Nickole Brown

ISBN: 978-1-59709-089-6 / $18.95
Published by Red Hen Press / September 2007
Distributed to the trade by Chicago Distribution Center:
(800) 621-2736,

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Read poems by Nickole Brown

“At once fleeting and solid, Nickole Brown’s Sister is a quietly moving, deeply felt record of the burnished world, a lovely album of one pilgrim’s time on earth, thus far.” 

—Carole Maso

“The poems that comprise this haunted narrative are speckled with waterbeds, frosted hair, home pregnancy tests, disco, cigarettes, and black-light posters. The story is of a childhood mired in the 1970s. It is a dark, almost unforgivable world, yet in writing these grim and vivid poems, Nickole Brown has dredged up that all too rare human gift—mercy.” 

—Maurice Manning

From the Jacket Copy

Nickole Brown writes in a voice that is simultaneously vernacular and lyrical. It is a voice thick with the humidity and whirring cicadas of Kentucky, but the poems are dangerous, smelling of the crisp cucumber scent of a copperhead about to strike. Epistolary in nature, and with a novel’s arc, Sister is a story that begins with a teen giving birth to a baby girl—the narrator—during a tornado, and in some ways, that tornado never ends.

In the hands of a lesser poet, this debut collection would be a standard-issue confession, a melodramatic exercise in anger and self-pity. But melodrama requires simple villains and victims, and there is neither in this richly complex portrait. Ultimately, Sister is more about the narrator’s transgressions and failures, more about her relationships to her sister and their mother than about that which divided them. With equal parts sass and sorrow, these poems etch out survival won not with tender-hearted reflections but by smoking cigarettes through fly-specked screens, by using cans of aerosol hair spray as makeshift flamethrowers, and, most cruelly, by leaving home and trying to forget her sister entirely. From there, each poem is a letter of explanation and apology to that younger sister she never knew.

Sister recounts a return to a place that Brown never truly left. It is a book of forgiveness, of seeking what is beyond mere survival, of finding your way out of a place of poverty and abuse only to realize that you must go back again, all the way back to where everything began—that warm, dark nest of mother.

What Readers & Reviewers Have to Say

 “Using umbilicus as guide rail, the speaker of Nickole Brown's Sister—an unflinching and deeply intelligent first book—undertakes a hair-lifting expedition back to her childhood so as to return herself to the arms of a younger sister both long neglected and longed for. Proving that narrative and lyric are never mutually exclusive, Brown pulls the reader down the rain-swollen rush of river where her past gurgles with the ‘sound of diesel,’ to reveal the pedophile—‘a man who simply // cannot stop.’ These poems, always stunning in their clairvoyance, advise us to take such experience and ‘simply / bury it, but bury it / alive.’ I cannot imagine a world in which one could read this book and not experience the confluence of dismay and wonder.”

—Cate Marvin, Ploughshares

“This book embodies the deepest business of literature, to give voice to the torn-out tongue, and it does it the way only poetry can, by singing the song of its story. It’s among the best books I’ve read recently, utterly undeniable, beautifully conjured, with something like perfect pitch. . . . This is Poetry, these are Poems.”

—James Baker Hall

“An extraordinarily harrowing and riveting book. . . . Brown’s managed, somehow, to create a tone for these poems that I’ve not heard in a long time—tough, often chilling, yet compassionate and wry by turns. . . . Sophistication laced with vulgarity and shadows.”

—Dick Allen

 “What Sister gives us is an unparalleled honesty. . . . Sister is honest in a way that is willing to pay any price, or suffer any hardship, to make sure that the truth gets told. You read this, and it challenges you to address the cost of anything less than truth. It’s a shock, but a seductively lovely one, gorgeous even when it is ugly.”

—Ray McDaniel

“In her debut collection, Brown weaves poetic phrases to take her readers on a journey that satisfies from the initiation to the conclusion, as she enlightens about the dysfunctional yet beautiful intimacies of a sisterly relationship. . . . Brown masterfully captures the essence of poetry by meshing equal parts emotion, storytelling, and style. Brown builds upon the rich tradition of Nikki Giovanni and Bob Hickok to craft her unique abilities in a manner that shows and rightfully deserves respect."

—Ashanti White, Library Journal

“Brown's forthright debut opens with an intimate address to a sister: ‘I tell you this story because it is/ the story we need/ to believe our offal is divine.’ . . . . A striking collection. The strongest poems are those stripped of commentary, in which rough memories are offered as strange discoveries, as in ‘Jessica Meyers in the Corn’: ‘In puddles of seeping/ groundwater, I plugged in electrical cords and her skin/ burned black.’ These are brave confessions, apologies and recollections lay everything bare: 'I want nothing/ but truth between us, but I am afraid.”

