The Middle Ages by Roger Fanning
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Fair warning: a number of these poems touch on the experience of madness, and some of these poems are just mad. The distinction of which is which and what's what, for that matter, as often as not is left to the reader. So, how then is Roger Fanning's latest book so enjoyable, even to a reader disinclined to spend time, even on the page, with mad people? I don't know that this was necessarily true for the poet when he experienced his "break with reality," -- or for any of the people actually in hearing of him at the time -- but now, reading the result, there is an amazing, even explosive sense of fun, even in what, it must be admitted, must have been a hellish disorientation. Yup. I said it. Fun.
All of Roger Fanning's virtues as a poet, long since established, are still here. First of these, for me, is the poet's obvious delight in what might be called the commonplace; his gift for close observation and the reconstruction of everyday life, specially the lost country of boyhood and youth. So that in the poem, "Pique," for instance, he remembers not just a pretty girl's ankle, but the fishstick dinner over which said beauty was contemplated, and his own ugly mug as seen distorted in a toaster. More, he delights still in the alliterative, in puns, jokes, in being often if not always slightly dirty-minded, in an absolutely winning way, as in the poem "God Lives Underwater," ripe with a playful Priapism.
So when, as in a number of poems here, he ceases to make any kind of sense anywhere, presumably, outside of his own mental muddle, his invention, his instinct for the apt and the witty and the abrupt, never deserts him, even if sense does. The result can be a bit disturbing, even distressing in a poet one has come to trust, among other things, for his usual good sense, but strangely, even his maddest poems do not disappoint entirely: there's still music there, and clever phrases, images of a rare beauty, and yes, even humor.
The trouble with most mad people when encountered casually, say on the bus, is the lack of purchase they afford either for conversation or even escape. Usually, once they have you, there's no way to or 'round them. The trouble with mad writing -- and here I am specifically thinking not just or even of writers who've gone mad so much as those who would, from either experience or philosophical perversity try to put madness down on the page -- the trouble is, for me at least, the opposite of that urgency, that inescapable and impervious authority. On the page, crazy is usually just boringly purposeful: either fishing for sympathy or self-congratulatory for having loosed the bounds of stifling reason, etc., etc., ho hum.
Either or both motivations may or may not have played a part in Roger Fanning's decision to publish something like "How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?" -- I'm guessing that this would be one of the poems written when he'd left purport behind-- but whatever the why of it, even here there's a value in reading it. I don't know how to respond to lines like:
"Buddyboy, you have no power to send me to Hell.
Pussycats like you crucified me."
Oh? How very unfortunate. And, yes, how wonderfully, weirdly droll. But in the context of this book as a whole, and reading Fanning for a few years now, these few poems feel more like the shadows of his more usual turns, or put it another way, the irregular product of an imagination too much in the habit of poetry to not. As such, they are interesting of themselves, as curiosities almost, and because they aren't included here, it seems, to prove anything to or to ask anything of the reader other than that we keep playing with this most playful of poets.
How to resist such an invitation? Why would I?
So long as there are still lines like "Neon, for our family, neologisms," I still enjoy the poet's sometimes uncomfortable company.
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