August 4, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Milk Teeth

I posted a couple weeks ago about my search for poems that use motherhood to get at their meat, and one reader pointed me to Beth Ann Fennelly. At our house we’ve recently embarked upon the misery known as “cry it out” during naptime (o August of last resort), so I had plenty of time to read. I consumed all the library had: “Tender Hooks,” a 2004 volume of new-mother poetry, “Great With Child,” a year of letters she wrote to a pregnant ex-student (published in 2006, letters written in 2003 I believe), and “Unmentionables,” a 2008 volume of poetry. I read the letters first, staying up until 2am to finish them, something I haven’t done since the baby was born. And I can’t quote from the book because I immediately lent it to a friend. The letters were stunning–finally some beautifully-written prose on motherhood, and on the writer’s balance. But for my purposes, better yet were the images in these letters, remembered images from the birth or or nursing three years earlier as well as events that took place during the days she wrote the letters. I read somewhere recently that letters are often a rehearsal space for the bigger things we write, the poems and stories. I hadn’t noticed this continuity in my own letter-writing, but I appreciate the lifting-up this does for letters, and it makes sense. You begin to think of something as you write, and carry it with you into a later poem. Lovely. And this Fennelly is an efficient fish: most of her letter-images recur in the poems, if not in “Tender Hooks,” which has the most overlap, then in “Unmentionables.”

The biggest divergence imagistically between the letters and the poems was the way Fennelly talked about sex and attraction (more loyal and upbeat in the letters, messier and prouder in the poems), which led me to think about how she constructs the speaker of these overwhelmingly autobiographical poems. The events she lays down in her poems are so consistent with the events she describes in her letters, and are referred to often enough, that I felt I knew her, which is something I rarely feel when I read a volume of poetry, and so I tried to figure out what she did to create that. By choosing a group of five or so images or gestures and then revisiting them within each volume, Fennelly creates a sense of familiarity for the reader. To do this, though, she sacrifices some depth for consistency’s sake. In other volumes of poetry where I’ve had the surprising sense of feeling at home, familiar with the speaker, as though I have them beside me when I encounter the images the author has laid out and we’re in it together (without the benefit of a book of prose to compare it too), those times too I’ve noticed a group of five or so events or images internally cross-referenced within the book. Hm.

The most rewarding poems for me in both collections of poetry, but especially “Tender Hooks,” are the long ones that slowly move from one subject to another. I think this probably holds true for a lot of mothering poems: the line breaks and final lines, where I am accustomed to doing the most work and getting the best view, are the most dangerous in mothering poems because it’s too easy to get cute, or sweet, and almost impossible to truly surprise there, and so the ends need instead to fade out. These poems offer their finest moments in transition, in the move between tones or subjects.

In stepping back, though, I realize that’s how most long, or longer-lined, poems work. What they offer is not the shot at the end, it’s buried in the moving image. In last month’s Dwell magazine an architect talked about his love of films, because they could be taken apart piece by piece–script, soundtrack, dialogue, images. The richest of Fennelly’s poems won’t hold still to be parsed. These, though, are what I was searching for.