Odalisque by Ben Fama

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Ben Fama’s “Odalisque” arrived at my door in an envelope appropriately marked FRAGILE. From the Miami via London “Ocean Drive” graphic design of the cover, to the translucent gold flyleaf, to the double title page and even the subtle hint of couture in the thin machine-stitched binding, the curated design aesthetic of this small release (edition of 100) matches the opulent fantasy of its content.

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Many of poems in “Odalisque” have been recently published in esteemed poetry journals, but the experience of reading them collectively was revealing. The speaker behind these poems is enamored, overwhelmed and ultimately affected by the materiality of contemporary life. Fama’s work has always been concerned with his relationship to the objects of the world around him, and the poems collected in this chapbook reflect an increasing preoccupation with branded experience; iPhone, American Apparel, YouTube, Amazon.com etc. This use of reference never feels forced or gratuitous, but rather functions as a necessary means for positioning the speaker in relation to our everyday (social) media; basically the iPhone is equivalent to what a Coke was for the New York school.

“Odalisque” is the work of a whimsical mind mining the poetic possibilities of a contemporary experience mediated by consumer-brand identity and digital media, where the distance between our intellect and material world seems to be getting simultaneously larger and smaller. Fama offers coy philosophical musings on the technological vehicles of our culture with a yearning curiosity.  The implications are that technophobia is a waste of time, that the objects of our culture are worth both questioning and embracing, that “It’s an honest joy to be shocked by beauty in the 21st century.” We live in a world of profile, update, interface etc. “Odalisque” offers this world as rich with possibility, where the outcomes aren’t yet fully documented or predictable.

I had been reading Andre Breton’s “Manifestoes of Surrealism” prior to this chapbook and here I am unable to help recalling Breton’s suggestion that, “The value of the image depends upon the beauty of the spark obtained; it is, consequently a function of the difference of potential between the two conductors. When the difference exists only slightly, as in a comparison, the spark is lacking.” Breton’s notion of the beauty of an image is one where the difference, the potential, between two elements is vast enough to allow room for the associative habits of our thinking to run wild. That is the work I see being done in “Odalisque.” The poems operate in thedisparity between individual and interface, the vast gulf between subjective musing and objective reality, between commodity and consumer. Take these lines from the poem “Fantasy”,

The prism refracts But the stone is cloudy All that comes through Are the deeper obsessions Arvid Nordquist and dry shampoo Cocaine and Pellegrino

In the headspace of the speaker, the abstract world of dreaming/desire etc. is conflated with the materiality of branded culture. Arvid Nordquist and Pellegrino are “deeper obsessions.” Both are premium brands, one coffee, the other bottled water. Both are commodifications and augmentations of the most essential element of life, water. As human beings, water is always one of our ‘deeper obsessions’, here the correct label is also required. This idea plays out again later in the poem,

Sometimes I use this French product To soften the water When I soak in the bathtub It is silent there Like a tomb Sometimes I wish I was already in mine Sometimes I wish The world had a face I could touch the cheek of

Here nature is mediated and augmented by commodity, a product that softens water.  Through the commodity, a heightened existential experience, awareness of death, a desire for a more embodied world, a world that can be touched, is achieved. The hint is that the products we choose determine the self, or maybe it’s the other way around.

This notion of self mediated and determined by commodity is also evident in the poem “Tumblr Skies.” As a Tumblr user myself, the title is evocative of several truths. Tumblr is a heavily image-based platform, and yes, photos of skies and sunsets frequently appear in my dashboard. The construct “Tumblr Skies” is suggestive of an idealized sky, a sky worth ‘sharing’, a sky worth ‘re-blogging’.  This commodification of nature, the choosing or borrowing or exchanging of a sky becomes a performance of self/identity, and reveals the complexity inherent in our ‘user’ identities, how choice is becoming increasingly synonymous with the creative act. In the poem Fama writes,

even my own thoughts I only think somewhat Haribo gummies girls in fall clothes I’d like to perform something not dominated by industry each consumer decision is a chance to end the world

This is a troubling, updating, of the conventional figuration of the self. The idea of original thought, of self as divinely inspired creator, is being dismissed in favor of something much larger, the amalgamated byproduct of industry and interface.  The implication is that under the economic system we currently endure, our power, our self, our individuality is ultimately expressed through “consumer decision.”

The title poem, “Odalisque” concerns itself with a beloved. Unsurprisingly, the love relationship plays by the same rules as the relationship with the self explored above,

I think in that eyeliner Lancome and Dior You would give me Something to live for By doing something Remarkable Like throwing A champagne flute Off a yacht

The romantic imagination of the speaker is activated not only by the beauty of the beloved, but the beauty of the beloved accentuated by a product. Also, the idea of remarkability, escape from the mundane via the beloved, is realized through an abject relationship toward the commodity form. The beloved throws a champagne flute off a yacht, willfully rejecting the use and exchange value of the commodity in favor of an act that is private, absurd and playful, an act that operates outside the rules and value system of Capital.

As a title for the entire project, “Odalisque” eschews complicated traces of the male gaze and Orientalism inherent in the classical genre of painting erotic fantasy figures, and repurposes the idea toward an updated notion of fantasy and escape. The grandeur of the speaker’s desires is clearly evident in moments like

I wish I could afford a room At the Peninsula New York Suites with TVs above soaking tubs With city views And all that sun on Fifth Ave. I live inside it too

Contemporary luxury, the Peninsula New York, is figured with the romanticism of a neoclassical odalisque painting. In a global society where I am able to view the farthest corners of the earth on Google Maps, mystery and opulence are no longer expressed in geographical terms of distance, but rather in social terms of status and entry. The farthest, most remote places that can be imagined are those removed from concern with financial discourse, the towers of luxury hotels, frontiers where the limits of access are monetary not technological. Fama is accurate in figuring that for most readers of the poem, these places are exotic.

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Jon Ruseski writes music and poetry & about music and poetry.