American Prophet
Robert Fanning
Marick Press, 2009
Review by Matthew Falk

With his most recent collection, Robert Fanning has done something noteworthy and rare: he has found a new way to write about the mediated and commodified landscape of 21st-century America. Deftly side-stepping both pomo snarkiness and heavy-handed earnestness, Fanning estranges the familiar by filtering it through the point of view of a wide-eyed naïf known only as the Prophet.

As readers, we follow this itinerant Prophet, in his black thread-bare thrift-store suit, through shopping malls and cinemas, in airplanes and traffic jams, to national parks and ramshackle barns. We observe “his people” through his eyes, sharing his bemusement at their ways, and we also share his frustration when his admonitions and exhortations are ignored, drowned out by the cacophonic bells and whistles of popular late capitalism.

The Prophet is a holy fool who embodies the contradictions of the American character. Although possibly insane, he is astute. Although sui generis, he is also an avatar of a stock figure, the sympathetic outsider who sees into the heart of things. In elegant and tightly controlled language, Fanning portrays this compelling protagonist via a series of impressionistic scenes: the Prophet steps onstage between Elvis impersonators, the Prophet peruses online astrology sites, the Prophet microwaves his dinner and watches Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Fanning is a poet with a story-teller’s gift. Although each poem is a self-sufficient unit, the whole book has a strong narrative arc, as the Prophet repeatedly strives to fulfill his self-imposed mission. That mission, essentially, is to make himself heard, and the Prophet tries various methods to accomplish this, from leading “a tone-deaf marching band” through a throng of Sunday shoppers, to scaling billboards and radio towers at considerable personal risk. (Far be it from me, folks, to suggest that there’s any kind of metaphor there for the role of the poet in contemporary culture.)

There are moments dispersed throughout the book where the Prophet almost succeeds at communication, but such moments are always fleeting, never quite consummated. In “The Prophet at the Terminal Opening,” for example, he sings through his megaphone to a rush-hour crowd of commuters, only to be, as usual, thwarted:

…High in towered alcoves,
huddled pigeons cluck, tipping

yellow eyes like satellite dishes
down toward the lone chorister,
this countertenor whose straining aria,
nearing its peak, is suddenly swallowed
in a deluge of monotone

pronouncements: a litany of scheduled
arrivals and departures, uttered once
by the voice of a real woman
who now sings digitally
all day long, never missing a note.

Like a new St. Francis, Fanning’s Prophet preaches to the birds of the air, while his people, reduced to mere cogs in a monstrous machine, look but do not see, listen but do not hear.

Moreover, even those who do hear him may fail to understand for while the urgency of the message is apparent, its meaning is less so. As is true of any prophet worthy of the title, his remarks tend toward the gnomic. Enthralled, for instance, by a wall of wide-screen HDTVs for sale, he declares: “Here we stand face to face / with the mirrored eye of the fly / who leads us blindly into the Valley of Death….” Seeing kids at a county fair drop the eggs they’d been balancing on spoons, he predicts: “Children, it will be like this for you / in the breaking days, carrying the fragile world / of your birth through the distance and the wind….” And so on. But unlike the Prophet’s wayward wards, Fanning’s readers should know that these utterances are not the mutterings of a madman but true transmissions from a sensitivity savant. We would do well to consider their import.

Robert Fanning will be reading in at Court Street Gallery's Last Friday event on Friday, January 29th at 7pm. Court Street Gallery is located at 414 Court Street (2nd floor) in Old Town Saginaw.

© Matthew Falk, 2010