Apr 16 2023
Poetry review – BRAZEN: Charles Rammelkamp savours a heady mix of sex and noir in Alexis Rhone Fancher’s poems
Noir and sexy are inseparable, sinister sisters, seductive. Alexis Rhone Fancher maps the line between them like an expert cartographer, exposing the sad underbelly of the erotic impulse. Brazen picks up where her previous collection, Erotic, left off.
In the poem, “For the Russian Waitress at the Yorkshire Grill Who Reads Akhmatova on Her Break,” the speaker encounters the alluring “sloe-eyed Madonna” going about her grim tasks “tethered to the linoleum by tired booths and chipped Formica,” refilling the napkin holders and the salt shakers while a copy of The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova peeks out of her pocket. The speaker is struck by her beauty even as she recognizes the waitress’s sad life. She is impelled to – what? Rescue her? Befriend her? Make her recognize her essential appeal, charm? But ultimately all she can do is fantasize about her.
Later, in “82 Miles From the Beach, We Order the Lobster at Clear Lake Café,” the speaker encounters another harried waitress, “somewhere between forty and dead.” A cheesy neon sign outside blinks the words “Lobster” and “Fresh.” The restaurant is unsanitary, and before the waitress can take their order, the speaker kicks her companion under the table and announces they’ve changed their minds. “I’m responsible for the look of defeat on her face.” But her partner leaves a twenty on the table anyway, and the speaker experiences a wave of gratitude for her companion that’s implicitly sexy.
Another waitress, in “Target Practice,” stiffed on a tip by a famous, wealthy football player (“Mr. Olsen! Merlin Olsen! You forgot your fucking dollar!”), turns to phone sex. It’s much more lucrative. Her sketchy ex shows up as well, brandishing knives and a Glock 17.
Alexis Rhone Fancher presents these lives and sketchy situations with the skill of a noticer, giving us the small details that add up to the bigger picture of lives caught between desire and menace, violence and love.
“After the Restraining Order Expires, M Begs Me to Meet Him for Lunch” begins with the hilariously understated line, “Says he ‘killed it’ in anger management class.” You can already tell how much he’s gained from the court-mandated “training.” Indeed, there’s a lot of abuse throughout Brazen, violent men and women acting out. The menace is real. Yet “Midnight in the Backyard of Lust and Longing,” which involves two lesbian lovers – “The sapphists are at it again. Screw you’s! ricochet off our common walls, invectives landmine my window. You cheating bitch!” – and cops come to break up the brawl after a neighbor complains, ends with one, Holly, in the police car while the other, Marie, presses herself against the glass, the two sobbing, mouthing kisses. The narrator observes: “Can you believe it? I would give anything to be loved like that.”
The poems are almost all related from the first-person point of view, but though we are tempted to think this is Fancher herself, it’s a clever persona who likewise seduces us into her world. “Caged” begins, “He loves me because I look like his mother at 30,” and “Recidivism” begins, “Tonight I’m having drinks with my ex.” Both poems involve physical abuse. One ends, “We both know he could never hit his mother,” and the other: “I should have stayed home. Washed my hair. // When was the last time he hit you? / The intake worker will want to know.”
Sprinkled throughout the collection are half a dozen poems that feature “The Famous Poet,” a lecherous (if talented) old goat who simultaneously charms and amuses the speaker. “At the Party, the Famous Poet Goes Too Far with the Latest Sweet Young Thang,” “The Famous Poet Asks Me for Naked Photos,” “The Famous Poet Sexts Me While His Wife’s Asleep” (“Bad boy poets thirst for love, too. / He pretends it’s a joke, but it’s not.”): you get the picture.
There’s another lecherous old guy in “I Can’t Afford to Complain,” a horny aging colleague who makes lewd comments to the narrator. He’s essentially harmless, and she’s even a little flattered, but she basically feels it’s in her interests to humor him, offensive as he can sometimes be. Still, “There’s a thin line between compliment and assault.” Meanwhile, the man in the poem “Domestic Violence” definitely crosses that line. “Knives can cut both bread and throats, he warns, the stiletto steal tip teasing my trachea. A love tap.”
Not all of the sex is ghastly or threatening, though. Six “Odes to…” various of her husband’s body parts/characteristics are loving and sensual. In “Heavy Weight, Clear Vinyl Shower Curtain *****” the narrator describes a satisfying encounter in the shower with her lover. The poem ends:
Tomorrow I’ll give the curtains a 5-star Amazon review, as the seller, a mom and pop in Idaho, requested, if I’m satisfied.
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s eye for detail is also on display in the dozen and a half black and white photographs that punctuate the poems, including one of a sportscar with a vanity plate that declares NOIRIST, two women in brassieres goofing round, trapeze artists, and the stage an act worthy of the midway at the World’s Fair featuring “The Amazing Hypno Girl.”
You really need to consider each of these poems individually. The poet’s eye for detail is laser focused, in her poetry as well as in her photographs. But the noir and the sex are abundant, and the perspective is consistent. As she concludes in “Biting the Bullet”:
this is what I know too be true: either you bite the bullet or the bullet bites you.