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Beth Ann Fennelly

1971–

Beth Ann Fennelly was born in New Jersey and grew up in the Chicago area. She received a BA from the University of Notre Dame in 1993 and an MFA from the University of Arkansas in 1998. From 1998 to 1999, she attended the University of Wisconsin as a Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow.

Fennelly is the author of the poetry collections Unmentionables (W. W. Norton, 2008); Tender Hooks (W. W. Norton, 2004); and Open House (Zoo Press, 2002), winner of the 2001 Kenyon Review Prize. The Harvard Review notes, “Beth Ann Fennelly’s poems are consistently dramatic, complex in their perceptions and formal unfolding, and enthralled with language.”

Fennelly has also published two books of nonfiction, including The Tilted World: A Novel (HarperCollins, 2013), which she cowrote with her husband, Tom Franklin.

Fennelly has received grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission, the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, United States Artists, and the State of Illinois Council, among others. She directs the MFA program at the University of Mississippi, where she has taught since 2002. In 2016, she was named Mississippi’s fifth poet laureate. She lives in Oxford, Mississippi.

Read about Beth Ann Fennelly’s 2020 Poets Laureate Fellowship project.


Bibliography

Poetry
Unmentionables (W. W. Norton, 2008)
Tender Hooks (W. W. Norton, 2004)
Open House (Zoo Press, 2002)

Prose
The Tilted World: A Novel (HarperCollins, 2013)
Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother (W. W. Norton, 2006)

By This Poet

8

Souvenir

Though we vacationed in a castle, though I 
rode you hard one morning to the hum
of bees that buggered lavender, and later
we shared gelato by a spotlit dome
where pigeons looped like coins from a parade--
we weren’t transported back to newlyweds.
We only had a week, between new jobs, 
we both were pinched with guilt at leaving Claire.
When, in our most expensive, most romantic meal,
you laid your sunburned hand upon your heart,
it was just to check the phone was on.

When the trip was good as over--when the train 
would take us overnight to Rome, the flight
would take us home--I had the unimportant
moment I keep having.  I wonder if 
we choose what we recall?  
                            The train 
was unromantic, smoky.  We found a free
compartment, claimed the two bench seats, and eyed 
the door.  Italians who peered in and saw 
your shoes, my auburn hair, our Let’s Go: Rome, 
soon found another car.  And we were glad.  
But then, reluctantly, two couples entered, 
settled suitcases on laddered racks, 
exchanged some cautious greetings, chose their spots.
Then each one turned to snacks and magazines.
The miles scrolled by like film into its shell.
Night fell.  Each took a toothbrush down the hall.
Returned.  Murmured to the one he knew.
The man beside the window pulled the shade.  
We each snapped off our light, slunk down until
our kneecaps almost brushed.  And shut our eyes.

Entwined I found us, waking in the dark. 
Our dozen interwoven knees, when jostled, 
swayed, corrected, swayed the other way.  
Knuckles of praying hands were what they seemed.  
Or trees in old growth forests, familiarly 
enmeshed, one mass beneath the night wind’s breath.
Or death, if we are good, flesh among flesh, 
without self consciousness, for once.  
                                       Husband,
five years husband, you slept, our fellow travelers
slept, scuttling through black time and blacker space.
As we neared the lighted station, I closed my eyes.  
Had I been caught awake, I would have moved. 

The Kudzu Chronicles - Oxford, Mississippi [excerpt]

1.
Kudzu sallies into the gully
like a man pulling up a chair 
where a woman was happily dining alone.   
Kudzu sees a field of cotton,
wants to be its better half.
Pities the red clay, leaps across 
the color wheel to tourniquet.  
Sees every glass half full,
pours itself in.  Then over the brim.
Scribbles in every margin 
with its green highlighter.  Is begging 
to be measured.  Is pleased 
to make acquaintance with
your garden, which it is pleased to name
Place Where I Am Not.
Yet.  Breeds its own welcome mat.

2.
Why fret 
if all it wants
is to lay one heart—
shaped palm
on your sleeping back?   

Why fright 
when the ice 
machine dumps its 
armload of diamonds?

First Warm Day in a College Town

Today is the day the first bare-chested
          runners appear, coursing down College Hill
                      as I drive to campus to teach, hard

not to stare because it’s only February 15,
          and though I now live in the South, I spent
                      my girlhood in frigid Illinois hunting Easter eggs

in snow, or trick-or-treating in the snow, an umbrella
          protecting my cardboard wings, so now it’s hard
                      not to see these taut colts as my reward, these yearlings

testing the pasture, hard as they come toward my Nissan
          not to turn my head as they pound past, hard
                      not to angle the mirror to watch them cruise

down my shoulder, too hard, really,when I await them
          like crocuses, search for their shadows as others do
                      the groundhog’s, and suddenly here they are, the boys

without shirts, how fleet of foot, how cute their buns,
          I have made it again, it is spring.  
                      Hard to recall just now that these are the torsos

of my students, or my past or future students, who every year
          grow one year younger, get one year fewer
                      of my funny jokes and hip references

to Fletch and Nirvana, which means some year if they catch me
            admiring, they won’t grin grins that make me, busted,
                      grin back--hard to know a spring will come

when I’ll have to train my eyes
          on the dash, the fuel gauge nearing empty,
                      hard to think of that spring, that

distant spring, that very very very
          (please God) distant
                      spring.