Playing with Genre: Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling
Although many individual pieces of Beth Ann Fennelly’s latest book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs (W.W. Norton, 2017) were published in poetry journals such as American Poetry Review, the collection’s subtitle leaves room to wonder. Poetry—prose poetry, to be exact—or memoir, then? The answer is that, in Heating & Cooling, Fennelly is playing with genre, which she began doing in her debut poetry collection, Open House (W.W. Norton, 2009), and continued in Unmentionables (W.W. Norton, 2009). But whether you call these pieces poetry or memoir, they showcase Fennelly’s signature freshness and candor.
Some pieces are just a line or two; some are a paragraph; some are several pages. Some of the pieces have repeated titles, creating a de facto series (a structural element common to contemporary poetry collections), as in the pieces titled “Married Love.” Taken as a collection, these pieces act less as a narrative or memoir than as tiny snapshots and meditations on Fennelly’s life: her marriage, her children, the death of her sister, and the aftermath of her mother’s cancer. These pieces are autobiographical, often musing on money or sex, then slipping into an image or a reverie, as in “What I Learned in Grad School”:“Once, a rival poet (we were all suddenly rivals) confessed he had a secret font. He called it the ‘Publish Me’ font… we asked him the name of this font, but he always declined to share.”
These themes will be familiar to readers of Fennelly’s previous work—the struggles of a mother and wife to find time to herself and time to write, the struggles of sexual desire, her quarrels with Catholicism, with money and career, and with the modern dilemmas of a woman who, as we say, “has it all.” But Heating & Cooling also includes more about her family of origin than Fennelly’s previous books. Of all the pieces in the collection, these are the most poignant, and contain the most internal pressure and surprise. Fennelly’s poems have always been clever and funny, but some of the pieces dealing with her family of origin are so cutting and sad that they made me catch my breath. Here’s “Disharmony”:
My mother and I argued about her eHarmony profile. I thought she should list her age as seventy-four…
But I don’t feel seventy-four, she’d insist.
Our argument was not long-lived. The lumps turned out to be cancer. After her double mastectomy, she underwent a slow rotation in front of the mirror. After that, she deleted her profile.
The banality of the discussion of a mother and daughter arguing about a dating profile, juxtaposed with the mother’s cancer and subsequent surgery, comes to an elegant but somber ending. It’s this kind of casual, off-handed, nearly humorous detail that Fennelly uses so well throughout the book to complicate the darker notes.
Fennelly also discusses academia and money with a natural frankness and ease. “Salvage”—about her father-in-law’s health problems—shows that these issues are complex for the author, and the language in these pieces is more prose-like than poetic. From “Salvage”: “Tommy’s parents wave from the porch as our minivan pulls up. His dad smiles, and that’s when I see he’s missing about half his teeth.” And later there’s “Addendum to Salvage,” here in its entirety: “Won a thousand dollars in a literary contest for one of these essays. / Bought my father-in-law a tooth.”
Longer pieces, like “The Grief Vacation,” deal with the complex and disorienting comfort of returning to everyday—in this case, professional—settings from a place of grief. This piece has Fennelly speaking at a writer’s conference soon after her sister’s death. Fennelly writes this piece in the third person, perhaps to gain bit of distance from her own sadness. At times, the piece takes on a surreal edge, as Fennelly describes grief as a garment: “She stepped back into her suit of grief.” Here’s more from “The Grief Vacation”:
Three weeks after her sister died, she was scheduled to speak at a writer’s conference… Her husband kept assuring her she could cancel: she was grieving… But she was getting better, sort of… (the student) questioned her, but only about her books. Her books! Her news has not reached this outlying kingdom.
If you’re a fan of Beth Ann Fennelly’s previous books of poetry, which had many poems bordering the hybrid edge of prose, you will be a fan of this book of “mini-memoirs.” And if you’re not a poetry fan, but a memoir fan, and happen to read this review? Heating & Cooling will work for you, too. Whether you read it as poetry or memoir, this collection will invite you into the delicate balance between the challenging, sometimes squalid, human condition and the beauty and sadness of the transcendent.
Author photograph © Mike Stanton.