1.05.2005

POETRY WITHOUT GIMMICK: BETH ANN FENNELLY'S TENDER HOOKS

A review by Elizabeth Buckalew

If Muriel Rukeyser first wondered what would happen if a woman told the truth about her life, poet Beth Ann Fennelly has offered an answer. To read Tender Hooks, Fennelly's second book, is to encounter Fennelly herself, who throws open the doors of her life and invites readers inside. She introduces herself and others: her husband, fiction writer Tom Franklin; their young daughter, Claire; and poet-friend Ann Fisher-Wirth show up regularly, and the poems flow directly from Fennelly's life. As she explains on the jacket, Fennelly wrote Tender Hooks "to figure out what [she] was experiencing," and her poems proceed as explorations rather than proclamations. Fennelly demonstrates great versatility: she writes heroic couplets, sonnets, prose poems, and free verse. Some poems span eighteen pages; others, such as "First Day at Daycare," contain a mere fifteen syllables: "My daughter comes home smelling like another woman's perfume." Just as Fennelly's daughter carries the scent of another woman, these poems hold traces of other poets. However, they never allow their literary forbearers to overshadow their own poetics. Fennelly demonstrates an acute awareness of things literary, but she defines herself within this context rather than being subsumed by it.

Tender Hooks chronicles Fennelly's explorations, and its poems often juxtapose her life with people in it or with the outside world. "A Study of Writing Habits," for example, travels from Fennelly's composition classroom to her experience at Wrigley Field, from the papers of Ogden Nash to the poems of Moore and Bishop. Each stop raises questions; at Wrigley, Fennelly enjoys watching the umpires clean home plate, then wonders, half playfully and half self-consciously, "Does this make me a domestic poet?" Subsequent poems explore Fennelly's sensitivity to the impossibility of language, a theme introduced in her first book, Open House. She rigorously investigates miscommunications and misnomers, as in the prose poem "Waiting for the Heart to Moderate," which begins, "Adults had a drink, they said, to take the edge off, so that's how she came to understand growing up: erosion."

"Telling the Gospel Truth," a stunning, ten-section poem originally published in The Kenyon Review, links reflections on faith and writing to the realities of being a mother. Many of Tender Hooks' poems explore parenthood; Fennelly discusses childbirth, miscarriage, nursing, and child-rearing. Though these themes are common, Fennelly addresses them without melodrama and with fresh insight. Fennelly's role as a parent also allows her a fresh perspective on language and its acquisition, and the poems often discuss Claire, Fennelly's toddler, learning to speak. Readers see Claire master the word ball and then use it on every round object she encounters, but we also see language from Fennelly's perspective. Her descriptions are always exact, as in "Why We Shouldn't Write Love Poems, or, If We Must, Why We Shouldn't Publish Them," which reads, "We fall in love, we fumble for a pen, we send our poems out like Jehovah's Witnesses--in time they return home, and when they do, they find the locks changed." Fennelly makes writing appear effortless, "the way thin people seem naturally thin."

There is a risk inherent in such talent and ease, of course; models of the poet as untouchable sage abound, and they often repel readers. Fennelly, however, is wise enough not to be such a poet. She reveals her questions and uncertainties, and she does not assume a self-righteous posture. She crafts poems from rejection slips, weeps before her students, pokes fun at herself and her jealousy of Claire's "Daddy Phase," confessing, "I would like to pitch a fit when she ducks my kiss." Fennelly's poems are candid and welcoming. They are works likely to make readers long to invite her to dinner.

In Tender Hooks, Fennelly accomplishes what few poets ever master: she roots her poems in the specifics of everyday life, but she does so without banality and with great intelligence and wit. These poems are frank without relying on shock value; they are smart without being pompous. Although the title comes from a phrase Fennelly misunderstood as a child, it provides an apt glimpse at the volume's contents. Fennelly's poems offer a warm, generous protagonist who embraces challenging topics. Her poems explore the people and things that bear tender hooks, those entities that simultaneously compel and confound, bind and barb, those things that enthrall us.

Elizabeth Buckalew received her BA from Davidson College in North Carolina and is currently pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Alabama. The book is Tender Hooks by Beth Ann Fennelly. W.W. Norton, 2004.

2 comments:

Mark said...

Tender Hooks, eh? Nothing like Tender Buttons?

Journey_of_Life said...
This comment has been removed by the author.