Scarecrow, what now? Once in a long gone time, I stitched you thread by thread, helped weave, across your wooden spine— small thrush busy at a nest—a thatched cross of arms, a tattered fashion of rags and rope Faced with this wreck of purposes and the natural evolution of intentions, the persona asks the scarecrow: Should I pray? Should I turn away? Half stand in hungry shadows, half fly in famished light.
It’s all here: what will weave its way throughout the book, holding each of these masterful poems together in a greater whole: the father, who emerges from several poems as an ambiguous tangle of love and broken will, from whose chest the materials for the work were plundered; the wrestling with what is left of God and prayer in a world broken to shards; and, for Fanning, the most persistent and resplendent trope: the chiaroscuric light that is always present in the poems. This is why I say cinematography: Fanning teaches us to see differently by his manipulation of light and shadow in poem after poem after poem. All of these major motifs are drawn together in a celebration of the artwork itself, but beyond that the process of grappling with the raw materials of observation and experience to fashion something more, even knowing that at any moment the murder of crows will come to undo what was intended, leaving in any case something that speaks to the whole world of beauty as it erupts from self-generated chaos.
Larger than most first books of poetry, The Seed Thieves unfurls itself across fifty poems. We glean a rough outline of the poet’s experience from them, and he begins by introducing us to the burnt shell of a childhood home in “Blueprint of the Ruins.” By blueprint, Fanning suggests what is left of the architecture after the house is ravaged by fire, perhaps set in the basement by a mislaid cigarette by his father (inferred from “Shepherds and Angels” and “Still Shot”). As readers, we are welcomed into what once was the front door, the threshold, the house itself reduced to a map of what it once was. The dust itself from the ash becomes a medium through which “even lifting our hands to pray / we disturb the air.” For Fanning, there are no actions without consequences, and even something as tenuous as prayer pushes its will onto the natural world. The burned house itself collects meaning throughout several of the poems: we are taken back to before it was destroyed, and we revisit the scene of the trauma. Beginning like this at the midpoint, a moment of invitation into the aftermath of many life events, and an initiative experience of events which follow, the persona asks, “What will we make of this light”?
“This light” is multifold, and much as Frost’s snow blankets his “desert places,” in Fanning the light, and its obverse, shadow, connects. There are lights of dashboards illuminating the faces of those about to die, tools of a dead craftsman illuminated by sunset and seemingly “lit from within,” the phosphorescence of fireflies and jellyfish, the streetlights who bewitch and destroy moths, lights tirelessly blinking at a switchboard in heaven, the flickering of Jesus impersonators on a t.v. screen, the burning midnight oil of the namers of wars, the insistent headlights of a midnight tractor ride, the backlit exposure of dental x-rays, the candle-lit drama of a diner’s choking, the “shards of broken silver light” emanating from a tin star at a children’s Christmas play, the varying light of camera footage shot by his father, who was rarely himself captured directly on film, and on and on. Beautiful light, horrible light, light that reveals and light that conceals, light that tells “bright lies”:
Tonight I leave the white electric hum of streetlights, those killing globes that cause moths their last thrusts of faith and delirium. Dumb believers, starving for light, the gauze of their dead wings covers my fingers with dust. I’ve learned from them a daring trust in darkness saves a life. Tonight I leave the tease of light’s bright lies— that led me, by its touch, to believe I see. Walking through a dark field, my eyes give in. Behind their lenses, in absence of light, another aperture opens—the same sense with which I watch in every sleep a life inside my life take shape—as if another light goes on beneath: a ship’s lamp scanning reefs that reveals a cave once lost to sight. In that world shines a silver streaking eel, the real light, that burns by what it feels.
Digging a bit further in the genealogy, I think simultaneously of Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” whose seafarer, cursed by killing the albatross and set adrift to be the sole survivor of his adventure, notes that “slimy things did crawl with legs / Upon the slimy sea,” and for whom the eels epitomize his alienation from the divine and nature, and “Kubla Khan,” whose “caverns measureless to man,” are unbeheld in a subterranean landscape, opened only through an opiated and truncated break with reality. In Fanning, there is a romantic retreat from the technology that artificially determines our lightscape, and thereby what we might believe that we can know about the world, toward recognition that “another light,” the “real light” is self-generated and constitutes a soul-life buried and separated from the world that it should be connected to. This attempt at reconnection to nature, and thereby to become a supplicant to the divine, is the scarecrow cross spine of The Seed Thieves.
Fanning is a petitioner, imploring and pleading for an authentic connection with the world, but he recognizes as one cursed that our perceptions can’t often be trusted. Humanity goes astray in so many colorful and creative ways, he notes, with relentless, brave and disappointed honesty. Needless to conclude, I recommend this book for anyone with the potential to be moved by the written word.
Some poets are painterly, taking their inspiration from visual artists directly or indirectly. Robert Fanning is a poet who seems cinematographic in his attention to creating atmospheres in short lyrics that are lucent, sonorous, and that at their best, blend sound, sense, and image to achieve masterpieces. There is, in his work, the muscular skepticism of modernity and humor of Howard Nemerov. The book is so moving and mature an experience of reading, that one imagines Frost at mid-career, and this is Robert Fanning’s first book. Like Nemerov and Frost, Fanning inherits a contemplative art infused by romanticism that is both tender and tough in its ability to expose, expect, and forgive.
The title, The Seed Thieves, comes from a poem titled “Scarecrow Cross,” and in fact, the title is carefully extracted from this poem that ties together themes explored throughout the book. “Scarecrow Cross” is a subtly rhymed three-stanza lyric about the inevitable unraveling of human intentions: the scarecrow is torn apart by the very crows that it was intended to deter from the harvest. The persona, who created the scarecrow from “rags and rope / stolen from my father’s chest”, watches as the murder of crows, the seed thieves, go about the work of dismantling the effigy of his father, himself, his art. There is a blend of both degeneration and regeneration in the description of the scarecrow as the thrush builds its nest across the wooden spine and the “thatched cross / of arms,” even as, at the same time, crows, seemingly bent on destruction, are perched on each shoulder: