Poetry Review

Review: Alexis Rhone Fancher and Cynthia Atkins’s Duets

Alexis Rhone Fancher and Cynthia Atkins’s Duets

Duets by Alexis Rhone Fancher and Cynthia Atkins is the result of a friendship and collaboration between the two poets. Each of them responded to Fancher’s photography and the result is a collection that captures the anxiety and inward-turning that we, or at least I, have felt over the last few years. This is a poetry that looks into the complex emotional life that exists during and after the shutdowns and quarantine, and the overlapping and undefined world that we live in. The photography does much the same. What makes the collection special however is the collaboration. The individual poems and photographs all feed on the energy of the others creating a unified collection that builds on the collective talents of both poets.

Both poets capture the bottled frustrations of the quarantine directly and well. Rhone Fancher’s “Self-Quarantine Day 240” ends with:

The barking dog’s owner has been evicted.
No one to bark at anyway.
Sometimes, I miss the din.
I can’t believe I wrote that (17).

Here, she expresses the need for contact and normalcy, even if that is created by an annoying neighbor. What is more frustrating than a dog that won’t stop barking? Our sense that everything in the world has been disrupted and the fear that it might not go back to what it was. I appreciate too that this sense comes throughout the poem and the collection in the form of an almost panic that is not expressed directly, but through the barely constrained actions and reactions. Even the ocean breeze “makes our thin windows shake” (17) as though nature is in conversation and sympathy with their emotions. Atkins’s work often reflects these same sensibilities: “We live in a box to avoid a virus, / we live in a virus to avoid a box” (21).

These are also poems of ekphrasis, written to work that Rhone Fancher captures on the streets of San Pedro and Los Angeles. They are often narrative poems that grow out of images and create stories from those images. Two of the strongest poems are in reaction to an image of three people, two men and a woman, eating and drinking at a dinner, and both poets create the stories of this trio out of the image. In “Contronym Diner,” Atkins inhabits the persona of the young woman thinking about her relationship with one of the men:

He takes me home, pays the rent. He muzzles
this voice, tamps me down like pipe tobacco.
Gasoline pours on the blueprints of all my plans.
Earth is a portal, I dig and dig —
my ruby lipstick stamps DNA on all
the coffee mugs. Bolt means to secure or flee (33).

The tension of the photograph moves into the mood of the poem, and Atkins draws out the meaning hidden in the image beautifully. Although the narrative of Rhone Fancher’s “Double-Timed at the Nickel Diner” is different, the mood is similar. Her story is about a man whose girlfriend is secretly flirting with the man’s friend. It is told from the friend’s point-of-view. The friend is at once repulsed and turned on by the idea of cheating, and he grows resentful of the boyfriend’s inability to understand what is happening. He comments on the boyfriend: “Idiot. Never could see what was right in front of him. I watched him chew. Clare watched the clock on the diner’s wall. Tick,tock. Tick, tock, she said” (32). Both poems contain the frustration of imperfect love and sexuality, and they work well as diptychs or as the collection’s title suggests, duets.

Collaborations can bring about work that is surprising not only to the reader but to the poets as well. This collection is powerful. Both of these poets have been long-time favorites of mine, and to see them develop their work together like this has been an amazing experience. This collection is a gift, and I hope they continue on with this work together.

*

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