Unflinching Honesty: Beth Ann Fennelly’s Tender Hooks
As a new mother, I seek literature that reflects my parenting experiences. Beth Ann Fennelly’s book of poems, Tender Hooks, artfully explores the wrenching beauty and pain of motherhood with humor, tenderness, and a sharp bite, as the title of her book suggests. Despite a few flaws, this is a lovely collection of poems that are unafraid to look at motherhood–and at life–with naked honesty.
The book is divided into four parts, and each part’s poems are thematically linked, giving a chronological aspect to the overall arrangement. The sections move from the joy and struggles of new motherhood to explorations of life as a writer, the pain of a previous miscarriage, and reconciling past and present. Most of the poems are in free verse, and the language is colloquial and confessional. Combined with the loose chronology and the first-person perspective of most of the poems, the writing style gives the impression of a diary or a novel in verse.
For example, the first poem of the book, “Bite Me,” opens with these lines:
You who are all clichés of babysoft
crawl to my rocking chair,
pull up on my knees,
lift your delicate finger to the silver balloon
from your first birthday,
open your warm red mouth
and let float your word, your fourth
in this world, Bawoooooon–
then, delighted, bite my thigh.
The grammatically correct syntax and conversational style makes the poem accessible, and the language sparkles with wit and tenderness. Playfulness imbues the poem and contributes to the joy and wonder the speaker feels at being a new parent. The reader is invited into the speaker’s private world to savor the compelling images and turns of phrase without being turned away by overly restrictive or complicated poetic structures.
In some cases, however, the writing becomes so colloquial that it seems like prose, as in the prose poem “Waiting for the Heart to Moderate”:
Adults had a drink, they said, to take the edge off, so that’s how she came to understand growing up: erosion. She was all edges, on tender hooks, which is what she thought the expression was. Once she described this to her mother, and her mother assured her it would pass. It kept not passing.
In this poem, as in a few others, I found myself wondering where Fennelly draws the line between poetry and prose. Though the colloquial language allowed me to read this book almost straight through like a novel, I tend to prefer more structured poems, less chatty and more composed. Given the author’s subject matter, however, these loosely constructed but honest poems fit the unstructured nature of being a new parent. For most of the poems, the form and the content blended seamlessly.
All of the poems contain arresting images and unusually lovely turns of phrase. In “Latching On, Falling Off,” the speaker describes the anger of her hungry baby: “Her passion I wasn’t prepared for, her need / naked as a sturgeon with a rippling, red gill”. The metaphor of the sturgeon startles and impresses with a new image for the rawness of a crying infant. Later in the same poem, the speaker says “Let me get it right so I remember: Once, I bared my chest / and found an animal. Once, I was delicious”. Fennelly is able to elevate the everyday experience of nursing her child into something magical by describing it in nonhuman terms. The unabashedly feminine subject matter of this poem–nursing her baby–revealed in such honest, unflinching terms creates a feminist statement: motherhood is beauty and pain, heavenly and animalistic, often at the same time.
The third section of the book contains poems that are longer and more experimental on the page and in their diction. The poems in this section share the loss of an unborn child as a central theme. The tone of this section is less playful, as Fennelly examines the relationship between language, religion, and grief. In “Riddle, Two Years Later,” the lines stretch across the page, and white space offers a counterpoint to the text:
I went to have a picture made
of echoes, expecting
a pearl necklace!
a happy dinghy, tethered!
But the rope
to the other side. Unmoored,
The unstructured nature of this poem emphasizes the speaker’s sense of being untethered when she receives an unexpected result from her ultrasound. The speaker’s confusion is echoed in the poem’s form, as the words jump around the page in surprising ways.
