No Small Gift: On Jennifer Frankin's Poetry Collection
by Rosanne English
Jennifer Franklin’s No Small Gift (Four Way Books, 2018) offers up a kaleidoscopic vision of trauma, grief, and survival--love is the fissure through which the eye will behold the pain and beauty. Franklin’s second collection arrives at a cultural moment wanting for restitution, and her poems exemplify the powerful role repossessing narrative can play in a survivor’s search for it: “Listen, listen: he has always been wrong;/every song of grief is still song.” These lines from “Lavinia, Afterwards,” are an apt way to open a discussion of these cutting, elegant meditations on how loss and love can intertwine, yet never at the expense of the sobering truth of suffering.
This book works to honor pain, not bury it without elegy. An unflinching speaker meets hard realities head on: cancer, divorce, a daughter's autism and epilepsy. She, like “Nelson’s Sparrow,” will fly “into certain danger, feathers flat/against her in fear" even if "no one notices," even if "no one digs ground for her little bones.” Through reckoning with not only her own narrative, but also those belonging to classical myth and timeless works of art and literature, Franklin lovingly digs ground and makes space for a requiem.
In this way, the Philomela triptych reimagines the mythic Greek woman who rose from the ashes of agony reborn as nightingale, full of song. “Philomela at the Loom” tells how Philomela's abuser thought he could take her tongue, “keep [her] from telling/but [her] fingers speak for me now”:
His face looms as I weave.
In these brutal scenes, I discover
something better than beauty.
I never expected to survive
so when I transformed agony
into a tapestry shaming afternoon light
tulips and bedclothes opened
to take me. Through the wide window,
birdsong fills the empty room.
He doesn’t understand that losing
the ability to speak is not
the same as remaining silent.
The speaker, the sparrow, the freed Philomela will weave her song of truth. She becomes all she wanted. “Philomela after the Metamorphosis” is “the creature who rises” not “just to sing/but to be song.” Nevertheless, her melody is not unfettered from the past. She must reckon with the complexities of survival—its “discomfort/, a door opened.” As “Philomela Considers Forgiveness” she mourns and acknowledges, “I’ll never be inside my body again—it will always sit/behind me, pressing into me—/chainmail I will never shed.” Philomela honors the bones.
Recovery is no absolute salve for pain or grave injury. Franklin issues a tender rebuke to the temptation to suggest otherwise in “Jack Gilbert, You Were Not Always Right,” a response to Gilbert’s “A Brief for the Defense.” The speaker submits that “Jack, your one light burned/in the distance. I heard the rowboat./ I heard the oars.” But “all the ruins still unseen” came true: “You were wrong, Jack, the sound/of oars cannot make up for years of sorrow.” The speaker also rebukes herself for believing in stock fantasy, the fairy-tale that quiet suffering and telling the story you want to believe can make dreams come true. This is:
We flew to Venice
to conceive you.
Now I realize
the folly—to create
life in an unreal
by sinking churches.
I wanted you to begin
like a gold mosaic
folded in Vivaldi—
like cherub wings.
My punishment’s simple—
your legacy mirrors
that of obsolete
palaces, every lit
window, wide open
to the Grand Canal. All
the exquisite rooms, empty.
Ripping at the seams of costumed, gilded dreams bears the speaker this reality, this reclamation of the narrative. Her voice is clear, constant, powerful throughout. It does not waver under the weight of trauma.
Nonetheless, sometimes it is true that “Human Kind Cannot Bear Very Much Reality” and on “days like this” who wouldn't envy “Daisy’s little fools, side by side in narrow asylum beds,/hiding from the horror together.” Yet, Franklin’s work does not indulge the instinct to idle under either Gatsbyesque pretensions or the Sisyphean burden “Another School” suggests. Yes, “one day, we’ll all be buried/in outer-borough cemeteries and none of this/will matter.” But “until then each moment/is a gaping mouth of want" and life is the pressing imperative.
Tragedy scores these poems repeatedly, yet the ultimate decision to let grief and love co-mingle together makes space for a new way to live wholly. “Amor Fati” is the love-letter to this fate; the world after tongue cancer somehow blooms:
I love this ruined body
my numb neck, how
it led me back to the world
from dormancy as if leashed
to the resounding yes
of the universe...
It proclaims: “I’ll speak with my/ravaged tongue: cut me again/and again, make me whole.” Small joys will happen and the speaker will tell the story. While “Waiting Again for Biopsy Results in the Second-Floor Exercise Room” she muses how “Ever since I read/Brontë, I refuse to use an umbrella
and pretend I’m walking the moors even
in the city. I am never where I am.
If I told you what I look forward to,
I couldn’t bear your pity. I wouldn’t
do any of this without music.”
Art may not make evil or pain stand down, but it can move a person through it, making some melody. To close her book, Franklin offers one last gift. “In This Version of the Story” reveals that “there are no birds” but “revenge belongs to the mother and her child—/the lucky ones. For them, love’s not a choice./Revenge means they’re together, despite tragedy” and this is the “face of contentment” for this love and its narrative.