Waiting for the Dead to Speak
Reviewed by: Robert Fillman
In Brian Fanelli’s second full-length collection, Waiting for the Dead to Speak, we find ourselves witnessing the maturation of a young man—from a working-class Pennsylvanian childhood to an educated, professional adult life on the fringe of the academy. But beyond this Bildungsroman-like trajectory there is nothing generic about this book. From the opening poem, “For Jimmy, Who Bruised My Ribs and Busted My Nose,” to the last, “Learning to Garden,” we evolve along with the poet, encountering the particular emotional and psychic challenges that emerge in the wake of upward mobility. At every stage, the poet’s memories of childhood and adolescence are not merely exercises in nostalgia. Rather, they are part of a conscious struggle for survival in an uncertain world complicated by bullies, family illness, failed relationships, and the structural violence of our contemporary political moment that includes police shootings, hate crimes, and perpetual warfare. Even in adulthood, the successful poet—who owns a home, teaches at a college, and develops a spiritual appreciation for the natural world according to middle-class standards of beautification and domesticity—is trying to define for himself a position as an artist that enables him to continue to explore and celebrate manual labor while also reminding us of the particular capacities that have been constrained or foreclosed in friends, family, and acquaintances less fortunate than him.
Through a tightly imbricated medium, Fanelli maps the postindustrial landscape of the once-booming anthracite region—that is not quite urban, but not exactly rural. The town in transition serves as an apt correlative to the poet’s state of mind, always on the cusp between restraint and outburst, tenderness and angst, regret and resignation. But Fanelli hardly relies on abstract concepts. Rather, he grants the reader access to his personal attachment to and, at times, estrangement from a place and its populace, which, like the punk rock music he admires, are rendered in concrete, gritty detail. In “Immigrant Names,” the poet casts a light on residual racism in the community’s children, who focus on his noticeably darker, Italian complexion, which they misidentify as “Mexican,” “skin brown like dirt they spit on.” In “Trying to Catch the Culprits,” we are confronted with the menacing image of “a swastika graffitied on the red door / to the grounds-keeping building of Reese Park, / the paint silver and glaring like a knife blade.” In “Shifts at the Dollar Tree,” the poet laments the routinized and truncated life of his sympathetic, middle-aged boss, who, reminiscent of Dante’s gloomy inscription at the gate of Hell, didactically warns: “Don’t end up here forever, kid.” (It is without irony that we later discover that the poet’s cat is named after the writer who composed arguably the most celebrated work of literature in the Italian language.)
Indeed, the power of these poems comes from the poet’s ambivalent engagement with a hometown that he both honors a connection to but simultaneously despairs. This is perhaps most evident in “956 Johler Ave”:
This is no longer your house one bad owner away
from condemned notices stapled to the front door,
do not enter tape waving like streamers,
the house with paint you thought would never flake and peel,
the neighborhood you’re just passing through.
Each poem is a densely concentrated singular experience, a balance of memoir and confessional poetry, where narrative drive intersects with the discrete (and seemingly ordinary) events of daily life. Fanelli’s poetic is one of precision, simplicity, and deliberate pacing. Whether it is a group of “mechanics shaking their heads like doctors / discovering a cancerous mass” (in “Taking the Pontiac to the Shop”), or “Tinkerbell stickers [that] still plaster windows / in a blue room where a little girl / pressed pillows to her ears to muffle stomps and shouts” (in “Foreclosed Home”), the poet consistently reaches beyond the localized image to universal experiences of loss, hardship, and vulnerability. In “Hunting Season,” for example, the poet sensitively renders the fractures of a father-son relationship by highlighting how, in the car while picking up the then-teenage poet from school, his father “leaned over the steering wheel, / and then leaned back and sighed / when I said little about my day.” Later, in the title poem, we see a haunting, not-quite-chiasmic echo of disappointment when the poet, only a day before his father’s death, “leaned over his bed, / squeezed his hand, and listened for any speech, any moan, / a sign he could hear what I said.” Moments such as this one make Waiting for the Dead to Speak especially dramatic, when a lesser poet might veer into sentimentality.
Fanelli’s thoughtfulness is most overtly evidenced in the final section of the book, which is the most controlled and exact. Though clearly an erudite person, there is never attention drawn to the poems as artifice, even in his most introspective pieces. In the vein of Williams Carlos Williams and Philip Levine (both of whom Fanelli references in section two), the poet hones a conversational American idiom that grows more refined as the book unfolds. In quasi-pastoral poems like “Raking Leaves,” “I Imagine Gardening with My Father,” “September,” “Awaiting the Thaw,” and “Learning to Garden,” Fanelli’s lyricism shines, and, in the process, he transforms otherwise melancholic subjects into tentative moments of optimism. Though we are far from closure, it is in section III that “something soothing” can be attributed finally to “the scrape of a rake, the rhythmic process of pulling dead leaves” (in “Raking Leaves”); when in April, the poet will cathartically “bend low in a new backyard to prep a garden, / and lay new roots beneath fresh soil” (in “Awaiting the Thaw”), or in “September,” when “cherry tomatoes still ripen—bright dots on green vines” despite the imminent approach of autumn.
In the end, we might say that Fanelli’s book operates on the premise that in the midst of hardship, grief, and political turmoil, we must choose to learn from our experiences. Through a range of inquiries that fiercely confront the everyday, Waiting for the Dead to Speak reminds us to be attentive to the world that is developing around us, to find solace in our own education, and, as the final lines shrewdly tell us, to know “what it means to garden and when to lay the tarp / so what blooms can withstand / rare frost and sudden bursts of wind.”