How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen and Other Heart Stab Poems
by Alexis Rhone Fancher
Published by Sybaritic Press
Review by April Salzano
Reading Rhone Fancher’s newest collection is like one of those times you start out fucking and end up crying. Even when sex seems to be for a good fuck’s sake, the layers of meaning remain infinite. There is always more to it than that. Sex is a rite of passage, an exploration of selfhood and femininity, a power trip, a road trip, a mind trip. How you screw is who you are and everyone you refuse to be. Fancher tells us in the poem “Let’s Be Happy Now!” that she not someone’s old lady, but someone’s wet dream, “not the marrying kind,” but “the fucking kind./The lewd lingerie kind.”
While this is certainly one kind of woman within these pages, Fancher also portrays women as much more complex creatures. Her women are stilettos and flats, Mary Jane’s and “two-toned, two-faced saddle Oxfords that guard the door” (“Walk All Over You). They are wives and they are mistresses. They are also bitches, whores and narcissists. They are rape victims and beaten wives with “Dark Options” whose shopping list includes “star fruit, endive, hollow points/and a pair of balls.” They are as much heartbreakers as they are heartbroken. When a woman in this collection is hurt, it is often at the hands of another woman. Perhaps consequently, the female speaker is often as cruel to men as other women have been to her. Women are feared and fearful. One even finds a way to strip a rapist of his power in the poem, “College Roommates,” where she says: “I didn’t mine the rape./It was the softness I minded./He couldn’t get it up/when it mattered.” One trait consistent to women throughout this body of work is their power. They fuck, but they also love, and more importantly, everything they do is with passion. Indifference is not an emotion in Fancher’s repertoire.
Every corner of every poem is alive and vibrant. Although they are fewer than the moments of lust, there are many tender moments within, such as in the ekphrastic pieces closer to the end of the collection. In “White Flag,” for example, we catch a glimpse of another side to the dark, sexually liberated thrill-seeker (or perhaps a different speaker and woman entirely). Who has the power to make her “desperate for a second chance” like one of Hopper’s subjects? The sentiment echoes, haunting in it seclusion, lonely in its juxtaposition within such a body of work so otherwise explicit and sexually charged. This is not to say Fancher resists making even sadness sexy with her subject’s “parted knees, open thighs, that famous shaft of Hopper light a white flag.” As real as this woman is, the woman in the next poem, is nearly a mannequin, an objectified body, painted so that she will “Stay Put,” while her mind wanders the landscape of a framed painting on the wall. The shock here is this boredom not often found when the speaker is naked. Her stillness is heavy with implication.
Fancher leaves it all on the page just like her speakers leave it all on the bed (or the floor or the mustang or the…) Sex is self. Her sexual evolution runs parallel to the notion of self-development and recognition. “It was the most powerful I’d ever be,” she says in “The first time I gave cousin Lisa an Orgasm.” Making someone cum equals a kind of control; cuming means surrender of control. But it’s not quite that simple, as nothing in this poet’s work is. In many pieces, such as “Handy,” surrender is something to fear, akin to being “glued to the sheets or tethered to the box spring,” not objectified, but owned nonetheless. In other pieces, such as one aptly titled “Property,” the speaker, says of a lover’s thumb hooked in her belt loop, “like you have me on/a leash. Like you own me. I’m not sure I don’t like it.” Like all women, the degree to which one is willing to go against her nature is directly proportional to how enamored she is with the one making such a request, whether that means to be owned or to take a picture of her pussy with a Polaroid. The organization of the poems is such that we alternate frequently between two extremes: wanting to be possessed and wanting to defy the very notion. We need only trace the duplicitous use of the word “surrender” in this text to note how frequently the speaker considers allowing herself to be kept, but resists. Vulnerability itself is a “perversion,” as in the poem, “Flashbacks.” Sometimes the notion of desiring a lover too much means “swallowed up/Disappeared.” In other moments, she mocks her own obsessive need for freedom and danger: “When I desire you,/I think: no stringers./Like that’s a good thing,” as in the poem, “Love Bites” where she confesses, “I get all mixed up,” both as to why pain is sexy and why desire might mean ownership.
Though you may start out reading these poems for the sex, you will end up reading them for the raw beauty. The pain of loneliness and heartbreak runs a close second thematically to the many meanings the act of sex can hold. This collection is not for everyone. Just as one with a weak stomach would not read the gory details of an autopsy, a prude should not bother cracking Fancher’s spine.