Our Sudden Museum by Robert Fanning / Salmon Poetry / 2017 / 978-1-910669-67-9 / 82 pages
In Our Sudden Museum, poet Robert Fanning is no stranger to tragedy. As readers of this collection, we become witness to a landscape deepened with heart-felt longings. Here, in his third book, we see that it is dedicated, in part, to the poet’s father, sister, and brother, all of whom passed away during the author’s process of putting these poems together. Within it you will find elegies that make their way into your own heart, you will hear him sing and feel the song as your own breath, and find yourself feeling like family. (Even the sky in this book is steeped in birdsong, and all the birds with their homing instincts become family, no matter their familiarity or strangeness.) Fanning’s poems are urgent in their emotion, restless in their interrogation of the moment, touching immediately on the pulse of the remembered and in such honest and exacting means brings these elements of the past with such lively force to bear directly onto the present, suggesting the loss of the physical but certainly not the sensational, implying, though matter wears, the spirit carries on. The external world unfolds through our innermost realities; art seeks a life more abundant by wedding spirit to matter. Since poetry can be represented as the experience of an enlarged intimacy, what of our raw materials of experience and the decorated realm of memory do we deliberately choose to reflect? As poet Richard Siken writes, “To supply the world with what?”
Fanning often faces the blind forces of tragedy with great, realized emotion, recreating the story of grief to preserve the details of a life that keeps us feeling alive and aware and remembering those we love with a love-specific sensation. Fanning’s poems, though grief-stricken, also have a handmade joy tailored in from such hopes to be reunited with who and what he misses. This joy is lodged deep within his orientation in the world. As he writes in the book’s first poem, “In every dream I’m threading seam and frame.” Grief only becomes incommensurable if we look away, if we try to escape. Fanning, instead, stares unblinkingly into the eye, and therefore soul, of the matter: for example, examining the beam his brother hung himself from—a hard fact handled with unbelievable tenderness. Fanning’s acute sensitivity provides us a lens to see not only his bereavement, but to feel the law of gravity in a very particular manner, to make of it our own, and to own what grief is personally ours. It also allows for great attention to moments such as this: “As we sleep/ one shiny red marble rolls across the downstairs floor” (“Of Bricks and Vertebrae”). Fanning touches on the strange and prismatic nature of art: our being present elsewhere. His faculties are so entirely on point that he achieves what Keats called negative capability. This absolute awareness, this inhabiting and encompassing something else so deeply you are for a moment not yourself but the Other you are focused on, is a rare feat and, as only the finest poets are able of, Fanning among them provides the possibility for the reader to accomplish this as well.
Fanning achieves a fusion of opposites, a mark of the old Chinese masters, at times seemingly irrespective of his own strengths and weaknesses, working more toward communion with his subjects than leverage or knowledge. Noticing patterns and drawing out their connections, as in “Staying The Night,” is precisely what I’m getting at. But he does not stay in one place too long, knowing he must keep on or diminish. Shape and substance are given to various surprises, the poet’s language traveling around at high speeds, (see: “Saving The Day”) sometimes moving in astonishing fashion (see: “Dancing For My Father”). Still, Fanning does not let pass moments in which he contemplates unfulfilled potentials (see: “On Learning I Should’ve…” and “The House We Almost Bought”). It’s within those moments in which he contemplates unfulfilled potentials that Fanning reorients himself. This “sudden museum” becomes at once empty and also open to endless possibilities, a chance toward a new completeness, or as he writes in the poem “Footfalls,” “a whole and hollow drum.”