After reading Brian Fanelli’s third poetry collection, Waiting for the Dead to Speak, I was immediately drawn to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland and, in particular, a scene where Alice asks the Cheshire Cat, ‘“Where should I go?” The Cheshire Cat replies, “That depends on where you want to end up.” Like Alice, Fanelli experiences life events in which convince him that adaptability is necessary for success. He grows into adulthood by keeping a level head as he struggles to live in a world that has been turned upside down. Whether it is in “refusing defeat” in, “For Jimmy, Who Bruised My Ribs and Busted My Nose,” or “When we see a swastika graffitied on the red door” in, “Trying to Catch the Culprits,” or “On the TV the war boomed like fireworks” in, Watch War from the Dorms,” Fanelli attempts to show us that, no matter what hell we’re living in, we must remain confident, and hold our own against the most troubling situations life throws at us. If we don’t remain steadfast, where we end up might very well be in a state of disarray, a rabbit hole so to speak.
Let’s take a more in depth look at some of those troubling situations. Although Fanelli is not a veteran, he is astute in his ability to show us the human cost of war, and its affects it has on the soldiers that fight them. “In Post-Deployment,” Fanelli writes:
When I saw you post-deployment,
downing shots at bars, I never asked
if you killed someone, or how it felt to hold
a rifle, if you ever had to contemplate
squeezing the trigger to save your life (34).
Fanelli does not need to ask, only observe his friend “punch dance/to let out whatever aggression remained.” He is a poet that skillfully pulls at the emotional effects of war. As he says in “Living with War,” “We no nothing else./We’ve always been at war.”
In addition to trying to make sense of the war in Iraq, Fanelli struggles to wrap his head around the disgraceful manifestations of racism. In “At Thanksgiving Dinner,” he is so angry that his “crazy uncle” declares “George Zimmerman not guilty of murder” of Trayvon Martin, so angry in fact that he wants “to leap across the table/yank on his tie, shove his face/in gobs of mashed potatoes and turnips.” But Franelli wisely keeps his temper in check. Instead, he listens “like a senator from a more civilized time/willing to acknowledge and then refute the other side.”
The two significant events that seem to sum up all the hardships found in this collection is the death of Fanelli’s father, and the break-up with his girlfriend. In the title poem, “Waiting for the Dead to Speak,” Fanelli is speaking to his mother regarding his father’s death:
I want to ask what you do
to call him forth because I haven’t said his name
or visited his grave in ten years. I’ve had no visions,
and I remember how you said
the worst thing to do is to forget (44).
Fanelli mentions a girlfriend in several poems, but the ones most striking are “Late January Hike” and “Driving Along Countryside Roads, Mid-Winter, Pennsylvania.” In the former he writes:
On this day, I pause
and feel the sun upon my cheeks,
its touch as relaxing as your fingers in my hair.
When I open my eyes, I see the hushed
trail before me and wonder
where you are now, and what you’re doing (89).
In the latter, he writes:
I want to kiss you, here,
on the roadside, near the fields,
while winds snap against our cheeks,
and the cardinal takes flight,
soars above us, a splash of red
beneath the gray, while I kiss you
long and hard, here, on the roadside,
February, mid-winter, Pennsylvania (90).
In both of these experiences, though under different circumstances, Fanelli loses someone he dearly loves. And taking the advice of his mother, he does not forget them, but struggles to accept the losses. Even more so, it seems the loss of his girlfriend is the most devastating, for it seems that it is she that has helped him overcome past fears (school yards bullies) or his anger toward racism (wanting to choke his crazy uncle). In “Waiting Out the Storm,” Fanelli writes:
I wanted to wait for the mass of gray to pass,
but you pulled my hand, tugged me
to the line, said, Come on. It’ll be fine.
You never take risks (81).
And again, in “Haircut:”
I closed my eyes, leaned against the wall,
a blue towel draped around my neck, as I trusted
your hands with the scissors and listened…
I took my place against the wall,
pulled a towel around my neck and trusted
that your hands would not slip (87).
Now, without the support of his girlfriend, Fanelli must seek support elsewhere. As the writer, Jim Daniels says, Fanelli is a survivor, and he finds solace in the calming and invigorating work of gardening. In “Raking Leaves,” he writes, “There is something soothing about the scrape of the rake…” (80) and in “Awaiting the Thaw,” he writes:
Soon, April will come in like a lover;
her touch warm enough to disrobe March’s white coat,
and I will bend low in a new backyard to prep a garden,
and lay new roots beneath fresh soil (93).
Despite the hardships, setbacks, and disappointments, Fanelli bravely pushes on with his life. Like Alice, he has adapted to harsh environments, “so what blooms,” he writes in “Learning to Garden,” “can withstand/rare frost and sudden bursts of wind.”
I admire Fanelli’s bravery enormously. This is not an arrogant poet seeking recognition. Fanelli writes from a sympathetic and forgiving heart. He encourages us to stand fast, to claw our way out of the disillusioned and absurd world of the rabbit hole.
Matthew Hamilton is a former Soldier, Congressional Aide, US Peace Corps Volunteer, and Benedictine Monk. He holds a Master of Fine Arts from Fairfield University and is a four- time Pushcart Prize nominee. His chapbook, The Land of the Four Rivers, published by Cervena Barva Press, won the 2013 Best Poetry Book from Peace Corps Writers. His second poetry collection, Lips Open and Divine, was released by Winter Goose Publishing, 2016. Currently, he is the Librarian at Benedictine College Preparatory, an all-male, Catholic Military high school in Richmond, VA.