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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Beth Ann Fennelly's First Book of Poetry




. . . it is a rare and happy blending which celebrates 
a magnificent range of voices, time periods and themes . . .

Beth Ann Fennellyâs award winning first collection, Open House (winner of the 2001 Kenyon Review Prize in Poetry), is a polyvocal exuberant embrace of a contemporary world as infused with such figures of the past as Gauguin and Mandelstam as the names of lip gloss samplers and poems on Post-Its. David Baker, who judged the contest and picked the book, describes the collection as a "blending [of] the postmodern and the ancient," and it is a rare and happy blending which celebrates a magnificent range of voices, time periods and themes from the resilience of "Madame L. who Describes the Siege of Paris" to the wry commentary of the poetâs alter ego, Mr. Daylater in the bookâs central poem, "From LâHotel Terminus Notebooks." 
     In "From LâHotel Terminus Notebooks," Fennellyâs song "of the four categories from which art is drawn: / ambition, love, religion and death," she challenges us to experience the multi-faceted, discordant and polyphonic perspectives that define her inclusive aesthetic. "÷Mr. Daylater: This wonât work, you know. / Weâre / enthralled by the linear. Itâs our destiny." Yet itâs Fennellyâs achievement that she balances and leaps between the minutiae of millennium angsts ("millennium, the most misspelled word of the millennium") and the quoted influences of William Mathews, Stephen Dunn and Michelangelo, to mention a few of the distinguished personas who make an appearance in this poetic narrative of The Artist as a Young Woman coming of age with unflagging energy and craft. Such inclusiveness of the world in all its messy pain, banality and moments of brilliance and transcendence amounts to a rare wisdom and courage refreshingly welcome in a time when trimmed hopes and wary intimacies are the more frequent subjects of contemporary writers. Not least of Fennellyâs strengths in Open House is her humor; just as history achieves an immediacy and relevance to the present, so too is the seemingly inconsequential given the urgency of necessity. Here is a section from "IV. Death":

          Each region in Ireland has a distinct pattern for its fishermen
          The sweaters are a great favorite with the tourists.
          The patterns originated as a way of telling, when a fisherman
          washed up on shore with his face nibbled off, where
          to send the body.

          The five years Iâve known Katerina sheâs been grieving for Tim,
               dead of AIDS. She used to wear his shirts÷the shoulder seams
               would fall to her tiny elbows. Then one day she shows up in a
               size four yellow blouse. Grief is like that sometimes: after a long
               while you can find it no longer fits.

     The rooms of this open house are filled with transformative feats. We learn Michelangelo attacked his statue of Moses, "beating it with his fists and / screaming, ÎWhy arenât you alive? Speak!â"; in the desert "the spiky blue agave [·] yields its heart / to tequila"; and "Zoologists [·] trying to breed a rare female rhino that had / never given birth" find even after they "tied her down, and sawed off her horn. So / she couldnât fight the male off anymore [·] she never conceived." Details from encyclopedic terminology to the anecdotal and informational outside their conventional contexts are given the added dimension of unexpected juxtapositions: "Moses never reached the promised land but led others close. / Michelangelo also never reached his promised land (sculp- / ture so real it becomes human) but led others close. / Connect this."  If one of the founding tenets of modernism was a commitment to breaking away from predictable responses to given traditions and forms and to follow Poundâs dictum to "Make it New," Fennelly, in the revived spirit of her Mandelstam "who loved words recklessly," invents a whole new architecture to house the many voices of her rich imagination.

Fennelly, Beth Ann. Open House.  Lincoln, Nebraska: Zoo Press, 2002. ISBN: 0-9708177-5-4  $14.95

© by Adrianne Kalfopoulou


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