Once, when I was teaching a poetry class, a student asked, somewhat out of the blue, “Does anybody write epic poems anymore? Is that still a thing?” As it turned out, the student was reading The Aeneid in a literature class and wanted to know if there was any connection between that great Latin epic and our exploration of contemporary American poems.
This question led us into a conversation about what makes a poem “epic” in the first place. Epic poems are long, we all agreed. They have a narrative arc, which presumably includes a hero and some significant events. And before poems were printed and read from a page, epics epitomized the value of oral tradition: preserving a people’s history and collective identity through a shared text that was memorized and passed down from one generation to the next.
I had a hard time coming up with an example of a recent American poem that qualified as a “contemporary epic.” But if a future student were to ask, I wouldn’t have any trouble at all. I’d say, “Nickole Brown has written an epic poem called Fanny Says.”
Now at first glance, Fanny Says may appear to be a collection comprised of four sections and fifty-three poems, but look closer. It is in essence one long poem—138 pages—chambered like a heart and pumping language like blood to every stanza throughout this single, vital organ. Though Brown has written these words down, the oracular qualities of her grandmother, Frances Lee Cox—her distinctive way of speaking, idioms and regionalisms, malapropisms and profanities all—manifests so entirely that the reader is not really reading but listening as this monumental, multi-generational narrative unfolds. In Saussurean terms, we might say Brown is skillfully managing the langue so that Fanny can exemplify the parole.
Now what about heroes? I’d say this book has two of them, and their narratives are deeply intertwined. Listen. Our first hero is Fanny herself: “a woman/ up from poor soil, bad dirt, pure clay. A woman as/succulent, something used to precious little/ water, hard sun.” Listen: “If asked about her education, she’d say,/ You mean schooling? Well, mostly/ a wooden chair […] I’d pull my wooden chair/ up to Daddy’s/ wooden chair.// I’d ask him how to spell.//And he’d help me spell//until he said, ‘Frances Lee, it’s time for bed now,’//and I’d say,/ ‘Alright, Daddy,’//and I pushed my little wooden chair//up under the dark table/and did like he said.” Listen: “I loved green apples till I lost my teeth. I still remember them though—I was about six, and I’d climb that tree and fill my bloomers up with apples for everybody to eat and climb back down again. We ate enough of them bright green apples to make ourselves green […] No, I don’t figure I’ll ever taste those things again as long as I live.”
Our second hero is the speaker, Nickole, whose own life-story ribbons toward us like a hem let down from her grandmother’s dress. Listen: “What people don’t know about my name/is that my grandmother gave me that ‘k’/—my very own unexpected/consonant—/those two strong arms and two strong legs,/ that broom-handle spine—that letter about no one with a name/same as mine has.” A name is a gift, a birthright, a tie that binds one generation to the next. Nickole and Fanny are linked inextricably from the beginning, from even before the younger woman is born. And what about that birth? Listen: “It was cold, almost spring, and though I was bruise yellow/with jaundice, she took us out of that hospital, settling her youngest daughter,/ a teenage mother, careful in the back. With no shoulder belts or infant seats or air bags,/ it was simple: she held me up front for my first ride, she turned the key.//We were on our way, she took us/ on home.”
Fanny mentors her granddaughter in matters both philosophical and practical throughout their epic journey together. She doesn’t dispense mere advice; she testifies from experiences that become, in their unique retelling, elevated to parable, prophesy, and myth. Fanny is this Kentucky family’s oral historian, their soothsayer and sage. Perhaps—all on her own—Frances Lee Cox is the epic poem.
Fanny, on her marriage: “I wanted my dress. But he bought the saw, and that’s the way it was, always choosing the saw over me.”
Fanny, on money: “Ain’t no sense in holding on to it; you know and I know you can’t take it with you when you go.”
Fanny, on being a lady: “Be mean and fight for it. That’s the only way it will ever come to you. Remember what Grandma tells you: People will take only what you let them, and you hold that head back and walk straight. You understand?”
Fanny, on Crisco: “because […] you have to wear your husband out, and sometimes/ you might be counting flower petals on wallpaper, but you best pretend,//Just put a little shortening up there, she said,/ he’ll never know the difference.”
Fanny, on tending babies: “Ain’t nothing to tending a baby once he’s here. I had seven, I know. No sense in going out and getting baby magazines and all that expensive shit swinging and rocking and propping your baby up. You won’t use it two seconds, and besides, it won’t be no good to you in six months.”
