Beth Ann Fennelly Essay - Critical Essays


With the publication of her first chapbook, Beth Ann Fennelly was recognized as a young writer who was remarkably accomplished. She has continued to produce poems that reflect her fascination with words and with ideas. In a single poem, Fennelly may be by turns thoughtful, witty, tender, harsh, and extremely funny. Above all, however, Fennelly is an honest poet, one who presents experience in all its complexity, one who is as unwilling to voice platitudes as she is to bend her ideas to fit accepted poetic forms.

Open House

Fennelly organized her first book-length collection, Open House, as a house tour. Each of the four sections of the book is likened to a room; instead of furniture, however, each contains poems linked closely in content. All six poems in the first section, “The Room of Dead Languages,” have to do with words. However, they vary greatly both in tone and in form. For example, “Mother Sends My Poem to Her Sister with Post-Its” is a series of short passages scattered on the page. The mother’s thoughts are just as random as the form suggests. They have only a peripheral connection to the poem she read; instead, they show that, like most mothers with grown daughters, her primary interest is not in what her child is doing now but in their relationship. Thus, she focuses on the errors in her daughter’s memories and tries to find in her poem evidence that she intends to come home. Fennelly’s sensitivity to the relationship between form and content is evident in the shaped poem “The Insecurities of Great Men,” which keeps expanding and then dwindling; in the prose paragraph used for “My Father’s Pregnancy,” a restrained, factual summary of the physical process of death; and the random, scattered comments in “Cremains” that dramatize her later surrender to grief.

Fennelly’s versatility is evident throughout the collection. In “The Room of Echoes,” she demonstrates her ability to slip into the minds of others. For example, she speaks as one of the daughters of the English poet John Milton in “Mary Speaks to the Early Visitor at the Laying Out,” as the daughter of the French painter Paul Gauguin in “Letter from Gauguin’s Daughter,” and as a woman deserted by her husband of thirty years in “Yield.” That same imaginative power is evident...

(The entire section is 956 words.)