Before radio, television, and the interstate highway, America’s many parts were more culturally distinct than they are today. Moreover, before careers in university creative-writing programs made most of our poets into journeyman professors, many American poets lived in and wrote about places that had been home for decades rather than semesters. What, then, does it now mean to be from or of a place in our largely rootless America, and what now grounds the contemporary professor-poet?
This is one of several serious questions about the profession of poetry and the identity of the poet that Beth Ann Fennelly approaches sidelong in her third book of poems, Unmentionables. Three lyric sequences do most of the book’s heavy lifting, and they wind up offering an impressive set of ruminations on the poetic calling in the contemporary world. Although these sequences don’t explicitly critique the poetry culture of the moment, their exploration of Fennelly’s own work and identity suggests a set of claims that extend beyond the personal. Both of Fennelly’s earlier collections also clustered around ambitious sequences (“From L’Hotel Terminus Notebooks” in Open House and “Telling the Gospel Truth” in Tender Hooks). Although she also has a light touch with the quick lyric or the racy narrative poem, Fennelly takes unusual advantage of the expansive potential of sequences, especially in Unmentionables. Each of these sequences obliquely raises a question that is part of her larger inquiry: how an artist manages those things that tie her to the outside world.
“The Kudzu Chronicles” considers the geographical aspect of this question: whether a Midwestern transplant, brought to Mississippi to teach poetry writing, can take root as a Southern writer. The primary subject of the poem is kudzu, the invasive vine imported from Japan to the South more than a century ago, and which is now a vegetable plague as pervasive as starlings or fire ants. Though it is not itself native to the area, kudzu now thoroughly dominates the landscape of Faulkner country, and becomes for Fennelly a sort of mascot or metonym—not only for the place but also for the possibility that an alien might thrive there. It’s a plant perfect for tall-tale exaggeration, and, in “The Kudzu Chronicles,” it gets married to the cotton fields (or, at least, wants “to be [their] better half”), overwhelms a derelict police car (“kudzu driving, / kudzu shotgun, / kudzu cuffed in back”), “breeds its own welcome mat,” and, like a python, chokes down the gardener’s hoe when his back is turned. The exuberance of this hyperbole spills over into Fennelly’s description of Mississippi’s summer fecundity, as well as the analogy Fennelly draws between kudzu and herself: the comparison becomes a license to imagine even herself, if briefly or ironically, as a sort of tall-tale figure, strutting unabashedly like a rockstar on the stage at a county-fair concert. Kudzu, as it turns out, is a sort of authorizing precedent for her own hopefully flourishing transplantedness.
As the sequence ends, she imagines a grave for herself in Mississippi, which would finally resolve the question of where she is rooted as a poet (“Am I not a southern writer now?” she asks in an earlier section). She asks, in this final section, to be swallowed up by the landscape she has come to claim:
Listen, kin and stranger,
when I go to the field and lie down,
let my stone be a native stone.
. . .
Then let the kudzu blanket me,
for I always loved the heat,
and let its hands rub out my name,
for I always loved affection.
If Fennelly can’t be sure of her regional grounding in life, she can at least wish for burial, a literal grounding that will place her amid the kudzu. And if this grave is going to be in Oxford, Mississippi, Fennelly can’t help lying down “among the Falkners and the Faulkners” (in an earlier section she notes “the u he added to sound British”), in the “giant plot the kudzu wants but is denied.” Faulkner’s grave and estate are landmarks in the town, and Fennelly has always been concerned with her inheritance from previous generations of writers. Tender Hooks and Open House summon John Donne, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath; in one poem from Tender Hooks, Fennelly attends a yoga class at Faulkner’s estate. Fennelly’s most extended cross-generational literary dialogue in Unmentionables is not, however, with Faulkner, but with John Berryman, in a sequence called “Say You Waved: a Dream Song Cycle.”
