Reading Nickole Brown’s new book of poems, Fanny Says, is like being introduced to someone you never want to let go, the kind of fierce, tender, acerbic, complicated woman who will snag you by your scruff and tell you what you don’t want to hear, and— in the next breath— what you need to hear. As Brown notes at the start, This book is a biography of sorts… and most words in italics, unless otherwise noted… are not words I wrote but words I wrote down, transcribing best I could as my grandmother spoke to me.
Fanny is a trash-talking, scrappy southerner, sure of all the right ways to do everything, from making potato salad (recipe included) to how to serve her a Pepsi:
Make it four pieces of ice— not three, and not five. And I don’t want it too full;
As with the subject of her first book, Sister, Brown says she tried not to write about Fanny, and consciously sought to avoid giving voice to her grandmother, and to all she embodied of the old south, bigotry, poverty, and violence. But in the end, Brown says, she had no choice: If I got hit by a bus, Fanny’s is the story I didn’t want to disappear.
In these poems—part persona, part personal narrative— Brown writes a vivid portrait of a woman who never really learned to read or write— the two things to thumb through in Fanny’s house were the Bible and Cosmopolitan magazine. Fanny appears as the antithesis of the cardboard cutout of sweet grandma: she is a racist whose best friend is Bernie May, a black woman who cleans her house; her husband abuses her and yet you feel they love each other fiercely.
In Genealogy of the Word, a 15-page searing, courageous discourse, the n-word, as Brown first calls it, is a cop-out, robbing/history of its essential/grit . . . out of her mouth/it was visible, /a skidmark, a shit/stain. Saying it over and over does not drain the word of its power to stab and maim. Brown wrangles it, and acknowledges the twisted, complex race relations in her family. The poet pleads, finally, forgive me.
In describing the birthing of Fanny Says and the look-you-right-in-eye tone of these unself-censored poems, Brown invokes Grace Paley: good writing is scrubbing all the lies out. As with so many other artists trying to untangle and reconcile our racist history and present— I am thinking here of the new play An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and Kara Walker’s silhouettes— Genealogy is likely to provoke and teach for generations to come.
One morning I sat at my kitchen counter with Fanny Says, losing track of time and other demands. I turned page after page until I came to the end, having chuckled out loud, teared up, felt my stomach in a roil, and eventually envy for Nickole Brown for having been raised, in part, by Fanny. It’s not the kind of love that is without condition, constraint or blind spots, as you will see here when you read “An Invitation for My Grandmother,” but it is unwavering, full of edgy wit, and red-hot.
is what she said but what she meant had nothing
to do with the lighting from one bloom to the next
by a monarch or an equally colorful diva at the bar.
What she meant was your privates, your girlie parts,
something you better soap up daily and watch
like a spectacled hawk. It was code, really,
a kid-friendly word like every Christ-fearing family has,
something to sidestep the gynecological genitals
and its speculum-chilled vagina, something that wasn’t
her sex—a word that said Colette, both verb and noun
exhaling the same thin gentlewoman cigar.
Hers was a word rated PG, something that wasn’t once
an innocent kitty in boots that now swung
practically buck-naked from a pole, and never do you hear
flitter in any bass-thumping salt-and-pepper-my-mango,
va-jay-jay songs. No. Flitter is lyrical but awkward; despite
its featherweight meaning, it never does fly.
To me, flitter sounds heavy, ironic, with the phonic
aptitude of a frying pan, a word a little too natural perhaps,
in need of a shave.
What kept it alive was that “f” sound, slightly transgressive,
ready to leap off the four-letter cliff, but more so it echoed
with fat and flat, the two qualities of a flitter Fanny found.
A babygirl, for example, was always born with a fat flitter,
and that’s exactly what she would be called,
then there was fat as a flitter, applying to cute, chunky things
like chipmunk cheeks and toddler’s wrists and puppy dogs.