You could listen to Fanny all day, couldn’t you? She is a woman speaking her most hard-won truths through the dexterous and diligent medium of her granddaughter. This epic is a channeling, a conjuring, even a raising of the dead. Perhaps all epics are. But when our speaker Nickole recognizes herself in this intermediary role—portent midwife to her grandmother’s posthumous rebirth—she laments, “It is not enough. I cannot describe you,/ lay you flat/ on this page/ with words.” Of course not! She has not laid Fanny flat on the page, but this is not a failure. Rather, she has restored the older woman’s voice, and with it, her three-dimensional body, the shadow it cast, her gestures and habits. Fanny is not merely described in these pages; she is embodied.
And significant events, you might ask? What happens in this narrative of exceptional reach and depth?
One event of particular significance is rendered in “EPO,” meaning “emergency protective order.” This segment is written in epistolary form, the granddaughter addressing her grandmother with regret: “Forgive me. I was sixteen, hard-headed, big-haired, ready to fight. […] Forgive me. I talked you into it; I took you downtown.” Remember when Fanny was driving newborn Nickole home from the hospital? Now the tables are beginning to turn, as they must, in any multi-generational tale. Nickole has a car of her own and drives her grandmother to see the family court judge. What is this action but the younger generation slipping on the older generation’s shoe—perhaps prematurely, perhaps a misstep, but wanting so desperately to guide her guide to safety: “Fanny, we can do this, I said […]/ The word dislocated hung on my tongue—your cabinet from its hinge, your shoulder from your arm. For the word grandfather curdled in my mouth, and I thought we could spit it out.”
Later, in “Sweet Silver,” Fanny confronts the inevitabilities of age in the spirit of another woman who was larger than life, another woman who found herself transfigured (on the screen, on the page, it hardly matters which—) from individual to icon: “This is the trick Lucille Ball could teach:/ as beauty queen, a woman is/measured, compared to the rest,/ as sex symbol/ she ages, and unless she manages/ a spectacular suicide, she just disappears.// But make yourselves into a funny lady […]” Fanny, the funny lady, building her tower of “silver curls/ teased to Jesus/ and set with aerosol.” Nickole, grown now, is no mere apprentice to her grandmother’s ways; she bears witness to Fanny’s evolution and begins to say what Fanny does not, will not. The younger woman begins to speak a truth on behalf of her hero, mentor, and kin: “you might be/surprised to find the hair/ thinner than it looked on her,/ find it has more oil,/ not enough curl,/ further proof of how/ hard she worked/ to become/ who she was.”
It’s tempting to say the most significant event of this double-stranded journey through womanhood is when the granddaughter outlives her grandmother, and as a consequence, succeeds her. Yet this epic is more complex than even that essential trope—“the passing of the torch”—can convey. I choose my own words carefully, too. I choose succeed and not replace because Nickole does not become a woman like Fanny. Once, Fanny asked her a question she was not prepared to answer—not then, not honestly: “You ain’t a lesbian, are you?//Well, okay. I’m just checking.” Even if she had known, for certain, the truth of her own life at that time, could Nickole have answered Fanny honestly—this woman who gave her the gift of her name, then groomed her fiercely for a heterosexual life?
As Virgil once wrote, speaking in the voice of Aeneas, “Each of us must suffer his own demanding ghost.” And such is our surviving hero’s burden in this poem. Near the end, in “To My Grandmother’s Ghost, Flying with Me on a Plane,” we recognize the demanding ghost as Fanny herself while a litany of questions overtakes our speaker mid-flight: “Will you/ come get me, your hair piled high and white, when//it’s my time to go? Or will I find/ you another kind of mother,/ the one who knows the dyke/ I’ve become? Will you be cross,//your face a streak of all my/ desire, telling me I was a fool […] Or ashamed,/ will you turn away your face and hold up//a shard/ of that mirror,/ showing me/ I’m going to hell?”
How hard it is to go on alone when our greatest mortal guides in this world leave us for the Great Beyond. Harder still when we cannot follow them, even in this life, toward a Common Story: when our hearts tell us something different about whom we can love and how we should be in the world. What to do with the grief, what to do with the unfamiliar path we must forge? We can run and never look back. We can hide and never come out. Or we can make the hardest choice, which is to remember the past, honor our forebears, and then step forward with the courage to diverge. Such a choice our speaker rightly names thaumatology, “the study of miracles”—which is what this poem is, what an epic is—thaumatological. And to Fanny, here and gone, she offers herself as scribe, commits herself as mouthpiece: “I’ve got nothing to do today//but write you &/ write down/ what you say.”