In Fanny Says, Nickole Brown writes an “unleashed love song” to her late grandmother, Fanny, a complex, sometimes paradoxical Southern woman who “was authoritative / with her cussing, unabashed / with cocksucker and fucker and dick,” while also offering advice on how to be a lady: “Watch your reputation close” and “Take it easy, keep your feet up, and don’t carry nothing heavy unless you want your / uterus to fall out on the hot sidewalk.” Throughout the book, Brown mixes the rough with the respectable and as well as mixing lighter subjects (Crisco, Pepsi, and make-up) with more freighted ones (racism and domestic violence).
Many poems look back at family history with a nostalgic sense of loss—for a grandmother, for childhood; “To My Grandmother’s Ghost, Flying with Me on a Plane” evokes that complicated yearning:
. . .and before disappearing turned,
said, Come step into this dark
hole in the ground with me?
Fanny, she did not mean to be
morbid. She only meant to say,
We “step into this dark hole” in several poems where racial slurs are spoken without concern or apology, as in the complex twenty-section poem “A Genealogy of the Word,” which circles around race and gender stereotypes, rape, guns, violence, illness, and death. The speaker states “I was / eaten alive with the cancer / of this history.” Yet neither the poem nor the collection deals in easy conventions about “the South.” Brown successfully uses the perspectives of both Fanny and the speaker to uncover the always shifting textures of family relationships across generations. In narrating the life and death of Fanny “who didn’t ask for power but took it / in bright, full, fuck-it-all bloom,” Brown makes no excuses for her but instead snapshots her highly flavored life and language, maintaining a balance between affection and discomfort.