Review: What Happened? By Mark SaFranko
By Alan ten-Hoeve
I first heard the name Mark SaFranko by way of the great Dan Fante who dropped his name in a Bruno Dante book, describing him as one of the few writers telling it like it is. I don’t remember Fante’s exact words, but I enjoyed that series so much I decided to check him out.
I started dipping into his work with Hating Olivia: A Love Story, a novel that knocked me on my ass. I continued from there, working my way through anything I could get my hands on: The Artistic Life, Lounge Lizard, No Strings, The Favor, Sometimes You Just Don’t Want to Know. The books weren’t always easy to find and sometimes copies had to be borrowed. I lost one of my only good friends due to the fact that I ghosted him when I decided to indefinitely borrow the copy of the hard to find Hopler’s Statement he lent me (since “borrowed” from me). It was a small price to pay.
So, Fante was right. SaFranko wrote about the only kind of life I understood (low-wage dead end jobs, toxic relationships, bouts with dependency, crippling depression, destitution, craven misdeeds, following one’s dreams, like sirens, only to crash on the rocks time and time again) in stories often taking place in New York and New Jersey, where I grew up, a region which he burrows into from angles only someone with real experience can manage. Now, even while living a hundred miles away, cracking open a SaFranko book can still bring the smells and sounds of my home state to my senses.
Along with Poe Ballantine, SaFranko is one of the few writers I genuinely get excited to read. So when Cody Sexton asked me if I’d be interested in writing a review of his new book, I jumped at the chance. Mostly because I selfishly wanted a sneak peek at the book. He sent it right away. Once the high of the score wore off I felt a gnawing dread and thought, what the fuck did you do? Outside of an occasional trip to Goodreads to tap in a few stumbling words of praise for a book I especially enjoyed, I’m not much of a reviewer. What the fuck could I say? There are people who can make art out of a review (Jesse Hilson comes immediately to mind), but I am not one of them. Then I thought, shit, what if I don’t like the book. That’s always a possibility, no matter how much I like a writer. Everyone is entitled to lobbing a few clunkers. But I opened the file, bounced it over to my kindle, and by the time I finished the first poem, realized I needn’t worry about that. And I should have known better.
What Happened? is like a quiet storm rumbling in the distance and contains a coruscating range of snapshots that focus on what’s beyond the reach of many lauded poets. It’s unpretentious, unadorned, uneverything that makes me put most other collections down or X out of a pub link on social media. The book contains words about the consternation that comes with aging, death, the writing life, regret, middle age drunk sex, feeling like an interloper even on the margins, disillusionment with his art and that of others, suburban life, relationships, depression, suicidal ideation, writing style, the peculiarities of other artists, surviving (especially oneself, if only temporarily), the “little prisons” we find ourselves living in, and so much more.
What Happened? gives off dense, smokey whiffs of Bukowski’s later works. Maybe that’s because, like Bukowski, SaFranko is a writer who blooms within the sordid crevices of life, giving off the impression of a fearless surety of vision, regardless of what others think. But in What Happened?, like Bukowski’s The Last Night of the Earth Poems, he strips himself of this armor and holds his heart out for all to see, showing us that, under the privately prolific writer who seems to charge ahead like a wayward bull, he has a fragile and compassionate soul, chipped and cracked like the rest of us. It bears a self-conscious attitude toward this particular work (referring to it as “aphorisms”) that can’t be obscured or misinterpreted in the shadow of fiction. But to me the best writers don’t need to rely on tricks and form or the accepted styles of the literary ostiary. There is no rosy bullshit in What Happened?, no neat little twists tacked on to the end so the reader can delude themselves long enough to guzzle down the next heaping ladle of human shit. Nothing but honesty on the pages or the screen. Each and every piece clear and bleeding with no effort to stanch the flow. SaFranko’s ability to zero in on the small moments that cut deep to the center of us all is disturbing in the best way. To me this is the very definition of poetry.
Another thing about this collection is, and I don’t know if this was intentional, or just exists in my own perception but, I enjoyed how some of the pieces appear to be arranged in a way that one links into the next. Nothing felt like it was just dropped anywhere for no particular reason. In this sense the book felt a little like an album that a band arranged in the way they wanted you to hear it.
The only mistake I made in opening What Happened? was assuming I’d eat it up quickly, but I often found myself pausing to think about what I’d just read, sometimes just a small section, because so much of what is written hit those bullseyes that make the reader say, “Holy fuck.”
In a poem titled “The Cost” SaFranko says he’s “NO POET . . . No Pound No Eliot No Rilke” which I only half agree with; to me he is a poet of substantial significance, but no, he’s none of the poets he mentions, and I am thankful for that, because then there wouldn’t be a Mark SaFranko.
Alan ten-Hoeve drives children to school. He wrote Notes from a Wood-Paneled Basement (Gob Pile Press), and Burn (Malarkey Books KLR10).