elegant, the orthodox religious
clothing and the gender bending
fits with his interest in tradition and iconic imagery
as well as the fact that he’s treating somewhat impertinently
something that most people wouldn’t dare play with in couture design.
When Gaultier talks about himself though he sounds dumb.

In this least alienated of poems, modernity is neither a place to hide nor a clearing-house for ready-made metaphors, but a quandary shared as part of the common lot; and because of this, contemporary realities can be treated good-humoredly and with respect for the reader’s intelligence.
The odalisque of the title is the recipient of a love letter that no one could possibly find enough words or time to compose or read in the course of an ordinary day; the piece says what slips past in the crush and hustle:

There’s a picture of you on my phone
I look at when I’m bored
It’s basically an American Apparel ad
In a world I have access to
I’m looking at it now
Or possibly through it
And listening to “Gymnopédie no. 3”
Sometimes I think it is a perfect song
I wonder what you are going to wear
To this cocktail event
At the Gershwin Hotel
We are going to tonight
But when I left you were sleeping
And I don’t think you are awake yet

The jocular tenderness of this formal declaration of intimacy ushers in a meditation upon mortality that briefly reveals the other side of its author’s joie de vivre (“I will die / Under conditions / Premeditated by myself”); and, all the lightness, tendresse and culture appear in their proper light as the things which make life worth living.
Recent discourse concerning poetry has dwelt on questions of the relationship between aesthetic commitments, distribution and audience.  A fixed idea seems to prevail among readers and writers of various inclinations that the size of a print run has a direct bearing upon readership – as if, in short, independent, small press and micropress writers, readers and publishers must be aware of their large publishing house counterparts as a matter of necessity, but not the other way around, except insofar as chapbooks are available to the magnanimous investor as collectible items.  Besides being at best inaccurate and at worst mendacious, this reckless sort of assumptive statement misrepresents what actually happens among members of an engaged artistic community, making the whole enterprise look pretty unimportant to the general reader, and among poetry devotees fomenting distrust of the commentators whose high profiles might otherwise make for trustworthy leadership.  As things stand, poetry simply ignores these concerns, in favor of its own preoccupations.  This is from Fama’s “Fantasy”:

What I think I will miss most
When I die
Is color
And the light
Sometimes it just comes to you
Amidst occasional instances
Of radiance or darkness
I mean
Everyone has their shit
Then enough time goes by
That’s your life
Maybe I expect too much
I wouldn’t know how not to
In my room
With these portraits
In gold frames

There are poets who give one the impression that they see everything as if through their own semitransparent reflection in a pane of glass which precedes them by a few feet at every turn.  By contrast, Ben Fama’s poetry greets the violence of contemporary life with a sophistication that needs no defense or attack; Odalisque’s practiced poise doesn’t come off as studied, but as a disarming ease, even at its most challengingly elegant.  The truth is that everyone reads everyone, regardless of status; you beg, borrow or steal, if necessary, to keep your hand in the game.  Understandably, perhaps, the contentious nature of American public life, with its din of competing interest groups, takes its toll on the poetry world (how could it not?); and, as apparently is not the case with many other disciplines, infighting among poetry devotees all too often results in a confusion of pronouncements that’s tantamount to bickering – with no agreement even as to the terms of the conversation, and with posturing on all sides – rather than being productively transformed by the work itself.  In the rare poetry which rises above such internecine divisions, one finds a refreshingly frank acknowledgment that we’re all wholly unknown to each other, in the gray area of daily life – and that even so, it’s all good, as they say.  The seven poems in Ben Fama’s Odalisque (no matter that they appear in an edition of only a hundred copies) achieve such transcendent scope.
It’s consonant with Fama’s project that the cover image of Odalisque is a gorgeous flamingo-and-palm-tree silk scarf print in puce, ochre and teal by London-based fashion designer Francesca Lahiri-Langley, entitled “Ocean Drive,” presumably in tribute to Gianni Versace, who lived in Miami on a street of that name.  As essential as Style itself, these poems parlay tragedy and mystery alike into the everyday glamour that they ought to be. (February 2014)

Purchase Odalisque HERE.

Reviewer bio: Erik Noonan is the author of the poetry collections Stances (Bird & Beckett, 2012) and Haiku d’Etat (Omerta, 2013).  He lives in San Francisco with his wife Mireille.