Publishers Weekly, August 2007

“It would be easy to say that this collection is an indictment, but there is nothing easy about these poems. They are each skillfully wrought pieces about impossible subjects. . . . Though she speaks of 'straddling a fence,' of 'switching all the time / between isn'tand ain't' ('Straddling Fences'), there is no question of Brown's belonging to the literary realm. . . . Sister is at once memoir and confession, rebuke and invitation. These poems are of the hour between dog and wolf when neither creature seems particularly safe. However, the ‘Preface’ evokes light—battery-powered and not standing much of a chance against the darkness—but ‘light nonetheless,’ and this collection ends with that glimmer of hope, too.”

—Erica Wright, ForeWord Magazine

“The strength of Sister is in the details, some of which are constructed through Brown’s diction, which is gently infused with a southern dialect but resists caricature. She writes of cutting her finger then blood ‘pollacking the paper with red’ or of ‘fried comfort’ or when her sister came home ‘bawling, colicky, dispositioned / bad, a mess of black tar meconium.’ In each phrase, the particular word from the South captures a precise detail, making Brown’s poems visually, as well as aurally, rich. . . . The interplay between girlhood and womanhood for the narrator’s mother is another theme carried through the entire collection and explored among the three central characters of the book: the mother, the narrator, and the sister. This trifecta of women is brought to life with great pathos through Brown’s artistry. Resisting sentimentality, . . . Brown's narrative poems are vital. In the tradition of Sylvia Plath in its insistence to look at and capture the realities of women's lives, Sister is a strong debut collection."

—Julie Enszer, Lambda Book Report

“Nickole Brown’s poems marry an enthralling and tormented narrative with woven, specific lyricism to create a layered progression through a difficult past. Brown has immediate access to how the situations she evokes are processed by the mind of a child and can re-create that open and immediate seeing. . . . The aim here is not retribution, but getting it right. The speaker’s addresses to her sister, which are spoken even before the sister has been born, and then as she grows toward the present, shape the book as a lesson in understanding how little one can understand about this world. However, the struggle for reason, even science, is beautifully wrought in Brown’s hand.”

American Poet: The Journal of The Academy of American Poets

“To write of one’s own conception, gestation, birth—to write convincingly of unknowable-yet-familiar moments: that is the power of poetry and the power of Nickole Brown’s debut, Sister, a self-styled ‘novel-in-poems.’ . . . It would be difficult for the book to flee the inevitable baggage of the Southern Gothic, yet it walks that highwire gracefully and never lapses into stereotype. . . . Sister is in no way limited; it does not limit its subjects, its language, its experiments with form, or its audience.”

—Melanie Jordan, Southern Indiana Review

“If you feel that high emotion and unalienated confession is not art, as Slavoj Zizek might assert—that it cops to the System where the individual is valued for trying to be different—this book asks the question: What do you do with specific experience you never chose and from which you must try to recover? In the end, Brown blows all up into an awful beauty of size, color, and sound. . . .”

—Cynthia Arrieu-King, Diagram

"Brown’s awareness of the book’s form, its how in addition to its what, allows for these poems’ rich complexities. The order not only forms a linear narrative, but layers experience. . . . Such raw and beautiful imagery is just one of the many threads that pull this book together. The moments result in nothing short of song. Each poem develops a scene the way a photograph reveals its occasion as it develops, ghostly at first beneath the chemical liquid in the dark room, sharpening into gradual, undeniable, and vivid evidence. Such evidence must answer the speaker’s final question in the poem ‘Tintinnabulation,’ ‘sister, did you feel loved, ever, / by me?’ In Nickole Brown’s care this journey is an honest one; the sensation is only and always compassionate and sincere.”

—Ely Shipley, Quarterly West

"Frankness and love are brought together with Brown's brilliant combination of the sacred and vernacular. . . . Brown alternates the poems' shapes on the page, giving us the sense that each poem is a different vision from a different self. . . . This fluidity of identity is finally what makes Sister so empowering: the shifting of the self resists any attempt to fix her as one entity, refuting any notion of helpless femininity."

