The author of Our Sudden Museum on possessions as proximity, crafting a narrative poem, and the complexities of memory

Bennet S. Johnson
May 3, 2017 · 8 min read
Photo Courtesy of Robert Fanning

Sometimes we have to put a book down. There might be dinner plans — are we cooking this time? The phone might ring with a relative awaiting us on the other end. The pets might need feeding. Maybe some of the characters are a little too unrealistic. It could be that the setting feels a little too stereotypical. But sometimes, if one is lucky, the cover is closed because the book is just too good. Robert Fanning’s latest collection, Our Sudden Museum, is one of those books.

Within seventeen pages and multiple poems which examine the death of one’s brother and sister, I was a complete mess. I needed to put the book down. As I took a walk, I began to realize why I needed to stop: it was those almost invisible details. A child playing alone, the ripe fruit bought just yesterday, the lipstick stain on a glass, the various ways footsteps match the body which produces them. Fanning’s capacity to depict the nearly unnoticeable details of grief, fear, parenthood, and perseverance forced me to surrender. Still, such a talent is in no way singularly directed to a finite language of loss. At one instant the rhythms and sonic aura of a poem will make you chuckle and grin. A few pages later the extended metaphors and precise imagery results in a fond remembrance of one’s beloved. No matter what the poet observes, his craft never fails to achieve something new, different. In the end, what remains after this swell and crash of sentiment is the often unutterable reality that all things inevitably end, only to be followed by something, or someone, soon after.

Robert Fanning reads at Literati Bookstore on May 4th at 7 PM. The week before the reading I was given the privilege to send him a few questions. Fortunately there were no tears in this email correspondence.

The title of this collection is taken from a line in “Staying the Night.” In that poem, the speaker passes an evening at the home of their recently deceased sister. Throughout the poem, the audience witnesses multiple images, or artifacts, which relay the profundity of such a loss. Yet, unlike a traditional museum, the speaker of this poem is able to touch, smell, eat, and even kiss the artifacts. Similarly, at one point, the speaker says, “nothing can now be ruined.” In what ways are these grief-ridden images, or artifacts, already broken? What is it about the relationship shared between the living and the dead which makes such a museum, our museum?

Objects within themselves are something of a nothing, but with human contact and attention become receptacles for lived lives — while we are here; they hold our breath, our tears, bits of our flesh. Impressions of our bodies. I think of Jane Kenyon’s short poem “What Came to Me,” in which she removes objects of a dead loved one, her mother, I think — from a box. It is a process of memory, touching each object. Finally, the porcelain gravy boat arrests her. But why: it is the dried gravy on its lip that causes her grief to pour forth. Gravy that touched tongues. Gravy that entered the body. Rilke knew deeply the power of things — the connection between spiritual and material via the object was at the heart of his work. But the intensity — the connection — between us and the object, between us and the dead, which sadly, I don’t believe we can accomplish — is at least approached by our concentration, by we the viewers, by our looking and our contact.

So, yes: the peculiar intensity of the objects in this poem is rendered by the immediacy of their context, but also their intimacy — my sister’s death only a day old. Were my sister alive that day, I certainly wouldn’t have been smelling her hand-towels, staring longingly at her handwriting. Ironically, though the speaker of the poem lingers on the objects — it is his sister with whom he craves contact. The “artifacts” can’t be broken now — nothing can now be ruined — because the human who gave presence to the objects is gone. What makes the object an artifact, a treasured thing — that it was touched, made, held, breathed upon. We imagine, and maybe even feel, if only in passing, that we touch the gone, by holding their objects in our hands, by walking through their empty rooms.

When the dead are our dead, we would break the museum glass to hold their vessels in our hands. And it is one of my duties as a poet to make my dead, our dead. To make my loves, our loves. When those walls come down, we are in a shared human space, and that is communion.

Salmon Poetry (04/28/17)

Throughout the collection we witness numerous references to birds and walls. But with each reference the audience experiences a new and different development of the motif. What is it about these two subjects which allows for fruitful reinvention?

