by Toby Altman
I Am Not A Pioneer. by Adam Fell. Charleston: H_NGM_N BKS, 2011. 100 pages. $14.95. softcover. ISBN-13: 978-0983221524
I stumbled into Danny’s a few months ago and caught—by accident—poet Adam Fell reading. The details are hazy (libations and an empty stomach), but Chicagoans will know the atmosphere of the place. The reader: a silhouette or less. The audience: huddled on backless chairs, nursing warm bottles of Schlitz. (“A good place to hook up with hipster boys,” reports a friend). Danny’s has a welcome devotional feel: a place where the studied ironies of contemporary poetry entertain a forbidden gravity.
Such a devotional atmosphere made startling concord with Adam Fell’s poems. His work is sly and earnest, a complicated (though unequivocal) pleasure. Take “Friend Poem”, my favorite from his new book, I Am Not A Pioneer:
When you arrive on a bridge
suspended above a mighty jungle river,
fleeing from religious zealots that are a part
of a secret order of religious zealots,
I will be that bridge… (1-5)
This is a well-worn postmodern posture, citing generic standards with ironic abstraction. Fell rescues the poem (and the posture too?) by shuffling into an altogether different voice, wide-eyed and inebriated with ideas:
…they will no longer be religious zealots
but condensed packages of nutrient-rich materials
that will flow to the sea and become food
for the living snow that drifts
through the baleen of enormous creatures,
feeding those creatures and keeping them
safe and happy and full
in the collected deepness of their bodies… (9-18)
The “flooding world,” Fell concludes “is the collected / deepness of all our bodies.” Here, the respective ruminations of digestion and metaphysics coalesce into a single process, and a single body of insight.
The poem lifts into this unexpected profundity through reckless self-division; it is a continuous coming-to-be, always acclimating to its own sudden timbres. Srikanth Reddy writes that Fell’s is “a negative poetics of identity”—a poetics that attempts to refuse a single lyric ‘I.’ Importantly, such negativity is achieved through abandon, excess. Fell’s poems are not characterized by the absence of identity, but its profusion—a profusion of persons, voices, species, all churning and competing for space.
Often this occurs within the same lines. In “There Must Still Be Something Left of the Minotaur in Me,” the speaker simultaneously occupies the space of bull and exhausted adjunct:
The children load me into the trailer,
padlock the tailgate, take the dirt road,
past the sanitation plant, the tannery,
the strip club where my friend
watched his student dance. (1-5)
The poem ends [spoiler alert] with the punished bull breaking out of the slaughterhouse, in an act of improbable, phantasmatic violence:
I gore my way through the men,
feel their stomachs give,
feel the razorwire,
the chainlink buckle before me.
I run. (48-52)
If there is a fantasy at the heart of these poems, it is for that sublime rupture from the constraints and confines of self. I say fantasy because Fell is too savvy to imagine absolute rupture—or rather, to imagine that such a rupture is real. As the poem’s title implies, Fell’s fantasy emerges from a sense of privation and impotence: the minotaur is both imminent in the self as well as lost, perhaps irretrievably.
Perhaps there’s something salvific in that ambivalent loss, which I’ll go ahead and call regret. At the end of his reading at Danny’s, Fell drew his iPod from somewhere in the darkness of the bar, and turned on Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike.” “Twenty years,” he said with palpable feeling, and swayed. “I’m going hungry,” Eddie Vedder moaned in some tall grass. It was a hilarious and awkward ending, punctuated by the audience’s confused laughter. But it was also oddly moving: a transubstantiation of loathing and nostalgia for the 90s into a compact of beer and pleasure and regret. That’s what these poems do. Even as they fantasize about escape, they pull us back into our confected, unsteady selves—and they teach us to feel new pleasure in that familiar space.
Adam Fell is the author of I Am Not a Pioneer, published in 2011 by H_NGM_N Books, and the chapbook Ten Keys to Being a Champion On and Off the Field (H_NGM_N, 2010), which is available as a free pdf here: http://www.h-ngm-n.com/storage/SH76_NewChap.pdf. His work has appeared in Forklift, Ohio; H_ngm_n; Diagram; Tin House; Crazyhorse; notnostrums; Sixth Finch; Ink Node; and Fou; among others. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison & the Iowa Writers’ Workshop & teaches at Edgewood College in Madison, WI, where he also co-curates the Monsters of Poetry reading series.
Toby Altman lives in Chicago with his dog and friends. His poems are forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, The Berkeley Poetry Review and Birdfeast. A chapbook of his prose poems, Asides, will be published by Furniture Press in the Fall. He is cofounder of Damask Press and a member of the Next-Objectivists.