Nickole Brown’s Fanny Says
Shortly after I started reading Nickole Brown’s latest collection, Fanny Says, I asked a sixty-year-old woman of Norwegian descent if she had been close to her grandmother. Her body became straight as a board with the mention of the word “grandmother.” She proceeded to tell me memories of her grandmother cooking potatoes every night—every way you could imagine a potato being cooked—and how you didn’t want to mess with her because if you did, even if you were her grandchild, she’d threaten to call the police. I then remembered my own grandmother—beautiful, over-the-top, and full of resentment. I loved her in her whirlwind, and I know for sure I will not know the kind of love she had for me again. It’s like that. We don’t choose our grandmothers, and they don’t choose us, either. Fanny Says is a book of poems that speaks to these natural selections, the cross-generational connections that make us members of families and of nations.
Divided into four sections and set in Kentucky, the collection weaves a double narrative that folds together both a granddaughter’s recollections and a grandmother’s persona. The imagery is blunt, the dialect true, and what unfolds is a metaphoric hope chest, a series of living flashbacks through which Brown creates a poetic treatise on memory’s workings. In addition to giving us Fanny’s own voice, the poems also offer a granddaughter recalling her grandmother, inviting the reader to be witness to the contrapuntal realities of love. Consider how in passages like this one, from the poem “How to Dress like Fanny,” Brown enmeshes impression with image:
Don’t carry a purse but a pocketbook, and underneath
don’t wear a bra and panties
but a push-up Frederick’s of Hollywood brassiere
and a pair of bloomers—nylon, always white, pulled up
as far as bloomers can possibly go.
For your shoes, two options: should you need to go shopping
or get your pressure checked, lace up a pair of white Keds.
Otherwise, it’s house shoes, dust-pink slippers
curled from the dryer into tiny, warm cups for your feet.
With subtle technique, Brown encourages the reader to take liberty with these crisp narratives and provokes us to imagine Fanny beyond the page.
Of course, the collection itself would be acceptable if it was left to the granddaughter to speak Fanny’s life for her. But not whole. Brown, however, cuts her personal narrative with another persona, allowing Fanny to speak for herself—building poems from actual transcriptions—and adding to the collection’s depth. These poems are signaled with a title that begins, “Fanny Says.” Here is where Fanny comes to life, as in these excerpts from “Fanny Says How to Be a Lady, “ her voice rooted in sassy candor:
1. Never tell your age. If under cardiac arrest and the ambulance comes, the paramedic will ask lots of questions—the city you live in, the president, your last name. Answer him best you can, but if he asks the year you were born, say, You’re the doctor here. If you’re so fucking smart, why don’t you tell me how old I am?
. . .
5. Steer clear of places where common people go. Public pools ain’t nothing but a sea of hot piss, and if you’re forced to drink in a restaurant, you ask for a straw, because Lord knows where that cup has been.
. . .
10. [. . .] You understand? Be mean, fight for it. Hold that head back, walk straight. You’ll remember what I tell you? You’ll remember, won’t you?
Many of us find it difficult to tell our family stories—no surprise, as they are usually loaded. One of the accomplishments of Fanny Says is its skillful and unapologetic confrontation of the shamelessness of Brown’s people—and sometimes ours. This achievement brims to the surface with “A Genealogy of the Word,” which anchors the collection:
Saying “the n-word” is a cop-out, robbing
history of its essential
grit, faked out, vaguely
Pentecostal, pleated and ironed stiff,
like dagnabbit and bullfish and flip it to dip.
Fanny was authoritative
with her cussing, unabashed
with cocksucker and fucker and dick.
Most times, I’d laugh, pour her a fresh Pepsi
or do whatever else she was barking out,
but that word made me hot
with shame; out of her mouth
it was visible, a skidmark, a shit
What makes this book essential to the growing cannon of writers confronting the American heritage is that these poems resist sympathy. Brown resists being the victim of a grandmother who was loved dearly, but who, once you peeled away her sass and humor, was a racist. Instead, Brown offers us a woman cloned from tradition and circumstance, a woman loved. Fanny failed to realize her humanity and the humanity of her maid, Bernie May, as equal—and that’s just the way it was. Racism, sexual violence, sexism, sexuality, and history all come to blows in this powerful litany while the discovery of a woman’s rooted hate entangles with the poet’s own family roots:
. . .
Fanny tells me there was a woman,
to her mother
to her mother,
to her mother,
count it—four generations
back—who was dark
as a bucket of water,
an unstirred pool of black
for sleepers who thirst
in the dead of night.
I can imagine this poem bought many moments of hesitation with the pencil. But here Brown is at her best—writing calamity with eloquence, speaking, in the same moment, Fanny’s complications and the poet’s claim on it. This book, like a grandmother’s love, is not always pretty, but it pulls you in and gives you so much truth.