BOA Editions, 2015
$15; ISBN: 978-1938160-57-8
Reviewed by Deborah Bacharach
When Fanny says, “Come here, you little fucker, and give your grandma a kiss,” I run straight into these surprising, delightful, and deeply empathetic poems that tell the story of Fanny, the author’s grandmother, a white Southern woman up from “poor soil, bad dirt, pure clay” who knew ten different uses for Clorox and had lots of advice on how a woman should live.
Many of the poems are in Fanny’s own voice and straddle the line between poetry and prose, giving the reader the best of both worlds; we get character and dialogue as well as beautiful imagery, metaphor, and lyric intensity. Brown often writes long sectioned poems full of dialogue and stories, and Fanny tells a great story. Along with everything else, this book is funny. In the prose poem “Fanny Says How to be a Lady,” Fanny says:
1. Never tell your age. If under cardiac arrest and the ambulance comes, the paramedic will ask lots of questions—the city you live in, the president, your last name. Answer him best you can, but if he asks the year you were born say, You’re the doctor here. If you’re so fucking smart, why don’t you tell me how old I am?
Brown uses mundane details to build to the punch line–stuffy advice with salty language.
Brown’s wit holds barbs, though. Poverty and the objects of a life marked by poverty are put center stage in Fanny Says. This is not a sentimental portrait, but a clear-eyed view of a complicated woman who fought hard for her power and the nice things that she considered essential: not just Clorox, but Pepsi, Crisco, and Phenobarbital get long sectioned poems full of imagery:
Pheno is a renegade drug,
a cowboy hee-hawing outside town, not giving
a good God-damn
facts conveyed with details that reveal, in their juxtaposition, the corners of a life:
[Crisco] A Depression-Era cure-all—for ashy elbows, for rusty skates, for squeaky hinges and cracked heels and cuticles and psoriasis and hemorrhoids and bicycle chains.
and how that object lived in Fanny’s world:
Crisco, because Fanny says you have to wear your husband out, and sometimes you might be counting flower petals on wallpaper, but you best pretend,
Just put a little shortening up there, she said,
he’ll never know the difference.
Fanny has a lot to say about how a woman should live. Getting a man, keeping a man, putting your face on, and making a potato salad all fall under her purview. In “Fanny Says How to be a Lady,” she mixes standard sexist advice about making men wait for you (“he needs to come to the front door proper and knock”) with “Be mean and fight for it.”
The speaker is a contemporary woman, and although Brown refrains on commenting upon what Fanny says, letting it stand on its own, I suspect she sorts the advice, rejecting what degrades and taking in what stiffens the spine. The point is less the details of what and how to feed a baby or even how to rescue one from the hospital, but a demand that the reader pay attention and remember this complex and beloved person. As Fanny says “You’ll remember what I tell you? You’ll remember won’t you?” And that memory isn’t always easy.
I found my stomach clenching during the dark parts of Fanny’s story: when she didn’t get the protective order or she bought a car without her husband’s permission. And often I didn’t agree with her advice, but I loved hearing it. Brown’s sharp humor invites that love. Fanny’s voice often reminded me of the mother in Jamaica Kincaid’s short story “Girl,” who thrums with a tone of admonishment, exasperation, and desperate love.
The book’s speaker, who feels very much to be an autobiographical one, notes that Fanny wasn’t always easy to understand. She had “a mother tongue only she/ could sing.” Brown, who clearly chooses every word carefully, weaves in poems about Fanny’s malapropisms, linguistics, and hieroglyphics (the poem about trying to decipher the shopping list was both hilarious and a bit panicky because getting it wrong made Fanny mad), redefining what some might call the improper use of language into a celebration of Fanny’s particular diction.
In those words is love without reservation: “You fucker you, don’t you know/ there wasn’t a day when you weren’t loved?” says Fanny to the speaker. Even though Brown objects to Fanny’s racism “a skidmark, a shit/ stain” and devotes a 15 page poem to its permutations and complexities, she returns that love wholeheartedly in how she shares Fanny, “teased to Jesus / and set with aerosol,” with us. Fanny’s is a life we don’t often get to see in poetry, not from a sympathetic and intimate perspective. I urge you to take this opportunity.
The Broadsided Poem in the Book
“Pepsi,” – Broadside with art by Karen Cappotto (published April 1, 2015)
4 Questions from Broadsided, 4 Answers from Nickole Brown
Bsided: Broadsided published an excerpt from your long sectioned poem, “Pepsi.” How does that excerpt give a window in to the larger poem and the book as a whole?
Brown: I had always called this book a biography of my grandmother, Fanny, but once Patricia Smith called it my “unleashed love song” to my grandmother, I thought, yes, that’s what I’ve written. Because somehow I needed someone to give me permission, to help me understand what it was I was writing all those years. You see, Fanny’s story was complicated as she was. She was bawdy, tough as new rope, born into a house of seven children during the Depression and married, like most all women of her generation in Kentucky married, young—she was barely fifteen. Not too long after, she had seven kids of her own. This means that writing the story of her life was nearly impossible—it was far too complicated and layered and contrary—and besides, who was I to tell that story?
What I could do, however, was look closely at the things she loved, at the artifacts of her life, the totem objects she used every day, like Crisco or Clorox or Norell perfume. And well, Pepsi was at the top of that list.
