Poet Fennelly investigates the soul

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Author: James Raper

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Beth Ann Fennelly ’93 came down to South Bend in 1989 from Chicago with a few lead roles in high school plays among her credits and the notion that Notre Dame would shape her into a full-fledged actress.

She tried out for a campus play “and didn’t get the lead,” she recalls. “In fact, I didn’t get a speaking role. In fact, when the Notre Dame Observer reviewed the play, they mentioned the 12 people in the play who did a good job. There were 13 people in the play. That’s how it dawned on me, despite what my mother said, I was wretched.”

So much for failure.

“I looked around for something else in place of drama classes and found a poetry workshop taught by the wonderful John Matthias,” Fennelly says. “I remember feeling like all my life I’d wanted to swim, but I hadn’t known that until I was thrown into the water.”

Today Fennelly is widely considered to be one of the best young poets in the nation. Her first full-length book, Open House, won several awards, including the 2001 Prize for Poetry from The Kenyon Review. Her second book, Tender Hooks, published in 2004, mines the author’s pregnancy and new motherhood (daughter Claire was born in 2002). The book was called “awesome, humanely humbling poetry,” by a BookList reviewer. Singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams offered a jacket blurb after she had read Tender Hooks: “These poems read like little short stories. Beth Ann Fennelly’s perspective on motherhood is the boldest I’ve ever witnessed. She explores areas openly that others only think about in the privacy of their minds. Her poems are brave and beautiful.”

After Notre Dame, Fennelly earned a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from the University of Arkansas and won a Diane Middlebrook Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin. She taught at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, before joining the English faculty at the University of Mississippi, where she is now an assistant professor.

John Matthias, the distinguished poet who retired recently as Notre Dame professor of English, says he is not surprised by the numerous fellowships, grants and prizes Fennelly has won during the past decade.

“Beth Ann was one of the two or three best undergraduates I’ve had in a poetry writing class in almost 40 years of teaching,” he says. “She was an absolute natural, a young poet with enormous energy, invention, music and an urgent desire to read, learn, write, question, invent. I saw her very early work as the real thing, though she is skeptical when I tell her this.”

For her part, Fennelly acknowledges that she got “on track” as a poet at Notre Dame with the help not only of Matthias but also of two other English professors and wordsmiths, Sonia Gernes and Stephen Fredman. Faculty mentors continue to encourage her. “That my old professors are proud of me and want to claim me pleases me no end,” she says.

Gernes remembers early Fennelly poems about an Indiana boy who found a meteorite in his yard and about an old car named Ursula. The poems “had a a wry sense of humor and displayed an instinct for both salient detail and nuance of language that marked her as someone with genuine talent,” she says.

Fredman was director of undergraduate studies in the English department when the undergraduate Fennelly marched into his office. “She said, ‘There are no poetry writing classes for me to take this coming semester, and I expect you to do something about it!’ A former poet myself, I had to agree to offer her the class she requested, even though I had resisted teaching creative writing for 15 years,” Fredman says. “We had a great time together, exploring the work of contemporary avant-garde poets and looking at her own poetry alongside them.”

While doing independent study with Fredman, the young poet began work on “Asked for a Happy Memory of Her Father, She Recalls Wrigley Field,” which was in Open House. This poem is faithful enough to day games at Wrigley Field to have been included in an anthology of baseball poetry. More important, it captures a memory, minimal and tragically beautiful, that the daughter of an alcoholic would cling to: “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.”_

In many of her poems, Fennelly fearlessly probes her habits and feelings, as well as her relationships with people close to her. "I Would Like to Go Back as I Am, Now, to You as You Were, Then—’’ and “The Snake Charmer” in Open House are fresh and frank love poems to her husband, the fiction writer Tom Franklin. Motherhood undergoes scrutiny in the poems of Tender Hooks such as “Three Months After Giving Birth, The Body Loses Certain Hormones.” It begins, “And my hair starts falling out./Long, red hair on the sheets, clogging/every drain,” and ends, “Who else knows?/ The house finch,/building, in the basket of impatiens, her nest./The eggs in her body are hardening, ripening,/ready for her to start dying—/the house finch, busily weaving/with strands of long, red hair.”

Soon after her daughter’s birth, Fennelly says, she became fascinated “with all the aspects of motherhood that surprised and awed and humbled.” Writing Tender Hooks was her natural reaction. “For me, the best method of investigating the soul has always been poetry. I wrote poems trying to avoid the obvious danger of sentimentality, which sweetens and simplifies, and therefore lessens our understanding of human nature.”

Her husband won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Poachers, a book of short stories published in 2000. Publishers Weekly called Franklin’s 2003 novel, Hell at the Breech, “immensely accomplished,” and Matthias describes him as a “brilliant” fiction writer. The couple “constitutes a literary powerhouse there in Oxford, Mississippi,” Matthias says.

Fennelly, her former professor predicts, “will become one of the poets whose work helps to define the characteristic poetry of the early 21st century.”

Joseph Urgo, chair of the Department of English at the University of Mississippi, said Fennelly has established a strong following among graduate and undergraduate students. “Ours is a program that has been known almost exclusively for fiction because of the long-established reputation of Barry Hannah and, before him, of Willie Morris, Larry Brown and others. In recent years, since Beth Ann’s arrival, that has begun to change. Her poetic vision, gaining national attention among poets and readers, has been attracting young poets to the MFA program to work with her.”

The second child of Fennelly and Franklin, a son, Thomas Gerald Franklin III, was born June 11. Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother, a collection of letters Fennelly wrote to a former student who had an unplanned pregnancy, is due out from Norton on April 1, 2006.

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