In fifteen sections, Fennelly brazenly borrows the fifteen-line form of Berryman’s Dream Songs, as well as certain idiosyncrasies of his style: syntactical inversions, diacritical marks for emphasis, puns, anachronisms, ampersands, and odd coinages such as “forsookèd.” Her daring pays off: Fennelly never tries to pass her work off as Berryman’s, but she’s able to squeeze splendid effects from her pastiche. She even deploys Berryman’s manner to praise Berryman’s manner:
you who force your readers to their knees
to gather & restring the beads that from a height
in the air oh awkward but at last—
Look what we made!—dynamite, your sentences
circling our throats.
These Berrymanesque convolutions of syntax are helpful, as Fennelly suggests, for keeping the linguistic back-and-forth between poet and reader lively: “Headstands, / says my yogi, aid circulation.” Over the course of this sequence she manages to articulate affection and understanding for Berryman the man, as well as an appreciation for his poems; her points of analogy are multiple and various, in precisely the way that a sequence of lyrics best allows. By trying on Berryman’s trousers (“the Henry-hose,” she calls them) for fifteen pages or so, she manages to move beyond allusion, reaction, or Bloomian agon to a kind of empathy and identification: a different sort of rooting down to the past than in “Kudzu Chronicles,” though this sequence also concludes with the poet lying down in a grave, again near her dead literary forebear. It’s a genuinely potent sequence, and I think Fennelly is to be thanked for sending us back to our yellowing copies of The Dream Songs. Most to Fennelly’s credit, and deserving of praise, is the fact that, as an experiment in voice, “Say You Waved” sounds nothing like Beth Ann Fennelly, or at least like nothing she has written since those fragments of “From the L’Hotel Terminus Notebooks.” (The devilish, contrary conscience of that poem, a voice called Mr. Daylater, seems to owe a lot to Berryman’s Mr. Bones.)
The strongest sequence in Unmentionables speaks in yet a third voice, ventriloquizing Berthe Morisot, a lesser-known female Impressionist painter. Although it eschews the verbal acrobatics of the Berryman poem, “Berthe Morisot: Retrospective” manages a subtler piece of artistic identification or impersonation. It also has more to say about the problems of fitting a poetic (or artistic) calling into the daily domestic demands of family life, or the uneasy place of a woman in a tradition dominated by men. (It may not still be true that poetry is a boys’ club, but a glance at the library shelf reminds us that equal suffrage is a fairly recent development.) Berthe Morisot’s membership in Manet’s circle creates an awkward tangle of relationships between the minor and the major artist. One poem suggests that they might have had an affair; another shows Morisot at her canvas, burning the midnight oil, while her male contemporaries are at play, reveling and chasing prostitutes; a third piece shows Manet condescendingly painting “corrections” onto one of her pieces; in a fourth, she agrees to marry Manet’s brother, Eugène.
Morisot is neither Manet’s student nor his paramour, neither his subordinate nor his peer, and she never achieves the sort of imaginative accommodation with him that Fennelly manages with Berryman or Faulkner. Morisot does, however, offer images of the interdependence of domestic life and public art, a force Fennelly must also feel strongly, as so many of Fennelly’s poems take her own motherhood as a subject. In other collections, Fennelly has written about her son in the womb and in footie pajamas, about being bitten by her infant daughter and cooking for her—indeed, Tender Hooks is almost constantly concerned with one family mouth or another—so it’s clear that, like Morisot, she is inclined to paint from life and to use the nearby, familiar models, especially when her subject is the intimacy between mother and child. But in the final segment of “Say You Waved,” Fennelly also reveals that she is paying a sitter to entertain her son as she writes, revealing the necessary trade-off between parenting and writing. By comparison, Morisot’s compromises between art and motherhood seem at once difficult (she sacrifices more) and natural (these sacrifices essentially create her new artistic style). Thus, she abandons painting in oil, since watercolor is quicker, and what her fellow painters praise as “calligraphic” spontaneity, “radical simplicity,” and “exaggeration and blur,” she attributes to a lack of time and a lack of sleep. (These reasons might also explain the handful of epigrams in Tender Hooks, come to think of it.) But in one of the most astounding images in Unmentionables, Morisot finds herself without water for her watercolors while carrying her daughter across a field, and improvises, painting instead with the liquid essence of maternity:
I hesitated for a moment there
in the sunshine
then lifted from my blouse
my warm, milk-heavy breast.
