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Poetry Friday: “Dear Mr. Fanelli,” by Charles Bernstein

Submitted by on June 21, 2013 – 11:40 pm | 661 views

Isn’t commuting daily by subway like nothing so much as pursuing a reluctant lover?

You inhabit your starting point, envision your destination, and confidently plunge forward along well-laid pathways.

Filled with hope and longing, capable of doubt and despair, and knowing (in your heart of hearts) that being given a moment to sit and catch your breath qualifies as an urban morning miracle.

What’s most amazing, I think, is that we heave ourselves along the same inevitable course day after day (relationship after relationship?) — performing the same actions and expecting the outcomes to be different. O curious mix!

In 164 short lines — delightfully like subway tracks — Charles Bernstein’s Dear Mr. Fanelli, runs amok over our routines and surprises. The poem’s narrator (man? woman?; it’s not clear) takes seriously a poster inviting suggestions and writes to the manager of the 79th Street subway station.

He (I’ll say) begins by naming, one by one, the many physical deficits of the place. He seems particularly bothered by the regular delays in train service, but is no less unhappy about the debris, grime (“… The station / could use a paint / job …”) noise, air quality, and the unintelligible public address speakers.

None of these delicately but firmly enumerated complaints surprise any subway commuter. The narrator, however, also shows uncommon concern for those who come to stay (as compared with the passengers who merely pass through):

… Mr.
Fanelli—there are
a lot of people sleeping
in the 79th street station
& it makes me sad
to think they have no
home to go to. Mr.
Fanelli, do you think
you could find a more
comfortable place for them
to rest? …

The narrator steps up his game by expanding the circle of his concern to the city and beyond. It’s not easy to tell if he is concerned only with the physical and communal shortcomings of the world, or if there is also a note of existential urgency:

& sometimes at night
as I toss in my bed
I think the world’s
not doing too good
either, & I
wonder what’s going
to happen, where we’re
headed, if we’re
headed anywhere, if
we even have heads. Mr.
Fanelli, do you think if
we could just start
with the 79th street
station & do what
we could with that
then maybe we could,
you know, I guess, move
on from there? …

Shortly after this exposition of the woes of the station and the world (and the slender possibility of hope therein), things start to get weird. The narrator’s encompassing observations focus more intently on the life and times of the apparently hapless Mr. Fanelli.

Personal questions (“Do / you get out of the / office much? … Do / you read much…? … do you get out / of the city at all”) settle in alongside more queries more intensely probing (“… do you think / it’s possible we / could get together / and talk about / these things in / person?) The narrator also shares his concerns about his own health and well-being.

Social justice seems to have given way to personal need and unhappy longing. All his aspirations — for a clean station, a humane world, more robust health, some personal fulfillment — have escalated and rest now on the already-overburdened (and silent) Mr. Fanelli. The narrator, like subway commuters and unsatisfied lovers, hopes against hope:

Mr. Fanelli, I haven’t
been feeling very good
lately and I thought
meeting with you face
to face might change
my mood, might put
me into a new frame
of mind. …


Charles Bernstein is the Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1995, he and Loss Pequeño Glazier founded the Electronic Poetry Center which “serves as a central gateway to resources in electronic poetry and poetics at the University at Buffalo, the University of Pennsylvania’s PennSound, UBU web, and on the Web at large.” His most recent book of poetry (published this spring) is Recalculating.

In a particularly pungent rant — Against National Poetry Month As Such — he counsels and stimulates:

The reinvention, the making of a poetry for our time, is the only thing that makes poetry matter. And that means, literally, making poetry matter, that is making poetry that intensifies the matter or materiality of poetry—acoustic, visual, syntactic, semantic. Poetry is very much alive when it finds ways of doing things in a media-saturated environment that only poetry can do, but very much dead when it just retreads the same old same old.

(“79″ from Daniel Lugo /LugoLounge / cc by-nc-nd)


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