Alexis Rhone Fancher
NYQ Books

Reviewer: Brian Fanelli

Anyone even slightly familiar with Alexis Rhone Fancher’s work knows that she doesn’t shy away from sexually charged and raunchy poetry. Her collected works for NYQ Books is called Erotic, for example. Her latest, Brazen, continues the tradition of poems that ooze with fierce and bold female sexuality, while also incorporating her photography that enhances the collection, especially some of its depictions of Los Angeles. There are poems about one-night stands, bad lovers, and famous, unnamed poets prone to ghosting. Yet, despite the numerous verses about doomed relationships and horrible exes, there are also poems that celebrate love and healthy unions.

The opening poem, “Why We Didn’t,” rings out like a shotgun blast, alerting the reader to Fancher’s unabashed voice. The piece certainly celebrates sexuality, but it also exercises restraint. The title alerts the reader that the couple, a pair of teens, don’t quite go the distance. Still, the speaker describes every little thing they did do in vivid detail. First, we begin with that familiar image of the teens in the car, a “289 Mustang” with “leather bucket seats,” to be exact, before the eighteen-year-old kisses the speaker with tongue and open mouth. From there, it escalates, fingers tracing around nipples, hot breath searing the neck, yet hands that stay “reluctantly” above the waist.

The poem constantly teases the reader with more and more, but also has the refrain, “he didn’t.” It toys with expectation, with detailed descriptions of teenage lust and body parts, but then pulls back. Then, the poem is punctuated with sorrow, once the speaker feels abandoned after the young man goes off to college, a feeling relatable to many late teens. It concludes, “Before he left for college / in San Diego, he didn’t; he left me behind in L.A.” This feeling of loss permeates the collection, as there are several other lovers who ditch the speaker or simply don’t return her phone calls. Yet, I suspect readers will find that opening piece one of the collection’s most relatable. Who can’t recall those make-out sessions in a car and that sense of sorrow when someone moves away to college at the end of high school?

Several bad lovers populate Brazen, men who think they’re entitled to whomever they want, as well as straight-up abusers. “After the Restraining Order Expires, M. Begs Me to Meet Him for Lunch” is a short narrative about an ex who claims he “killed it” in anger management classes recently and that “everything’s under control.” Meanwhile, the speaker wonders how long it’ll be until the ex will “turn deadly.” You just want to shake the speaker and tell her not to accept the lunch date or the man’s shallow platitudes. Instead, the poem ends suspended in the moment, the man’s shirt riding up slightly and the speaker stating, “I’d pull his shirt back down, / but it would be too much like tenderness.” It’s unclear whether she’ll hook back up with him. The poem toys with a reader’s expectations, much like “Why We Didn’t.” The reader is left to discern what may occur next.

Meanwhile, other poems depict outright sexual abuse. “Old School,” which begins with the epigraph “as told to the poet by SGM,” outright describes a series of sexual assaults, one after the other through the decades. Each stanza introduces a new abuse. It begins: “It’s 1984. A board member at the L.A. Library Association pushes me against the Xerox machine, forces his tongue down my throat.”

It doesn’t get much easier from there, and I suspect this piece may be triggering for victims of sexual abuse. What the poem illustrates is that these acts were often committed by men in positions of power. The third stanza reads: “It’s 1985. I’m raising money for medical research when Dr. Abdul R.H. greets me at the Saudi embassy. When my shoe catches the hem of my dress, exposing my breasts, he claps.”

As stomach-churning as these incidents are, they feel integral to the collection. Fancher exposes the abuses on the page, while also noting how difficult it is for women to have a voice in spaces too often dominated by men. The poem concludes with the heart-shattering lines: “It’s 1978. I tell the president of the Brooklyn Music Academy of Music we’re all resigning as a group. Who is “we”? he asks. I realize I’m on my own.”

To be clear, not all of Brazen underscores sour relationships, awful exes, and sexual assault. There are moments of tenderness here, be it in the photography or the poetry. “82 Miles from the Beach, We Order the Lobster at Clear Lake Café” is one of the final poems in the collection, and it’s a nice change from much of what precedes it. It also contrasts with a few other poems about lousy tippers and what it’s like to be a female waitress. In this one, a couple has been driving since dawn, before spotting neon that flashes “Lobster” and “Fresh!” They’re seated by a “harried waitress,” “somewhere between forty and dead.” In this dive’s salad bar, there are “grease pools in the dregs of blue cheese dressing,” while a roach “skims the edge.” Even though the couple decides to exit, the man still leaves a twenty on the table. The speaker concludes, “I have never loved you more.” Simple in its narrative, the poem feels understated in its power. Fancher again captures a single instant in time, and more importantly, portrays a lover who is good-hearted compared to some of the other jerks the speaker has dated.

Fancher is a poet unafraid to write about sex, the female body, and female desire. Brazen is a raw collection with packed language and rich memory. Her work feels like two-minute punk songs rattling the walls at CBGBs during the 1970s or a young couple screwing in the bathroom of L.A. music clubs in the 80s. This book is unabashedly visceral, yet tender at the same time. Her poems remind me of the women I knew in my local punk rock scene, how unashamed and ultimately inspiring they were.

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