by Nickole Brown. (Rochester, NY: Boa Editions LTD., 2015). 143 pages.
Paperback: $16.00, ISBN# 978-1-938160-57-8.
Reviewed by Tom C. Hunley
“He who touches this book touches a man,” wrote Walt Whitman in his preface to Leaves of Grass. I won’t go so far as to say that he/she who touches Fanny Says, (which Patricia Smith calls “Nickole Brown’s unleashed long song to her grandmother”) touches a woman. Brown’s grandmother, Fanny, comes across in the book as too private, too feisty to let any old body touch her. But if Whitman was claiming that his poems created an intimacy between him and his readers, then yeah, these poems are Whitmanic in that sense. Part of the popularity of novels comes from the fact that characters in the best novels become open books as soon as the books they inhabit get opened. We get to know them better than we know our neighbors, who are separated from us by fences, curtains, and polite gestures that function as moats. In that sense, Fanny Says is a novelistic collection of poems. Her grandmother, Franny, was clearly a character.
Although it may never occur to them to try writing poems, many people in small towns, particularly those in the south, share the poet’s love of fresh language. If you’ve ever heard someone say that someone else “fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down” or that something is “as easy as sliding off a greasy log backward,” then you’ve encountered the kind of folksy oral poetry that Fanny spoke. For example, in “Go Put on Your Face,” Brown remembers Fanny telling her that “without your face put on / your face is a turnip jerked round and pale from mud.” “Flitter,” the best poem about female genitalia that I’ve ever read, attests to Fanny’s (and Brown’s) love of language. In that poem, Brown recalls the many ways that Fanny used her private terms for privates: “”then there was fat as a flitter, applying to cute, chunky things”; …if you did enough crunches, yes, / your belly would be flat as a flitter”; “Okay, flitterhead. I’m sorry; right there was the clicker, / right under my flitter, who would have thought.”
Beneath Fanny’s down-home language is her home-spun wisdom. Here’s a sample: “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” (“Crisco”).
Ultimately this is a book about the profound relationship between Brown and her grandmother. In the book’s most touching poem, “EPO,” Brown recalls taking Fanny to court to file an emergency protection order after Fanny was the victim of domestic violence at the hands of her husband, Brown’s grandfather. In “For My Grandmother’s Perfume, Norell,” Brown recalls smelling Fanny’s scent on a stranger in a grocery store, which leads her to wish that she had “…pressed my face to her small / shoulder, and with the sheer work of two pink lungs, I would have breathed / enough to / conjure” her dear, departed grandmother. Although she didn’t have the nerve to do that, she did write this book, which is a remarkable act of conjuring.
Tom C. Hunley is Poemeleon's Book Review Editor