The house, the temporarily solid structure, as vessel — as momentary container of the light, the flight, the ephemeral of life: this is a core metaphor that runs throughout this collection, the walls and birds being symbolic representatives of these larger thematic nations. In the very first poem, “House of Childhood,” itself shut within the locked room of the sonnet — but here cracked by white space — ripped by wind — the speaker remembers his childhood home, which of course now lives within himself, within which, in a room therein, his remembered self also dwells. In the space of that poem, which is now, as all poems are, a room of memory, he remembers a bird that flew into a vent and got trapped. And he remembers his fear of ghosts. As the sonnet turns and moves back to the entrance door to exit, the speaker realizes that perhaps it is a later version of himself that was the haunter, the ghost, the trapped bird. Our age haunts our youth; we cannot re-enter our house. So, in that poem a bird is conduit through the walls of memory. In “Birds After Dark,” the speaker remembers something of the safety of the blue egg of childhood. In “The Farmer in His Rows” a farmer stops his work to admire the soaring birds in the sky who’ll have nothing to do with the grid of his hours, the rows of his fields. So he is filled with longing. For the flight trapped within himself. His body is the wall. In “The Bird in the Room,” the speaker hallucinates, as it were, a bird in the house, which is his own fear of death, visiting the room inhabited by his aging mother. She spits out feathers. And yes — there are a dozen other instances of these motifs — of the walls (containment), of freedom (birds). “Fruitful reinvention,” to me, is the poet’s work tilling the fields of metaphor, of symbol. Some things: rivers, birds, walls, light — these are hardy perennials. They take the light. But it is the poet’s job to place them well, to turn the soil, to make them new again.

One thing I greatly enjoyed about this collection was your deliberate positioning of certain poems which engage in conversation with one another. “The Book of Knots” and “Love Poem” strike me as the most apparent and powerful example of such a practice. Were these poems always right next to one another? Though their subject-matter is similar, their appearance on the page and inevitable take-away are quite different. Was this always the case?

Those poems, throughout the manuscript’s many iterations, did hover near each other and are complimentary following one another. It’s wondrous and strange about manuscript-making — the poem as solitary individual placed beside others — and how quickly it becomes a social gathering — poems beginning to engage in small talk, and some arguing. The party gets out of hand often.

The arrangement of this manuscript was a struggle — especially as it is elegaic at its core but has wide stylistic variances, thematic variances; that’s a good thing, but it was hard, to compose a larger song with so many movements.

Like a poem, this book had dozens of shapes, of titles. The finished book, I’m happy to say, is a lively conversation, ultimately, which is rather surprising, as it took many years, more than a decade, in fact, to fashion.

“A Consideration of Potential Afterlives and the Ontological Interrelations of All Beings at Bedtime, or, The Ladybug Friend” made me giggle and cry — sometimes this happened simultaneously. One thing which struck me about the poem was your usage of italics to switch back and forth between a conversation and the dramatic scene which surrounds the conversation. Were there any challenges with balancing these two types of text throughout the poem?

Narrative poems containing dialogue do certainly present challenges, especially as the poem is also a conversation with the reader. So that’s a lot to manage. On the surface of this poem, the father is trying to soothe his son after his boy’s pet ladybug dies — however, the conversation with his son becomes for the dad, a simultaneous personal struggle in the moment to determine his own views of the afterlife; it’s a bumbling case that unravels when his son confronts him with a question about his dead sister. It makes me think of Toto walking behind the curtain and revealing the Wizard of Oz — which the poem alludes to in the end. So the italics, the spoken text in this piece, are crucial not only as dialogue, but they also serve as key structural elements in the poem, they are the father’s pieces of evidence, gathered haphazardly from a variety of spiritual/religious viewpoints of the afterlife, metaphorically presented as colored swatches — the father’s a failing salesman; his son isn’t buying.

Poetry, for whatever reason, often seems to enjoy, or be drawn towards, the exploration of those various gaps and holes inherent within our capacity to remember. Are there any precautions you take when working on poems which deal with memory, especially memory as it relates to significant loss? How does revision fit into your sense of authenticity when writing a poem that is so heavily fixated on the past?

Memory and imagination share a border we traverse when we remember, particularly while remembering in the act of rendering the past into art. However, the poem, in the end, is in its own time; it is its own context. It becomes a borderland. At the core of the collection, in the poem “Back to the Old House,” a contrapuntal, the speaker and his brother try to recall as much as they can, simultaneously, of their childhood home. They argue over some of the details — the color of the carpet, the placement of rooms — as if they are trying to rebuild the house, or to keep it from being demolished, erased. “As we remember we rebuild,” the poem says. That poem is the answer to this question, in a sense.

Of course in writing an elegy, especially, I want to nail down the facts as they were, to honor the subject — but, especially being one with a horrendous memory, I know there will be blurred edges in places. So, like the archaeologist in a dig, I extract what facts I can, then set to reconstructing the dinosaur as it once stood. Perhaps I will have most of the femur, but one section might be held together with a piece of plastic imitating bone — to connect the pieces. The act of memory is always revision. What matters most, always, is the emotional truth the poem conveys.

The Ribbon

A blog from Literati Bookstore, downtown Ann Arbor, MI. ThAuthor interviews, book news, staff reviews, and a whole lot more.

Bennet S. Johnson

Written by

The Ribbon

A blog from Literati Bookstore, downtown Ann Arbor, MI. ThAuthor interviews, book news, staff reviews, and a whole lot more.

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