This moment reminds us of the necessarily material grounds of any art—as do many of Morisot’s inevitable compromises or sacrifices—and the embodiedness of the artist’s mind, too often idealized. If Fennelly is not making a case for Berthe Morisot as a major artist, she is clearly tracing a lineage or lessons from the painter’s life and work, exploring a sort of heritage (like her connection to Berryman) that is not local but acquired.
It’s worth noticing that, like “Say You Waved,” this sequence sounds very little like Fennelly’s usual voice. Morisot, in these poems, tends toward the terse and the indirect, rather than the colloquial and rowdy. Suitably for a painter, she often speaks in static visual imagery, rather than in narrative cause and effect. In some ways, it’s easier to imagine this “Retrospective” as having been written by Louise Glück than by Fennelly: the stylistic impersonation of Morisot runs deeply enough that Fennelly surfaces more in the poem’s themes than in its language. This is, finally, one of the things I find most impressive about Unmentionables: There are at least three separate poetic voices here, and although the Berryman imitation is necessarily a kind of a stunt, all three voices feel well-developed and authentic.
The choice between them may boil down to the reader’s tolerance for an occasional misstep. A poem like “Berthe Morisot” can be perfected, its every drafted flaw burnished away; it has a classical poise and austerity that will take a high polish. Most of Fennelly’s other poems, including “The Kudzu Chronicles,” are too brusque or too brazen to be buffed up to a shine, and this means there’s room in her usual method for a goof or a gaffe. When she blurts out “arf arf— / arf arf— / arroooooooooooooooooo” at the end of section 10 of “The Kudzu Chronicles,” not every reader will join her in the howl. And we may have to look the other way when the occasional sestina (“To JC and DL on the Opening of the Sestina Bar”) tosses up, in its lines, the occasional clunker.
Unmentionables also has its share of brief, light narratives and lyrics that are pleasurable on their own terms but really aren’t as ambitious as the book’s longer sequences. As the book’s title implies, these are often slyly sexy or slightly naughty (as in “First Warm Day in a College Town,” “Cow Tipping,” “The Mommy at the Zoo,” and “When Did You Know You Wanted to Be a Writer?”)—the sort of poems that flirt enough to attract a reader’s interest but don’t stake a claim on any long-term engagement. But accepting these lighter pieces and even the missteps is easy in Unmentionables. This may be the difference between a brittle poetics and a robust one. There’s a certain sexiness, for example, that isn’t the same thing as beauty, and that adjusts after a stumble or an off-key joke; the difference between early walking machines and the human foot, to take another example, is ability of the system to compensate for a mistake (or for bad terrain). By contrast, a certain tightly engineered formalism, or a bloodless classical austerity, can seem suspect after even one bad decision, like a concert piano with a single key out of tune. (Mere fun without any attempt at meaning or technical accomplishment, at the other extreme, would be dubious from the beginning.) If Fennelly’s candor, boldness, and verbal play lead her occasionally into a regrettable moment, we can be thankful that the rest of her work so quickly redeems these minor stumbles. Here, the instrument to conjure might benot the piano but the blues guitar or harmonica, where a bent note can make the others sound truer. Most of her best moments would be impossible without her risking the odd slip, and like Berryman she may be at her best just at the moment she risks winding up “ass / in the air oh awkward.”
In the end, all of the tensions of the poetic life that Fennelly describes may be impossible to resolve gracefully. Most of the solutions reached by her poems involve the messy, imprecise pleasures and compromises of the embodied world, rather than any transcendent solution. Acknowledging the intractable problems of uprootedness, indebtedness, and inheritance—writing about them rather than ignoring them—may be the best solution available for a contemporary poet. In the end, an imaginary grave next to the plots of one’s literary forebears, a place in a personally constructed canon, may be the most secure station the contemporary American poet can hope for. And yet, Unmentionables remains a book concerned with the here and now, with the compromises of the flesh as well as its pleasures, and it gives us a way to enjoy both the asking of these questions and the acceptance of their qualified, provisional, uncertain answers.