Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

Contest Archive

The Poetry of Beth Ann Fennelly: Finalist, 1999

The Impossibility of Language

Letter From Gauguin's Daughter

The Impossibility of Language

"Blackberries," says one, rolling it in the barrel
of the mouth. "Yes," says the other, "oak."
"Well aged, aroma of truffles," adds the third.
They nod. Roll it and roll it, the way God
must have packed the earth in his palms.
Discuss the legs of it running down the glass.
They bring the valley into it. And color: "The light
staining the glass at Sainte Chapelle." Back to taste:
"Earthy. A finish of clove." They leave nodding,
trusting the opaque bottles of their words.

2. How I Became a Nature Lover

Suppose I said, "Honeysuckle,"
meaning stickysweet stamen,
the hidden core you taught me,
a city girl, to find. How I crave
the moment I coax it from calyx,
tongue under the bulbed tip
of glistening stalk, lie an altar boy
raising the salver under blessed bread
the long Sundays of my girlhood,
suppose my tongue caught that mystery
the           single           swollen           drop

The irony of metaphor:
you are closest to something
when naming what it's not.

1934: Imagine Mandelstam, who loved
words too much, with his poet friends,
how they passed the bottle of slivovice.
"Osip," they oleaded, "chitáy, chitáy."
And so he did read about Stalin,
"the Kremlin mountaineer," with "laughing
cockroaches on his top lip," who rolled
"executions on his tongue like berries."
How could Mandelstam have known
one man fisting the table in laughter
would quote the poem to the mountaineer?

Think of Mandelstam in winter: the water
freezes in the water jug. In summer:
the prison mattress shimmies lice.
But Nadezhda visits him. They do not speak
of hope or love or death. He recites his poems
in a whisper that she memorizes. Even in his cell,
"this shoe-size in earth with bars around it,"
as long as he has lips, he has a weapon.

Imagine how much each word weighs
on Nadezhda's tongue. She bears
them home like eggs in that time of no eggs.
She hews them to the page,
He dies, committed to her memory.

"I ask you to cinema, coffee, wine,
           you say me, 'no.' I ask you
walk in the park, hold of the hand.
           You say me 'no.' You gave my heart
the fire, and now you give me the heart
           burn. Why, when eyes of you
are sympathetic like some fox?"
           We speak barest when we barely
speak--love letters from the foreigner
           before the invention of cliché.

Teaching immigrants English,
           I gave them crayons to draw families,
taught them words for each brown,
           orange, tan face. Guillermo's page
was blank. "I am alonesome," he wrote.

Meaning? Language can so not.

The government releases
films of nuclear testing
from the fifties.
A plane bellies over
an atoll in the Pacific.
It drops a bomb.
The camera,
at a "safe distance"
some dozen islands away,
flips over. The sky
falls. The narrator surmises,
"at this juncture
of maturation,
premature impactation
necessitates further study."
The mushroom cloud
is a balloon caption
for which earth can't
find words.

Is the ear bereft if an alphabet dies
that it has never heard?

The latest extinction of language
occurred last month with the death
of the lone speaker of Northern Pomo,
a woman in her eighties.

Are we weaker without the word
in Northern Pomo for begonia?
Does the inner hammer numbly
strike its drum? Does it grow dumb
mourning sounds that it will never hear?

7. Unfinished Poems

from trashcans
sewers & pulp mills
& bind themselves under
elaborate covers
for the endless library
of the unborn
who climb mahogany
ladders to finger
thick volumes
and with vague lips
sound out what's there
& what's not.

Synonyms are lies. Answer the question
with stones or rocks:

Q. When Virginia Woolf, on the banks
of the Ouse, walked into the water,
swallowing her words, with what objects
had she loaded the pockets of her dress?

A. Stones. Rocks is wrong, as in
"She took her life for granite."

9. The Myth of Translation.

Try a simple sentence: "I am hungover."
For Japanese, "I suffer the two-day dizzies."
In Czech, "The monkeys swing inside my head."
Italians say, "Today, I'm out of tune."
Languages aren't codes that correspond--
in Arabic, there's no word for "hungover."

Does the Innuit woman, kept on ice all winter,
sucking fat from ducks for her hunter's leggings,
not divine the boredom her language doesn't name?
Or would the word's birth crack the ice for miles,
drowning the hunger who crouches with a spear
beside the ice hole for the bearded seal? She sucks
the fat slowly, carefull not to quill her throat
with feathers. She grows heavy. It is, as it was
from the start, a question of knowledge.
If she bites into the word, she'll be alonesome.

Letter From Gauguin's Daughter


Enclosed is what little money
your last exhibition made here in Copenhagen.
Please do not be discouraged; the light in this city
is so muted, not even snow can be white.
Your flat impasto of magenta, of orange-
of course the reviewers would see it as caricature.

You ask about our health. Mother is not improved.
In her fever she forgets our reversal of fortune,
the exile from Paris. She dreams of our house
on the rue de Lorette, asks if you're home from the bank,
or at your Sunday hobby, painting that cute red fox?
Bedridden, she rings me to describe Paris
from her window above these rotting Danish docks.

I am well, besides missing you and France.
Every day my Danish aunts introduce me
to the blond eyelashes of some local Lars or Søren
who seeks a hard-working wife. I suppose
I should be grateful, being 27 and too thin.
Yes, I am still sketching between stints
with the seamstress, and I'm glad you think
I capture well the harpsichord in the parlor.
Papa, it's five years since you left us here,
telling me care for mother, telling me six months.
But you paint someone called Vahinè, who sits
with earth-tipped breasts, weaving a basket
from screw pine. On her blanket is the pipe
you'd pack with cherry tobacco in the evenings.
Now your foxes are fanged and not so picturesque.

Just yesterday I looked in the pier glass, Papa,
and laughed to realize I'm still waiting
to get prettier, happier, waiting for my neck
to grow graceful before I wear my pearls.
But we stop growing, Papa, or most of us do.
I remember once, as a girl, walking into your studio-
I heard Mother's brassy bell, its note of need.
You stood painting, unhearing. On your easel,
a room with a window through which could be seen
the glad back of somebody walking away.

Papa, I must finish this letter. Yes,
you'll have money when the seamstress pays me.
What do you think of my sketches? Excuse me, the bell rings-