By: Beth Ann Fennelly
Reviewed by: Lauren Goodwin Slaughter
W.W. Norton & Company, 2008
The poems in Beth Anne Fennelly’s third collection “can not / not no longer” (“Colorplate 23” in “Berthe Morisot: Retrospective”). They are compelled—reluctantly or recklessly, sometimes hilariously—to (“not / not”) try to speak out. But throughout its seven parts, including three section-long poems, Unmentionables emphasizes the difficulty of such articulation—especially with subjects that are embarrassing, hurtful, inappropriate, or even impossible to say with accuracy. A poem about lovemaking concludes, “arf arf— / arf arf— / arroooooooooooooooooo” (“10” in “The Kudzu Chronicles”).
Fennelly’s voice—as the poet, and as the personae she appropriates—is often discombobulated. One of the longer poems in the book, “The Kudzu Chronicles,” describes a “Yankee[’s]” relocation to Mississippi, into the “kudzu’s / avalanche.” Attending a fair at the Neshoba County Fairgrounds, she gets pulled onstage with a band and “dance[s] like I do for my bedroom mirror” before learning these grounds are “where the bodies of the civil rights activists were dumped.” Her response is to “stroll away,” wordlessly “whistling.” While this reaction is self-preserving, Fennelly also emphasizes the inadequacy of speech; what can one say about the unspeakable? Yet in another section of this poem, the poet can’t hold her tongue when an elderly matron with an unusual hat collection comments she wishes she “could get rid of” the hats. Unschooled, the Yankee “said I’d like them” only to be called “pushy.” Words can hurt; that insult “took a year to stop smarting.”
Because the displacement of words and even identity explored in Unmentionables transcends gender, it would be inaccurate to describe the book’s concerns as strictly female. However, Fennelly is strongly connected to the woman’s experience. In “Berthe Morisot: Retrospective,” an artfully fluid, section-long poem, Fennelly describes the impressionist painter as one who often paints instead of speaking up for herself. To her, language can’t be trusted. “I am a puzzlement to myself,” Morisot thinks after “thank[ing]” Manet for making supposed improvements to her portrait of her mother. “Hard to believe // Mama says / my first word was no.”
In another poem in this series, because Morisot has no water to saturate her watercolors, she uses her own breast milk. This dazzling gesture doesn’t require language, and the metaphor isn’t lost on the reader. While overall, Fennelly sympathetically rejects Morisot’s many inhibitions, in this singular moment she identifies with the conflicting pulls of work, sexuality, and maternity—all of which can block and can trigger creative activity. In the complex “Elegy for the Footie Pajamas,” the poet simultaneously mourns her child’s maturation and the loss of the self to motherhood: “I don’t like / myself like this.” She admits, “ I am leaving / some-ping out. Like me.”
Lauren Goodwin Slaughter is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and prose editor for the online journal DIAGRAM.