I swear, I never saw the woman drink a sip of water or Coke or tea, and never would you see a glass of beer or bourbon in her hand. No, it was always Pepsi, and even though writing about her life was too overwhelming, I could at least research that carbonated beverage, look into its history to learn how it was made and marketed during her time—to piece together what it was that drink said about who she wanted to be in this world. The first thing that occurred to me was that during her time having a soda meant you weren’t dirt poor, that you could walk right into the drugstore and order from the counter, something she likely wasn’t able to do in her childhood of milk in a pail and water pulled from the well. So it said something about class, as did what kind of soda you drank, be it commonplace Coke or discount RC.
Another thing to note was that Joan Crawford came to represent Pepsi when she married one of the company’s chairmen back in 1955, so to my grandmother, the drink had that extra Hollywood aura about it, every bit as polished and bitchy as that actress herself. With her hair teased to Jesus and her false eyelashes on, my grandmother found her own kind of glamour, and a fresh Pepsi in hand completed the look.
Bsided: As you say in the introduction, many of these poems are built from Fanny’s words. How did you gather them? Memories? Interviews? Did Fanny know you were doing this project?
Brown: I can go back to my very first journals—ones that I kept when I was but fifteen—and find pages and pages of my grandmother’s gossip and jokes and sayings, written nearly word for word, and I continued that practice for decades, scribbling down recipes she told me over the phone or writing down stories she told over and over again while I sat at her bedside at the end of her life. I also have a few blessed recordings of her, some of which is excerpted in the audio book of Fanny Says so that folks can hear a bit of her voice.
Now, never once did I collect her words because I ever thought I would use them for any poem or project, no. I simply didn’t want to forget what she said. Matter of fact, when I was younger, it was quite the opposite—I thought I would never write about her, that I couldn’t write about her, that I’d have to deny that place from which I came in order to “make it” as a poet, whatever that means. This has a lot to do with shame, which is something I think a lot of Southerners have in their bloodstream, and I was convinced I’d have to abandon much of what I knew of home in order to write, that I’d have to scrub my tongue of that thick accent in order for anyone to ever take me seriously.
My suspicions weren’t entirely unfounded either, because throughout the early stages of my academic and publishing career, I experienced more than one moment of discrimination when my roots would show through a word mispronounced or said in such a country way. Perhaps that’s why I always wrote down what my grandmother said—because from an early age I knew I’d have to leave her behind in order to have the life I wanted, and as such, I began missing her long before she was ever gone.
It’s ironic, of course, because writing the poems I needed to write—writing the poems only I could write—brought me right back to her. And there’s also this way that I’ve been preparing to write this book for a long, long while, far before I knew I would write it. When I was an undergrad, I was studying anthropology and went into the hills of Appalachia to record the stories of women living there, which gave me a newfound appreciation of so much of what I was trying to leave behind. Later, as a grad student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, I invested all of my critical studies to other authors writing in dialect to try to see if there was a way to get vernacular speech on the page without stereotyping characters.
It was only years after graduation—and years after Fanny’s death in 2004—that I gave myself permission to bring her world onto the page and treat her with all the respect and lyricism it deserved, and in many ways, writing these poems, stitched me back together, allowing both my past and present self to be together in the same room.
Bsided: In these poems I feel you both embracing Fanny’s world and putting some distance between yourself and her advice. Which of her advice holds true for you?
Brown: Good question. On the surface, one could certainly see how much of what Fanny said was contrary to what you’d want to instill in a young woman. The old-fashioned ideas about never opening your own door or telling your age or exercising or breast-feeding is considered irrelevant (and often hilarious) now, and her views on race were hideously misguided. But underneath it all, she was this tenderhearted woman who had to scratch and claw her way through life.
And most of the time, all of her fussing and bossing had a larger purpose, and that was to instill in me the urge to keep my head high, or as she used to say “to be mean and fight for it.” Women of her generation didn’t have a chance if they didn’t put up a fight, and though that kind of fire didn’t come natural to me, she lit it under me so many times that I now carry that flame. I wouldn’t be half the person I am now if not for her and the many times she demanded that I demand respect for myself.
Bsided: Many of the poems in this book are prose poems, and I know you are an editor of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series dedicated to prose poetry. What draws you to prose poetry and why did you choose it for this material?
Brown: I’ve always had a strong leaning toward cross-genre work, an interest reflected not just in Fanny Says but also in Sister, a novel-in-poems. And my years working with the Marie Alexander Series have fed that interest, helping me to see the architecture of a poem on the page and how the space around it can relax the words into conversational prose or squeeze it into the more elevated speech of verse.
Now, the pieces in prose form in this book—nearly all that begin with “Fanny Says”—are in my grandmother’s voice; I didn’t write those pieces but wrote them down, nearly word for word. They’re in simple paragraphs because line breaks would be of my making, not hers. In these pieces, I’m attempting to get out of her way and let her tell her own story. It’s my hope that here I disappear entirely, that it’s just the reader and Fanny, sitting together in a room.
And the lineated pieces? Well, those are mine. Some are letters addressing Fanny directly, and line breaks help pace the message. Others are incantations that arose from memory and myth; their ephemeral nature needed an abundance of white space to contain them, so they look spare and quiet on the page. Then there are several longer poems in numbered sequences: they are puzzles I was trying to piece together, and their shape is a part of the mosaic of an answer I found.
Deborah Bacharach is the author of After I Stop Lying (Cherry Grove Collections, 2015). Her work has appeared in The Antigonish Review, Mojo, Pembroke Magazine, Inscape, Cimarron Review, and Sweet Tree Review among many others. She is an editor, teacher and tutor in Seattle. Find out more about her at DeborahBacharach.com.