I have grandmother envy. Both of mine were deceased before I was born. But I don’t think I ever imagined a grandmother like the one Nickole Brown brings to life in her collection of poetry Fanny Says. This is not your Hallmark card grandmother. This is a grandmother that says fucker and swills Pepsi and drives a white Cadillac Eldorado. She is not always easy, and not always neat, but she is always, always authentic.
Brown begins with a note that the book is a biography, that some names and details have been altered, but that the poems whose titles begin with “Fanny Says” and most of the lines in italic are “not words I wrote but words I wrote down, transcribing best I could as my grandmother spoke to me.” And with that introduction, we begin. Poem after poem spills out that sketch in the details of Fanny, an amazing kaleidoscope of contradictions.
There is funny Fanny, even when she doesn’t mean to be. “Now, you listen here, fucker. I won’t hear no blasphemous talk of Jesus,” from “Fanny Says She Got Saved.” Or when she advises that Crisco is useful when you need to “wear your husband out, and sometimes you might be counting flower petals on wallpaper, but you best pretend.” Or perhaps her guidance from “Fanny Says How to Be a Lady,” “Take it easy, keep your feet up, and don’t carry nothing heavy unless you want your uterus to fall out on the hot sidewalk.”
Underneath, however, there is the complicated Fanny that Brown illuminates in the poems not written in her grandmother’s voice. Poems in which domestic violence and racism rear their ugly heads. Brown investigates the complicated relationship between grandmother and granddaughter in “EPO,” a granddaughter’s plea for forgiveness for talking her grandmother into taking out an emergency protective order against her husband. The speaker of the poem is jarred how her grandmother, such a large presence at home, is reduced in the filth of the police department: “Forgive me. For the obscenity of your size-five house slippers up the courthouse / stairs, for the security guard, eyeing through the x-ray machine, suspicious / of all your little disco cases – one for your lipstick and another for your lighter…”
In “Genealogy,” Brown examines Fanny’s relationship with her black housekeeper. The speaker’s reaction to her grandmother’s use of the N-word (an abbreviation that is called out as a cop-out within the text of the poem) is that of shame. “But that word made me hot / with shame; out of her mouth // it was visible, a skidmark, a shit / stain.” Irony rests squarely on that phrase “shit stain,” such an uncouthness that is somehow less uncouth that the actual epithet.
Brown’s refusal to hack off pieces of her grandmother to fit the binary of good/bad allows the reader to embrace her complexity. To see her through both the affection and hot embarrassment of the speaker. This is a poetry collection that not only holds up a mirror to one person, but to how one person can be created by a place and time.
Brown’s mastery of both the cadence and diction create poems redolent of the South. The poem “Flitter” is ostensibly about the her grandmother’s use of slang for female genitalia, but more about the way a word can encapsulate an entire range of ages and emotions, social mores and identities. At the end of the poem the nurse asks the speaker where her grandmother is from because she can’t understand what language she speaks. In the last stanza, Brown encapsulates the pain of the impending loss of her grandmother not only as nurturer, but also as the embodiment of home as language:
This 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