Fantasy by Ben Fama
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015; 88 pp
Reviewed by Joanna Novak
Some books of poetry ask you to sit up straighter, read more rigorously, double that espresso and dog-ear a page. Ben Fama’s first full-length collection, Fantasy, demands that you dress sharp, simulate scrolling through your SNS of choice, and revel in his oxymoronical spare hedonistic mise en abyme.
(Lest you wanna be normsy.)
Fama is not the only poet practicing glam-ennui poetry. Like all fashionistas, Fama name-calls and collects and culls; a handful of poets summoned in this collection (O’Hara, Ashbery) certainly serve as hazy predecessors. But writing alongside artists such as Kate Durbin (whose E! Entertainment Fama’s press, Wonder, published in 2014), Fama seems less poet than cultural archivist, collecting representations of people rather than people (mainly millennial), figureheads of clothing empires (Commes de Garçon’s Rei Kawakubo) who are a Google away.
And, though reading Fantasy can be a little like sitting at the lunch table one away from the popular kids, leaving one preoccupied with is-there-a-bump-in-my-ponytail anxieties, Fama’s bandinage is often clever and delicious, rather than wicked. This collection cultivates an inviting mood of blasé disaffection (like if Patrick Bateman were moonlighting as a poet) mitigated by the fleeting, parallel thrills of creative consumption. See, for instance, “Boo”:
There’s not much I believe in.
Things I can be present inside.
A sample sale.
What’s new for Fall?
Maybe “sample sale” is the best phrase, not “cellar door,”
Which is supposed to be phonoaesthetically perfect.
The sharp “a” in “sample sale” breaks the space
making capital’s entrance
in this otherwise innocent moment.
And, on the other hand, “Los Angeles”:
I want to create a product
too unstable to be marketed.
Not to say lacking
discursive and sort of pushing
the various dimensions of influence.
I could write here randy details
of my consumer choices
banal and otherwise
it would not amount to much.
Fama gives himself the space to be messy, to consider and reconsider on the page. His long poems treat the reader to through prettiness and scuzz, pop cultural nods and swift swallows of theory, essaying variations on questions of being and art-making in the selfie era. How important is a #nofilter kind of poetry, anyhow?
Still, at times the paucity of humanism in these poems can grow wearying. Not exactly depressing but … meh-ing. Short poems, such as “Normsy,” reappropriate the kind of thought that could be pithy at a cocktail party. Next to Fama’s longer work, the poem (below) falls flat:
“I didn’t know you were such a normsy. You don’t even know who Joy Division is. And you always like the boring parts of museums. I didn’t know you were such a normsy.”
Dismantling the cage of irony surrounding a poem like this is not the best way to spend time with Fama’s work. After all, now that I’ve got my Chloe pumps on for Fantasy, I’ll be chewing the bijoux chain on my Chanel bag while I reread all the sumptuous long poems in this book that I dog-eared.