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Poetry Review: Mixed feelings by Beth Ann Fennely

Not all poetry leaves a fuzzy feeling in the reader. Some poems are initially enjoyable, but leave a strange feeling afterward; like delicious Mexican food gives eaters indigestion.

Beth Ann Fennelly’s newest collection of poems, “Unmentionables,” is a lot like Mexican food. It is bold, sexy, spicy, and at many times creepy and gross, leaving a strange feeling in the stomach. Instead of turning the reader off completely, this mix of characteristics makes her poems all the more interesting and enjoyable to read.

Fennelly was born in New Jersey and grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois. In 1993 she graduated with a B.A. magna cum laude from the University of Notre Dame. Afterward, she taught English in a coal mining village on the Czech-Polish border. After returning to the United States, she graduated from the University of Arkansas with a M.F.A in poetry. Later she became an Assistant Professor of
English and taught poetry at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. She is currently living in Oxford, Mississippi.

“Unmentionables” is separated into seven parts, each part sharing a cohesive theme. The first part introduces her personality. The first poem, “First Warm Day in a College Town,” sets a creepy tone. It is a reflective poem about Fennelly’s sexual attraction to her young, athletic male students that run, bare-chested, down the sidewalk as she drives by. It is a very sexual poem about these young men being eyed by their female professor. The poem ends with the reflection that Fennelly will soon have to avoid these kinds of thoughts as she gets older and her students stay the same age.

Part two is a single poem called “Berthe Morisot: Retrospective,” which is separated into 15 different sections, or “Colorplates.” The poems in this section are written from the perspective of Berthe Morisot, an Impressionist painter from the 1800s. The body text of the poems uses unusual and unpredictable placement, spacing, and indenting to mimic the Impressionist style through text. Morisot was undervalued in her time because she was a woman, and this was used as a plot point in these poems. “Colorplate 7” is the best example of this; “’Mother to my instructor/ ‘About Berthe’s painting, frankly, is it/as good as all that? Would anyone give/ even twenty franks?’/ To me/ ‘Imagination is all very well, until/ it causes problems.’” “Colorplate 14” is another good example, “Again this year/ my entries for the salon/ rejected/ Somehow, I was unprepared./ I had to borrow the butcher’s wheelbarrow/ to ferry the paintings home./ I steered between the brown and blue trousers/ of the other painters. Some of them/ called to me. I did not look up/ Pushed in deeper/ the splinter from the handle.”

The third section in her collection is about motherhood and her children. The poems are wickedly funny and unapologetic, while at the same time Fennelly is fully aware that her kids will see these poems in the future. The poems also have a sad edge to them, full of nostalgia for the old days before she had kids. One of these poems, “The Mommy at the Zoo” reflects this nostalgia, “I used to sleep better I used to/ be smarter remember for example words and remember when I learned them/ there was a word for example/ for the way a snake loves/ a tight place a crevice a chink in rocks/ Mr. Snake you/ you are a/ a something-o-phile/ O you sneaky/ something-o-phile/ I rummage/ but the word/ is nowhere no/ where in my diaper bag…”

Part four is another single poem section called, “The Kudzu Chronicles,” which describes her life in Oxford, Mississippi and is united with the theme of kudzu. Kudzu is a weed that was introduced to the Southern United States in 1876 from Japan to be used as a forage crop and an ornamental plant, and has taken over the south, growing rapidly in the humid weather. Because the weed grows over anything and everything, grows faster with some pesticides, and is extremely difficult to get rid of, the weed was classified as a pest weed in 1953. “The Kudzu Chronicles” is calming and full of vivid imagery of the south. With 13 stanzas, the images used create a solid picture of the south as would be seen through Fennelly’s eyes.

The fifth part is about a time in her life when she was pregnant and an old lover looked her up. This section is strange but very interesting and enjoyable to read.

Section six is a very sad section; comprised of a single poem, “Say You Waved: A Dream Song Cycle,” with 15 stanzas. The poem is about JB, a young priest she knew who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. It is an ode to him; to his young son he left behind, and to the poetry he wrote. Fennelly used these poems to reflect on a number of things, including the nature of suicide, how his young son would grow up, what would happen if she did that to her child, and what death means.

The seventh and last section is full of memory poems from Fennelly’s childhood. The first poem, “The River That Was My Father,” is serene and beautiful. The other poems are also self-reflective, such as “When Did You Know You Wanted to Be a Writer?” which answers the title question with a memory of her childhood babysitter that is both edgy and hilarious. The last section is less like an ending and more like a time presented to the reader to reflect on all the poems in the book. It is disappointing at first, but the end is appropriate to fully enjoy the collection as a whole.

Other collections by Fennelly include “Tender Hooks” (2005), “Open House: Poems” (2002), and “A Different Kind of Hunger” (1997).