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The Secret Sharer
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The Secret Sharer
Fanny Says
Nickole Brown
BOA Editions. Ltd.
www.boaeditions.org
136 Pages; Print, $16.00

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A cross-genre hybrid work of lyric intensity, the poetry collection Fanny Says distills gritty realism through the voice of Fanny, a Kentucky grandmother, and through the voice of a speaker, her granddaughter the poet Nickole Brown. These authentic voices weave together, holding conversations real and imagined, binding the collection through an epic family saga of women’s secrets and hard truths demanding to be heard.

Awash in the wisdom of battered women, Nickole Brown’s poetry gives testimony for those who have survived the brutality of domestic violence and rape culture, along with women who have suffered wanted and unwanted pregnancies. Battered but never truly beaten, these women are not victims but survivors. In a world where women are defined by the men who love them, the love that runs among the women resounds, expressing joy and life-giving advice in the wake of private tragedy. Through a ghosted southern lady, language speaks in a boldness that confesses all, even the darkest family secrets. Domestic violence, rape, and survival reveal what it means to be female. In a past haunted by babies, real and imagined, genealogy is unearthed through a history of bigoted men, superstition, birdsongs, rumors, gossip, passionate husbands, guilty sex, and unreliable birth control.

The poems capture an era when a housewife’s secret weapon for surviving marriage was Crisco. Helpful day and night, Crisco could be used to fry food for dinner and then to lubricate the vagina to prepare for unwanted sex after a long day of cooking in the kitchen: “Just put a little shortening up there, she said, he’ll never know the difference.” Through surprising and often shocking details like this, the book keeps opening the door onto a woman’s world lost to time. Comical and heartbreaking, Fanny’s story expresses truths that put contemporary gender politics into a startling but refreshing context.

A tribute to Fanny, a woman who was entirely her own but also a prisoner of her time, the collection is a celebration of self-made men and reinvented women learning how to say what they mean. Conjuring the lost through Pepsi, Clorox, and morphine dreams, Fanny Says is a personal and intimate goodbye to a woman named Fanny but also to the South of the past. Somewhere within this goodbye is a universal invitation to readers of all genders and generations.

Even in the midst of horror and degradation, humor is alive. Humor reveals the survivors’ strength. Intelligent, irreverent, earthy, and darkly humorous in tone, survivors take back the power of rape culture, having the final say by shaping meaning from the most tragic of moments. These women are more beautiful for their scars, even the invisible scars of memory, which the reader can sense by listening to the wisdom gained from living through the depravity of a poverty-stricken, racist, gender-embattled South. Even words leave scars in this bygone era when saying “the n-word” is “cop-out, robbing history of its essential grit” and a woman has to be careful not to “let” herself “get” raped.

In spite of the historical nature of another time when “the hills hissed cottonmouth stories of a schoolteacher raped in fields,” the dead speak in voices so alive they seem to be connecting to the reader in an intimate and risky way. Conversations breathe and live across pages so authentic as to be partly transcribed so that the author makes a distinction between what’s “written” and what’s “written down.”

However, what about words we don’t want to hear or remember, words that can’t be unspoken? In the poem “A Genealogy of the Word,” the problem of degrading language is tackled as in the case of words like “dyke” and “nigger.” The poem asks if we can reclaim harmful words. Can we rob these words of their power by saying them over and over again in another context? Can we make these harmful words change and give ourselves immunity from the cruelty of language so that certain words can no longer be...