—Chad Parmenter, The Missouri Review

"Eavan Boland once observed that ‘the idea of daughters . . . has opened up a wonderful landscape of tone and intimacy and bold subversions in recent poetry.’ A stunning landmark of this powerful terrain, Nickole Brown’s debut, Sister, traced a harrowing pilgrimage back to a Kentucky past. . . . Brown’s poetry is deeply redemptive; her vibrant voice reveals a determined spirit who can take rage and ‘rub its demon head / with sweet oil and song’ (‘How To Forgive’), who shares the joy in having learned to ‘boss my way / through the city gates, switching all the time / between isn’t and ain’t, my feet / in designer heels / with creek mud still between my toes’ (‘Straddling Fences’).”

—Jane Satterfield, The Antioch Review

Sister tells a powerful female coming-of-age story with many familiar autobiographical elements—class, sexuality, powerlessness, and a growing command of language that finally frees the narrator, at least to the extent that any of us is free. . . . Although Sisterseems aimed at female readers, anyone would appreciate the beautiful and carefully chosen language Brown uses to tell her story, particularly as it contrasts with the harshness of its events and enacts a choice between ugliness and beauty.”

—Wendy Vardaman, Women’s Review of Books

In the debut collection from Kentucky poet Nickole Brown, readers experience the pleasures of poetry—the illuminated moment reverberating—as well as the pleasures of the novel—the narrative unfurling, driven by complex central characters. . . . Rich with images, brave with difficult truths, and restrained enough to avoid melancholy, this is a collection readers will enjoy.”

—Beth Ann Fennelly, The Southern Register

“This is definitely not a book you read once and file in your bookshelf. The unabashed bravery is combined with good ol’ Kentucky grit, strength, and amazing lushness . . . perfectly crafted writing makes for a damn near perfect read.”

—N. K. Pollitt, Ab Ovo 

“It’s a cliché to say that poems dealing with an emotionally traumatic past are ‘raw,’ and in this case it would be particularly inappropriate—this burst of expression has clearly been burning with Nickole for some time, and we’re the ones who are lucky that she brought it out of the kiln.”

—Ron Hogan, Beatrice

“All of the poems in Nickole Brown’s recently published collection, Sister, are as turbulent as the opening piece in which a tornado witnesses the narrator’s birth. The collection is at once a plea for forgiveness from a younger sister, whom the narrator abandoned when she moved out of the house as a teenager, and an unabashed confession. The effect feels like two children playing Indian burn, their aggression shocking anyone in proximity. . . . Brown uses the écriture style (think James Joyce): there is no linear and rational walk down memory lane . . . . And, like a master potter of words, Brown molds a clay of repressed anger, betrayal and stagnant Kentucky humidity to produce a disturbing and magnificent lyrical memoir.”

—Claudia Olea, Leo Magazine

“The story poems in Sister, by Nickole Brown, paint a portrait of misery converted to hope. In exposing the deep traumas that have stolen her childhood, the narrator takes us with her on the journey of processing righteous anger into the ability to offer sisterly comfort, instead of remorse.”

—Mary Pompham, The Courier-Journal 

“As readers, it’s as if we’re sitting next to Nickole, rapt, as she reaches into the damp darkness of a Kentucky summer night and hands us piece after piece of memory, each of them quietly assembling themselves into a landscape that becomes more and more charged with the overwhelming power of family history. If Nickole’s words were objects, I think they would be sequins, bracelets, watersnakes and paint, but to speak only of image is to leave out Nickole’s incredible gift for catching the lyric impulses of the dialect of her home. In these poems, Nickole Brown has laid bare her penchant for preservation and her ear for the peculiarities of dialect that emerge from the Appalachian mountains . . . . She wants to speak to us from that dialect, she wants to draw us into its expressive, immediate power of place, and I believe she manages to accomplish this with unparalleled dignity and grace.”

—Mary Speaker, Reading Between A & B

“In Sister, poetry is taken out of elite hands and set in front porches, beauty shops, and skating rinks. The poems are sassy and Southern, yet heartrending and haunting. And the vivid imagery and stellar storytelling make the book both gripping and easy to relate to.”

—Javacia N. Harris, Velocity Weekly 

“I found myself completely absorbed in Brown's reading; her work has a raw, riveting, all-encompassing power that's rare in contemporary poetry."

—Emma Bolden

Sister explores themes of birth, death, guilt, redemption, and family ties through a fraternal, or in this case, sisterly bond."

—Theresa Antonia, poetic diversity

  • Finalist for the 2007 ForeWord Magazine Poetry Book of the Year Award
  • Ranked #16 on the Poetry Foundation's Contemporary Best Sellers List, June 2008
  • Cited as recommended reading in the resource guide to The Courage To Heal by Ellen Bass & Laura David (4th Edition, 2008)