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Flight and Fight

Singing in a low, warm tone, Simone Felice twists gently in the restaurant booth, tracing figures in the air with his hands, as if stringing the words on a line. In an Army-surplus shirt buttoned at the neck and an incongruous knit hat—a loosely crocheted skull cap, with vaguely floral nubs—he is a striking presence. He could be a runaway or a rock star, rail-thin and unheeding of standard dining-room decorum.

The singing—a mellow, soulful croon reminiscent of Cat Stevens—would suggest the latter; but as Felice wraps up his impromptu performance and as conversation renews, and touches on the young author-poet-lyricist’s motivations and inspirations, an eavesdropper might draw a more complicated conclusion.

“I would have liked to have seen the whole American system crumble,” says Felice, who will perform and read from his new book, Goodbye, Amelia, at Changing Spaces on Saturday. “That’s how angry—how angry and sad—I was at the flag-waving and the manipulation of the masses. I was disgusted.”

Recounting his reaction to the attacks of Sept. 11, Felice talks in turn as a revolutionary and as a partisan. His admitted disgust with what he perceived to be the blindly jingoistic saber-rattling of the current administration is informed by a personal, albeit thorny, attachment to the concept of America. He speaks as a disillusioned lover.

“I was born in 1976, the bicentennial,” he says. “So I grew up with the notion of America as a superpower, and I associated the progress of America with technological progress, as so many of us do. You know, I had a fascination with flight as a symbol of American progress into the future. That idea of progress—of flight and technology as progress—was intriguing, and I was fooled by it.”

The Palenville native’s boyhood regard for the potentials of flight changed on Sept. 11, but even before that, he says, he had grown suspicious of the self-replicating mythology of this country.

“Four months before 9/11,” he recalls by way of example, “the ridiculous movie Pearl Harbor came out—I just felt that there was something wrong, that something had gone wrong and that something was going to happen. And when I saw the planes hit and I saw the buildings burn, I knew there was a change.”

That the world changed after Sept. 11 is an accepted platitude now, but Felice’s statement is not intended as a eulogy to a better time erased by violence or to the end of an imagined innocence. Felice regards the event as the brutal iteration of an ages-old truth, a painful lesson that must be taught over and over.

“We have to learn how to embrace loss,” Felice says. “If we try to hold on, we’re in some way enslaved. . . . I tried to let it go, my own feelings about the government and the fact that man burns men, but it’s been happening since the first fire. I just had to stop letting it consume me.”

As a means of letting it go, Felice composed the novella Goodbye, Amelia (the book of the same name contains that novella as well as “Prayers of the Silver Propeller,” a collection of poetry). The novella is a fluid, lyrical exploration of brutality and loss as liberating forces; an ode to the beautiful violence of the independent soul in a community of senseless conformity.

Though the characters of the novella—the titular Amelia, abandoned by her mother at 4; her lover, the domestic terrorist, Payne, and his comrade Elton; Amelia’s stoic father, Paul Fisher; her mother, Rose Marie, who runs both from and to love; and Rose Marie’s lover, John Sparrow, the Vietnam vet who returned to America’s “mean plastic roar” to hold private conversations with the Devil—are crisply delineated, they are unconventional. Felice avoids the showy and self-conscious verbal dexterity of a Jonathon Safron Foer, on the one hand, and the terse and derivative neo-realist bleakness of workshopped Carver acolytes, on the other. His characters are iconic and richly symbolic. They are the competing and contentious voices within the soul of an ambiguous America. After a murderous attack, the terrorists Payne and Elton discuss their places—or their lack thereof:

—If they still rode horses I would go, said Elton. Bad paintings and movies of such things rolled in his head. Payne shook his head and drank.

—I think it must have been different then, said Elton. –The world was different. Not so close. You could see what you were fighting. It had a name.

—It still tore you up, name or no name. It might have taken longer but you still saw your stomach and your own heart beating in the dirt ten feet away. You still screamed like an animal before you died.

—But there were things to hold on to. Ideas.

—Someone else’s ideas. Someone who wakes in a bed and puts on good clothes and his body smells like fear and he talks in numbers and he is very far away from the screaming.

The arc and intersection of the characters’ individual narratives describe a process that is, by the logic of the novella, both grand and inevitable: aspiration, aspiration as yearning (romantic or spiritual), yearning as motion, motion as destruction, destruction as the promise of rebirth. The work has the bitter tang of fatalism, but not of pessimism. The lesson of loss, Felice seems to believe, is not despair. Rather, it is that through creative interaction with loss, and through openness to experience, one can grow and live.

“I don’t have much hope,” Felice admits. “But I revel in beauty: in the beauty of a mother with her child, of a flower garden . . . ”

With a sweeping, inclusive gesture of his hands—for the moment, free of song—Felice adds, “. . . the beauty of you and me having lunch.”

—John Rodat

Simone Felice will perform and read from his book, Goodbye, Ameila, at Changing Spaces Gallery (306 Hudson Ave., Albany) on Saturday (Dec. 6). Also performing will be Bryan Thomas and Tom Burre. The 7 PM show is free. For more information, 433-1537.

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