The long poem “Telling the Gospel Truth,” divided into ten parts, tackles the subject of faith in the midst of personal crisis. It, too, uses white space and broken lines in some of its sections to convey the speaker’s struggle to grapple with her pain and her faith. In this segment, the speaker imagines that she sees a statue of Mary in labor:
I’d been looking for Mary
her robes spread
her knees by her ears,
her veins rivering
the cracked and leaking
bowl of her belly that can hold no more,
and the baby crowning, skulling
through that fringe–
but reaching the statue’s front I found
just another passive pietá.
The images are surprising, possibly sacrilegious to some, and yet the speaker’s desire to see her experience reflected in a scene of reverence makes perfect sense. Unflinching honesty drives these poems through complicated subject matter.
The book’s final section returns to some of the lighter, more uplifting poetry of the first two sections. The first lines of “Having Words with Claire” place us in a time of new beginnings:
Magnificent new word I trace into pollen on the car hood
because all is spring and budding through the beds
of your gums are two new teeth
After the long winter of the previous section, where the speaker dealt with her grief, spring arrives, and life can be appreciated anew. In the same poem, the speaker imagines the words that will become important to her baby daughter as she grows:
words that have licked my wrist like a puppy and will lick yours
words that are spells for grade school enemies so their teeth
words you’ll misspell
boasts and dares and unladylike words, I wish them on you
Words and language are vital to this speaker, a theme that runs throughout many of the poems in the book. Here, the speaker teaches her daughter that words have the ability to shape and reflect life experiences. Through language, the baby will experience her world, and her mother will be able to share those experiences.
My complaint about this final section (and to a lesser extent some of the previous sections) is that the wittiness can be overplayed. The poem “Driving the Spoon into Her Mouth” consists of these two lines:
I find my own garage door
has been open for a while.
The poem’s title becomes part of the poem, and the image is of the mother opening her own mouth as she “drives” the spoon into her daughter’s. Despite the poem’s cuteness, I wondered whether this short burst deserved a full page as a complete poem; it (and the few other poems like this one) doesn’t seem of the caliber of other poems in the book. Perhaps these short poems are intended to lighten the reading experience, like a palate cleanser, after some of the long, winding, intense poems in the previous sections. Either way, I found them distracting and a bit glib.
The final poem of the book, “The Gods Tell Me, You Will Forget All This” also seemed glib in its structure. The speaker has a conversation with the gods, whose voices are represented by lines in italics. The poem is basically a question-and-answer format, and because of the colloquial, prosaic language, reads less like a poem and more like something I’d find in a parenting magazine. In this final segment of the poem, the speaker is arguing with the gods about forgetting small details of her daughter’s first year:
That’s not true, I say. We’ll recapture the tongue. Besides. I’m writing everything down.
That old lie. You’ll look at the words and they’ll crawl off the page. But take solace that the pain fades, too. You can’t relive childbirth.
But I want to relive childbirth. I want everything back, every blessed thing.
It’s too much for one person.
Let me try.
You’re too greedy. And it doesn’t work that way. The infant is disappearing as we speak. She is more ours than yours now.
Fine, I say, not meaning it. I’ll have another.
The poem, and the book, ends with the speaker’s fear of losing memories and trying to preserve them by writing everything down, knowing that her task is essentially futile; experience can’t be fully captured by words on the page, and she can’t prevent her daughter from growing up. At the same time, the humor lies in the speaker’s decision to trick the gods by having another baby to recapture some of what she’s losing. Though these sentiments seem perfect for the final poem of the book, the cutesy nature of the poem’s form prevents me from fully enjoying the piece.
Tender Hooks constitutes a journey from the first poem to the last, as it winds from the present to the past and back, finishing by looking toward the future. Fennelly covers motherhood in all of its awe, beauty, and animal nature, never pulling away from the gritty or unpleasant details. Despite some of my personal predilections for more organized, formal poetry, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I related to many of the poems about the wonders of parenting and writing, the joys of motherhood and the word, the struggle to consolidate grief with joy and how one can trigger memories of the other. This is a beautiful book, one I laughed and shed tears over, and I look forward to finding new gems each time I reread it.