Then, of course, there was flat, a more mature version
of the same, and if you did enough crunches, yes,
your belly would be flat as a flitter. The similes go on,
as carbonated beverages can go flat as a flitter, as can your hair
on a humid day, and if you drive west, all that land—you got it—
My favorite times with the word were the last days
we had her, when she needed oxygen and ice chips
and kept death backed into a corner
by calling me a flitterhead. I swore I didn’t have her remote,
and she didn’t believe me until she found it
under the covers between her legs. She changed the channel,
said, Okay, flitterhead. I’m sorry; right there was the clicker,
right under my flitter, who would have thought. And when it was time
to change her, to wipe off the blackest
stool with a warm cloth, she kept me from deep
sorrow by saying, Make sure to hit my bald flitter now—nobody tells you
every hair falls out down there as you age—and hit it with a douse
of powder, Koey, Grandma’s gotta stay fresh. I cleaned her as I would
a baby, turning her best I could from side to side, and later,
when I tired, I called in the nurse to help me hold her
so I could change the sheets. The nurse was from an island
not far from Florida but far enough that when our work was done,
she stopped me, asked, I’m sorry. Your grandmother—I can’t understand her.
Can you tell me what language she speaks?
That was when I knew.
I wasn’t losing my grandmother, no, I was losing
my home, the one place I could understand
the world through a mother tongue only she
An Invitation for My Grandmother
Satisfaction is a lowly / thing, how pure a thing is joy. / This is mortality / this is eternity.
When Mama called to say you were
gone, I was in New York and climbed
the impossible top of a brownstone to talk
myself down. Don’t get sentimental; dying is what
grandmother’s do, was the foolishness
I told myself, but what I should have done
was invite you there with me. You’d never been
further north than Cincinnati, and the view—
the spatter and fleck of all those lights—
you’d have to see to believe. So now that you’re
on the other side and got your knees working
again, a proposition: Come, lace up your Keds,
walk with me a while. I won’t say the world’s better—
it’s not—since you left, I have seen a pelican
stretch her wings to dry, the dripping
petrol making her into a bent crucifix of oil,
and the penguins have dropped their proud
eggs into melted ice, and this spring, yet another wind
bulldozed my neighbors, all their homes razed
to slab foundation, their trees now
splintered bone. But we can take a train
out of Arkansas—Come, sit next to me,
because out the window
a girl on a horse jumps a junkyard fence.
She wears a shirt the color of poppies, of bright
soda cans, and I bet you’ll agree: blurred,
it is a brown pony with red wings.
And three years ago: Can I take you there?
My sister, sitting up during a contraction,
how she reached inside
herself to touch the crown of her son
not yet born. I want to show you the look
on her face and that cord
cut, a rich earth of blood, a joy in
black. And please, take off your shoes now,
stand with me last October when
I took a wife, barefoot in the grass.
We made our vows, and after, when she held
my jaw with both hands, I could feel
the bones of my skull
rising up to make a face finally
About Nickole Brown
Nickole Brown grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and Deerfield Beach, Florida. Her books include Fanny Says, a collection of poems forthcoming from BOA Editions in 2015; her debut, Sister, a novel-in-poems published by Red Hen Press in 2007; and an anthology, Air Fare, that she co-edited with Judith Taylor.
She graduated from The Vermont College of Fine Arts, studied literature at Oxford University as an English Speaking Union Scholar, and was the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council.
She worked at the independent, literary press, Sarabande Books, for ten years, and she was the National Publicity Consultant for Arktoi Books and the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. She has taught creative writing at the University of Louisville, Bellarmine University, and at the low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Murray State.
Currently, she is the Editor for the Marie Alexander Series in Prose Poetry at White Pine Press and is on faculty every summer at the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference. She is an Assistant Professor at University of Arkansas at Little Rock and lives with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs. For more information on Nickole, please visit her website.
About Janlori Goldman
Janlori Goldman is a poet and co-edits The Wide Shore: A Journal of Global Women’s Poetry, www.thewideshore.org. Her poem “At the Cubbyhole Bar” was chosen by Gerald Stern for The Raynes Prize, and Toadlily Press published her chapbook Akhmatova’s Egg in 2013.
She teaches at Columbia University, and works as a writing mentor and writing group leader at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She has also been a featured Sunday Poet on Gwarlingo. You can read her own Sunday Poem feature here. For more information about Janlori, please visit her website.
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All poems © Nickole Brown. All Rights Reserved. These poems appear in Fanny Says and were reprinted with permission from the author.