In her new collection Brazen (NYQ Books, 2023), Alexis Rhone Fancher lets you know from the first lines of the opening poem where she is coming from, where she is going, and what is on her mind:
At the beach in late August, deep in the leather bucket
seats of his 289 Mustang, we didn’t although he kissed
me with tongue and open mouth. We didn’t, although his
finger traced my nipples to pinpoints on the outside of my
blouse, and his hot breath seared my neck.
— From “Why We Didn’t”
There is a lot of heavy breathing in that car and young lust but, ultimately, it all leads nowhere as the young man is college bound and Alexis is jail bait. The boy heeds the warning from his dad, “18 into 16 don’t go.” But, man, was he ever tempted. The rest is history.
Rhone Fancher is known for her forthright, in your face, sexual situations and she never pulls her punches. Brazen is all of that and more. Her work seethes with skin tingling sensation, she roars into action, because she is, well, one brazen lady. She knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go out and get it. And it is all fun and games until someone overdoes the substance abuse. And the bad men. She lines up bad choices and chooses the worst ones in a way that makes you wonder how she survived.
But survive she does. On what she described as “a slumming with women” couple of years, she continues her wanton ways taking the usual odd jobs. One of them is as a waitress where she earns total respect from the bartender/waiter in me with these opening lines:
When the former football star and his entourage leave
a $1 tip for me on the table, I run after him shouting,
Mr. Olsen, Merlin Olsen! You forgot your fucking dollar.
— from “Target Practice”
I’ve never waited on Mr. Olsen but I sure have waited on his kind. Most memorably William Devane, then at the peak of his career, who I overheard telling his driver/body guard/ brother, “I’m getting a reputation for being difficult to work with. You know what that means? It means I’m a pain in the ass.” And was he ever. In 34 years of “service industry work,” the only person who ever reached across a bar and touched me in an aggressive manner (bar fights don’t count) was Mr. Devane. Apparently, his Guinness was taking too long to settle for his taste. I could not control the process—it has to take as long as it takes, as anyone who has ever poured a Guinness properly knows. I looked in his eyes, looked at his hand and said, “Good things take time which means you have to wait. The last guy who did that to me ended up in jail and it wasn’t pretty.” Which he took as his cue to pack up and leave. I honestly don’t recall a tip, but we were beyond issues of money by then. Some things are worth more than money, as Alexis shows she knows.
A recurring theme throughout Brazen is a character referred to only as “The Famous Poet,” who is more of a type than an actual being. Everyone knows “there is no such a thing as a famous poet,” as Galway Kinnell once said to me, but there is a stereotypical, over 70, randy, womanizing, prowling, sex obsessive, alcohol abusing renowned poet willing to trade on his “name” for sexual favors. Anyone who has been to a writer’s conference knows who he is (or, more accurately, who they are). The names may change but the type remains the same.
The titles of the poems illustrate this point: “At the Party, the Famous Poet Goes Too Far with the Latest Sweet Young Thing,” “The Famous Poet Asks Me for Naked Photos,” “The Famous Poet Sexts Me While His Wife’s Asleep,” “At the Bar After His Reading, the Famous Poet Still Can’t Recall My Name,” and so on. The sweet young things are just objects to him and he is, well, a narcissist, an aging poet past his prime, but man, can he write. I guess the writing counts for something but it doesn’t earn you much respect.
I want to tell him:
How it felt to be touched by fame.
How he never returned my calls.
How some nights, the only way I get off is to imagine his words.
How even tonight.
I can’t keep my hands off him.
— from “At the Bar After His Reading, The Famous Poet Still Can’t Recall My Name”
Roughly half way through Brazen are six odes to her husband. These are sexy, but in a loving, we’ve been a couple so long we know what each other is thinking before we actually formulate a thought, way. They are funny, raw, and real, illustrating why Rhone Fancher chooses to frame her dedication as, “And thank you to my darling Fancher, who knows me so well and loves me still.” She may be or may still be a randy woman but she is strictly a one-man woman now.
There is only one profound note of deep sadness among this mostly free-spirited collection. “Bad Mother” shows what she perceives a generational sense of failed family relations.
My mother threw me to the wolves.
Loved my sister (the easier ones)
And my brother more.
Died when I needed her most.
My dead boy sealed my fate.
My only one.
I pondered suicide.
Learned to police my head.
Mind over matter, my mother said.
But she never lost a child.
— from “Bad Mother”
As anyone who is a parent knows how the death of her child, at a young age, in early manhood, is a life defining moment. That loss is the subject of her book, The Dead Kid Poems, which celebrates his life and her ongoing, impossible-to-recover from loss. “Bad Mother” is as searing, as unforgettable, as any could be, defining loss in a brutally honest way. She was not a bad mother, just a human one unable to alter a course that was beyond her control. “Bad Mother” concludes, “The day my little brother almost drowned/Even then, my mother had two spare kids/I should have had more.”
It should be noted there are many of her photographs scattered throughout the book. Her skill as a photographer matches her considerable writing ones as these “random” LA photos show. There is a chucklehead on a bicycle wearing what looks like a Viking hat, smiling for the camera, that speaks volumes. There are bouncers outside a shady nightclub, a rock and roll woman in and out of focus, studies in black and white, and many more. In fact, all of the photos give you a sense that LA is as much a character in the book as the people and places she describes. LA is a love object that knows no boundaries and Alexis Rhone Fancher is the woman to describe the underbellies, the insides of the city she knows and loves.