Robert Fanning is the author of Old Bright Wheel (Ledge Press Poetry Award 2003) and The Seed Thieves (Marick Press, 2006). His poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Poetry, Ploughshares, The Atlanta Review, The Hawaii Review, America, The Ledge, and Artword Quarterly. A graduate of the University of Michigan and Sarah Lawrence College, Fanning's writing awards include a Creative Artist Grant from ArtServe Michigan, the Inkwell Poetry Award, and the Foley Poetry Award.


3 Poems by Robert Fanning


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.


In a gymnasium's makeshift theater
the third grade takes the stage.
Down in the audience of wide smiles,
of flashbulbs, suits, and fur-coats—
I am disheveled, I am smoke,
I am the family on the yard watching their house burn.
The chairs around me empty.
Up there, third row, second from the left,
my nephew, a shepherd, hoists a large
cardboard candy cane, squinting through lights
to look for his family. He doesn't know yet
about this morning's fire: his molten plastic toys,
the TV a lump of melted black and glass,
nails driven backward through the standing walls,
a charred shingle simmering on the frosted lawn.
His class, in off-key dreamy voices, sings:
Christmas is Jesus' Birthday, Birthday...
This day Our Savior reigns...
Their fingers point to heaven, to the iron ceiling
where a wire-hung tin foil star sways,
sparking crinkled shards of broken silver light.
Why do we do this to our kids?
The world with its drunks and accidents,
its dropped cigarettes, the flames licking
the windows over this stage—
and our little ones year after year, kneeling
under yellow crayoned haloes, placing
the paper crown on the plastic baby’s head.


Miles away, Aunt Joyce drifts
in the slow flood of her dying,
lying in the cancerous raft
of her body. Here in this house,

we wait in separate rooms for news
of her imminent death, avoiding
the telephone, that black tumor
on the wall, its dark cord a dangling hook.

Every hour’s a floating mountain
of ice grinding past the window.
Late in the day, when the wave
of her death crashes into us, we’re drawn

into the living room. Sitting with
the mourners, Aunt Joyce’s shattered
family, each clinging to each other,
I cradle Gabriel, my infant son.

Watching his face, I see
a sudden great smile surface—
a bright fish, a sweet foolish leaping.
Almost ashamed, I move to cover it,

this untimely delight on the mouth of my son,
all stirring and giddy, who has yet to learn
the appropriate response to death
or who is only just trying to teach us.