Fanny Says by Nickole Brown

It took me years to feel ready to open this volume of poetry. I saw Nickole Brown read at my first residency (as a student) at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where I now teach, in the winter of 2016-17. I cried the whole time; her poetry nearly killed me, and I bought two copies of this book (one for Liz), but was too intimidated or starstruck to ask her to sign them or to speak to her at all. (She also give a really great seminar titled “Learning by Design: Using Imitation in Creative Writing.”) Finally, I’ve enjoyed reading Fanny Says.

Fanny is the author’s maternal grandmother, and as the note at the book’s beginning says, many lines and whole poems “are not words I wrote but words I wrote down, transcribing best I could as my grandmother spoke to me.” Not surprisingly, then, one of this book’s strengths is the clear, distinctive voice I hear throughout, and one word that comes to mind is conversational: it often feels like we’re all in a room together, with this strong, sometimes abrasive, brave, take-no-shit woman.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered poetry where I felt such an absence of a wall of poetry standing between me and the content of the poems. Does that make sense? I’m often distracted by the form when I read poetry, and worried about what I’m missing, or lost in the not-quite-literal words themselves. Here I feel no barrier up between me and Fanny’s words as (I trust) she spoke them. I think it probably helps too that I first heard these words read aloud by the poet, so I have her voice with me, as well. I’m still not sure I’m capturing what is special about this work to me, but it touches me deeply.

Fanny is often eccentric and, what, uneducated, superstitious, sometimes hard to sympathize with (see the long poem “A Genealogy of a Word,” about Fanny’s use of the n-word and her relationship with her Black housekeeper). She’s from a world I don’t quite recognize. But she feels very real and immediate, and I can feel Brown’s love for her. And I do sympathize with her, very much, although not the part about the n-word. These things are hard to reconcile, and that’s why Brown writes about them, I think.

I love Fanny for her colorful and precise and unapologetic cursing – the book’s second poem is “Fuck,” a close examination of the word and its uses, forms, and sounds, “with the ‘u’ low / as if dipping up homemade ice cream, waiting to be served / last so she’d scoop the fruit from the bottom, where / all the good stuff had settled down.” And then there’s “Flitter,” a poem both about the linguistic choice for “your privates, your girlie parts” and about Fanny’s relationship with her flitter. I guess I appreciate the directness both of Fanny and of Brown’s profile of Fanny. I have too many favorites here to list. I’m just grateful to feel let in to these poems in a way that has been so rare for me, even with poetry I love. I’m not sure what makes the difference. But thank you, Nickole.

Rating: 8 plastic cups of Pepsi.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for your read of my book, Julia. And you’re right: there’s a lot about my grandmother that I couldn’t quite reconcile; I write this book both in remembrance of her and also to try to wrangle with the impossible truths, which is why I wrote that long sequence you mention. Your take on my poems means a great deal to me, and I appreciate this so much.

    • Your poems mean a great deal to me, Nickole. And thank you so much for stopping to comment here! I’m so pleased I got to hear from you at that residency.
      I’m glad you’re wrangling with those impossible truths. That’s important and brave work.

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