New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017. 112 Pages. $22.95.
I’ll put it right out there: I’m no newcomer to the work of Beth Ann Fennelly. Her refreshingly like-it-is womanhood/motherhood poems have had me hooked for over a decade. Skimming through Tender Hooks in preparation for writing this review, I found the roots of Fennelly’s facility for memoir. Tempting her infant daughter with a cherry-flavored Tootsie Pop. Revealing how, as a teen, she snuck into the city “to climb the risers and dance in a cage.” Her confession that she “still likes best the clothes in the Junior section.” Her uncanny ability to simultaneously crow and cringe at her parental impulses. Fennelly is a master of the get OUT, no f-ing way avowal. When I heard the rumor she was working on a book of fifty-two “micro-memoirs,” I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy.
While Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs eschews line breaks, stanzas, and other telltale signs of a poet at work, the prose is richly poetic—it sings and pops; language is a meaning conveyer, for sure, but it’s also lit up with metaphor, choice verbs, and kick-ass descriptions of everything from the Band-Aids she adhered to her “frigid nipples” to keep them from chafing to the thud of a body hitting the Catalan pavement (“It was the first time I heard death”). Readers of Fennelly’s micro-memoirs are at an advantage; they get to read prose that has all the benefits of poetry without, well, being poetry. Case in point: in her micro memorializing a lifetime of romantic interludes, she waxes poetic that “on a scale of kiss-taste, a freshly-smoked Marlboro followed by a swig of Bud in a forbidden pool in the chlorinated dark still ranks pretty high.” Instead of feeling stupid or left out of an exclusive club, the reader finds herself in a lively, accessible landscape as, for instance, Fennelly refers to an overseas trip with her besties as “stiletto heels punching holes in the map of Europe.”
Fennelly is also a master at nailing down her characters with a few choice brushstrokes. Examples of this gift abound in her poems. In her first collection, Open House, she describes a “happy memory “of her father:
His drinking was different in sunshine,
as if it couldn’t be bad. Sudden, manic,
he swung into a laugh, bought me
two ice creams, said One for each hand.
We all know this guy, and it only took Fennelly one sentence to flesh him out. In Heating and Cooling, the same gift for the brushstroke portrait holds true. In “One Doesn’t Always Wish to Converse on Airplanes,” her loquacious seatmates are a “tanned, fit couple—white-sweatered, like tennis pros.” Seriously, what else do you need to know, except perhaps, that after this husband-and-wife duo took sips of their Bloody Marys, the wife “gave his biceps a squeeze”? Every character that moves through this book is similarly described with exacting panache—the doctor who mistakenly hears rider when Fennelly states she’s a writer, “puts his fists up” and imitates a “cowboy bounding over the plains,” the father-in-law who “could sell an icebox to an Eskimo,” the AC repairman who couldn’t “squeeze up there [into their tiny crawl space], even with a shoehorn and a crock full of bacon grease.”
Fennelly seems to take great pleasure in the almost scientific study of humanity at its idiosyncratic best—cringe-worthy awkward, unintentionally humorous, inadvertently wise. In this slim volume we learn about the dangers of holding onto a daughter’s coupon books, the “free hug” having expired seventeen years ago. Also, of the unspoken rule that the tighter and flimsier the red dress, the more likely you will be standing outside on a God-awful freezing night, no “for hire” cabs in sight, while a woman rattles on about how to clean a fine carpet. And then there’s the lumberjack, powerlifting urban-farm-i-Nazi with a pullet soon to be renamed Beyoncé. (If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where you’re the parent holding the bag of Doritos in a sea of Snapea Crisps, you’ll be cackling faster than you can say “gluten-free.”)
If Fennelly is tough on others, she’s even tougher on herself—quick to admit she’s “always loved an audience,” can’t remember a thing, and is “a bad influence.” We also learn she switched salons when her manicurist announced, “We all know how you crave glitter.” There certainly isn’t a lack of searing self-examination in this book, which is probably why the moments of unforgiving braggadocio are so utterly endearing. Like when she shares about the seventeen-mile Lake Mendota she marathon-trained around: “Now I’m glad that I didn’t merely jog on a treadmill . . . I ran around this motherfucker. With my legs.” Or when we find out how she dreamed being a mermaid, and got her wish (“I have tits, and hair down to my ass”).
This equilibrium between crowing and cowering, between laughing off her daughter’s self-diagnosed brain-eating amoeba contraction and the never-ending grief following the sudden death of her sister, is what makes this collection more than a randomly concocted stew of “noticings.” There’s wisdom, for instance, in the realization that grief is more complicated than imagining your sister is the fox you spot between two bushes “come back to animal form to tell me it’s okay.” In fact, ”it was not okay. She was not okay. It would not be okay.” It’s refreshing to be reminded in a book that’s laugh-out-loud funny that the woman who wrote this book is, yes, a mermaid, but wrinkled from “hours spent submerged.”
In this pocket-sized, densely packed collection, Fennelly’s rebel yell is that life could always be worse, that it’s important to know when to shake off the blues by shaking your booty, that you should forgive your siblings (or parents, or children, or in-laws, for that matter) because tomorrow they could all be dead. In fact, her sister has died. We learn, in “The Grief Vacation,” that five weeks after this tragic loss, Fennelly dons a happy face and attends a writers’ conference, despite being “in the freezer section, door wrenched open, doubled over in the mist, tears pocking the stupid faces of the stupid frozen pizzas.” At the conference, “impersonating a woman whose sister was extant,” she somehow musters through. However, upon returning home, she metaphorically steps into “her suit of grief,” stating “she would wear it forever now,” a welcome reminder that it’s okay to fall apart when circumstances warrant it.
Nuanced moments like these add up to a rich, varied, and refreshingly unpredictable portrait of a woman in her prime. The reader’s takeaway is the kick-in-the-pants reminder that there are worse things than losing one’s ravishing youth, including losing half one’s teeth, like her father-in-law (“All’s I need’s enough to chew a steak”).
Readers, you are in for a hootenanny of a wild ride. This is Fennelly at her most laid-bare, wickedly funny, and irrepressibly poetic best.