Two Poets: Ada Limón and Beth Ann Fennelly

For the last few weeks I’ve been steeping in some mighty fine poetry by two phenomenal female poets, Ada Limón and Beth Ann Fennelly.

Bright Dead Things is Limón’s most recent collection and was a 2015 National Book Award Finalist. The poetry of Bright Dead Things vibrates with a confessional tone that challenges the dissonances between our individual selves and our  relation to our place in the world.

Place can refer to actual geography as Limón discusses feeling, sometimes simultaneously, displaced and at home in different geographic locations including Kentucky, California, and New York, in State Bird the speaker declares, “Confession: I did not want to live here” and then moves to discuss the difficulty in adapting to a new place despite the beauty of it. However the speaker concludes, “But love, I’ll concede this: / whatever state you are, I’ll be that state’s bird, / the loud, obvious blur of song people point to / when they wonder where it is you’ve gone.”

Limón’s poems also illuminate our place in relationship to other people or even ourselves. In Mowing the speaker wishes,

“…I could be silent more, be more tree than anything else, less clumsy and loud, less crow, more cool white pine, and how it’s hard not to always want something else, not just to let the savage grass grow.”

A few poems later in The Quiet Machine (my personal favorite) the speaker discusses learning there are “so many different ways to be quiet.” Culminating in a anthem for we introverted people, this poem describes different types of quiet that grows, melds, and rises to a silence that “wails and wails and wails until I can’t be quiet anymore.” alimon_brightdeadthings

While The Quiet Machine, and many other poems in the collection, challenges the reader to think of the ways in which he or she is a contradiction within their own skin, other poems shake a strong fist at having others decide “where” to place you. In I Remember the Carrots the speaker describes ripping carrots out of the garden from a fondness for the color of the carrots, her father subsequently scolding her, and how at thirty-five she remembers “…all that I’ve done wrong. / Yesterday I was nice, but in truth I resented / the contentment of the field. Why must we practice / this surrender? What I mean is: there are days / I still want to kill the carrots because I can.” In Service the speaker feels camaraderie with a “girl pit bull” when the pit bull – in a very interesting way – seems to exclaim, “Girl, no one’s going to tell me / … when to bow down, / when not to bite.”

The collection also includes some elegiac, beautiful poems about the death of Limón’s stepmother and Limón’s care of her stepmother prior to her death. In the prose poem After You Toss Around the Ashes the speaker wrestles with deciding how to bury her dead and feels panic in making a wrong choice; the poem begins with, “When she was dying, it was impossible to see forward to the next minute” and it ends with the speaker falling in love and moving in with her lover and then acutely feeling “…what had been circling in me: I am beautiful. I am full of love. I am dying.”

Bright Dead Things reverberates with all that makes us human – hunger, love, grief, desire – with an organic rawness and beauty that truly captures the many vicissitudes of life.

***

I read Beth Ann Fennelly’s Open House on the heels of Bright Dead Things and I ended up drawing some correlations as a result. Fennelly’s poems are also confessional in nature and, like Limón seeks to communicate the dissonances many people – especially women – face in their relation to their inner lives and societal expectations.

Open House is divided into four sections, The Room of Dead Languages, The Room of Echoes, The Room of Paper Walls, and The Room of Everywhere. The Room of Dead Languages is tasked with saying the unspeakable. Fennelly accomplishes this by taking seemingly disparate anecdotes and concrete objects and linking them together to both describe the physicality of the action of speech and how language can also lack precision. In her opening poem, The Impossibility of Language the speaker describes her first experience of tasting honeysuckle with romantic love, “The irony of metaphor: / you are closet to something / when naming what it’s not.”

The Room of Echoes is comprised of poems that can best be described as the the past informing the present. These poems are written with a historical speaker 41qereuao3l-_sx330_bo1204203200_in mind: Milton’s daughter, Gauguin’s daughter, and others. The last poem of this section, Madame L. Describes the Siege of Paris is revolting and riveting as it describes starving Parisians feasting on zoo animals.

The third section, The Room of Paper Walls, is my absolute favorite section of the collection. The entire section is written like a poet’s journal. The speaker is B.A. (for Beth Ann) and she spars with Mr. Daylater. Mr. Daylater embodies the voice of every critic – external and internal – the female poet encounters. It is difficult to describe how the format of this section is so key. Yes, it has the feel of notes in a journal, but there are certainly line breaks and structure at work. Mr. Daylater eggs B.A. to “Tell them about your father.” B.A. complies can talks about all the good memories,” when I was a girl and sick he’d bring me rainbow sherbet and coloring booksand Mr. Daylater presses for telling the reader about now, “Throw them a bone. One of your own.” B.A. complies,

“When he left us, my mother made me sleep on father’s old side of the bed.

  • And now?

Now? I don’t think about it much, during the day.

  • And at night?

My sister wears a mouth guard because she grinds her grief.

It should be noted that the above section is formatted differently  in a manner I cannot produce on screen. That last line sucker punched me in the stomach. As B.A. works out her poetry in this journal she gains confidence and has the last laugh and shuts Mr. Daylater up. The final poem of this section, Epilogue: L’Hotel Terminus is, of course, about death. The speaker speaks for the others who have been (or are) at the point of death, she says, “There’s a way of finding / despair in this / but also a way of finding / the whole world a metaphor / and us the unlikes / connecting and connecting and / connecting.”

The last section, The Room of Everywhere, is a collection of love poems. The speaker finds her lover everywhere in a myriad set of circumstances. She first discovers her affection for this lover in The Snake Charmer when he stops his car and removes a snake from the road to avoid killing it, “‘How is it you love me / so much?’ Well, / because you stopped.” In I Would Like to Go Back as I Am, Now, to You as You Were, Then – the speaker tells of her husband’s different upbringing and her wish to go back in time and know him all of his life. It should be noted that this section also has the best food poem in it, Why I Can’t Cook for Your Self-Centered Architect Cousin has the best description of pesto and Fennelly includes the recipe in the back.

The true gold with Fennelly is her clever use of unconventional line breaks, syntax, and punctuation. It truly makes the poems something to be experience and challenged me to look at my own writing, study Fennelly’s experimental weirdness (for lack of a better term) and see how I could think outside of the box and strengthen my own writing.

Two great poems and two mighty fine collections in deed. Suffice it so say I am purchasing as much Limón and Fennelly as I can. These are certainly two poets not to be missed.

 

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