Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Book Review: In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame by Ted Rees

Ted Rees
In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame

Timeless Infinite Light, 2018
142 pgs.

A few weeks ago, poet Ted Rees asked people on Facebook what poet they wished they’d read when they were younger, and I wanted to say to Ted, you! Which is funny; he’s 20-25 years younger than me and his books didn’t exist when I was younger. Also though, it was true. As I was reading his recent book In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame, I kept thinking to myself, this is the kind of tradition I’d want my own poems to be in, if my poems were going to fit into any kind of tradition.

The works here, mostly prose poems although a few are lined, have a lot of elements that I really admire in poems, including a big geopolitical sweep. The poems often explore contemporary landscapes that picture the variety of human and non-human interactions happening in different locations, some urban, some in the rural back country and even the wilderness. Environmental concerns, concerns with power structures and what’s happening to people, insights into a range of identity and class issues: all of these are mixed together in a way that makes clear that the problems that the poems are exploring are not easily separated from each other. Rees doesn’t write single poems that try to isolate single central issues. His writing moves in sweeping waves that gather things together from place to place, person to person, problem to problem.

The poems also aren’t the pious commentaries of an outside or supposedly objective observer. Instead, the figure of the poet himself is very much a part of these interactions, a young man struggling to survive and facing a shortage of options. He can observe and participate in street level activity because he’s already more or less living right there, down in the worst of it, at least at times, except for those stretches when he seems to have moved out into the California back country. As anthropology has known for awhile, there’s no such thing as an outside observer; there are only people who are involved in a situation, however differently. The narrator in these poems moves around at the most immediate levels of social and financial alienation and disenfranchisement.

One of the most fascinating and original ways that Rees signals his involvement in the many conflicts of the book is the constantly surprising language. The ornate, sometimes nearly anti-imagistic language disrupts any notion that what he’s doing is merely describing. The voice is not that of sober (and often implicitly masculine) direct description that somehow asserts its normalcy by vanishing into the expected vocabulary. Instead, it flaunts a flamboyant and uncontainably wild vocabulary:

“So as to better skiptrace moisture’s corpse, you heave a slippy couch to the makeshift summit and settle into some kalimotxo. Beyond unctuous tide and squall of trade, the incarcerated juttings in murk, what progress has been marched. There emerges a frame of reference for the structure of this smoke, its frottage with our garments and exposed pores, a darling of the blank monolith set.” (31)

My only reservation about In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame, and it’s not a huge one, is the tendency of certain lines to focus more on the poet’s anger than on what’s being discussed, and not always in interesting ways. This happens most often in the use of the word “fucking,” which every time it appears it stands out, at least to me, as the most boring word in this otherwise consistently inventive book: “because being a teenager is always fucking terrible.” (99). The book has a lot of original insults, but at moments the poet’s anger comes off as one-dimensional. This tendency makes the last section of the book, centered around a response to the work of queer writer and artist David Wojnarowicz, feel just a little less effective, maybe also because the more clearly essay-like elements of the last section lead Rees towards what sometimes feel like overgeneralizations.

Quibbles about invective aside, In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame kept me involved and fascinated. It’s hard to put down. It offers a perspective on contemporary U.S. social problems that comes from a narrative voice like no other I’ve read in recent American poetry. I loved the intensity here, and the insight, and the sheer exuberance of the language. Rees is a poet determined to say whatever he needs to say to make the world more survivable for him and many others who live on the outcast edges of a culture too often committed to ignoring its ever-growing human and environmental disasters. And if that’s not poetry worth knowing about, then I don’t know what is.

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