“A Koan in my Mouth”: A Review of Jennifer Franklin’s No Small Gift

After reading each poem in Jennifer Franklin’s No Small Gift, I had to put the book down for several moments before picking it back up again—the power and urgency in each poem feels like paint still wet, like one is encountering a vibrant, concentrated intimacy in the making. Setting the book down for a moment felt like honoring, not turning away—these poems hold impact.

The collection opens with a stunning poem that provides a contextual frame for what follows, through negations: “(Not) a Love Story.” “The man who wanted us to take vows / in church did not give me a disease // that bloomed into malignancy. / My doctor, his colleague, did not help // him hide it. Another surgeon did not / take a long slice of my tongue.” This poem articulates the predicament from which the rest will unfold from Franklin’s experience with tongue cancer whilst parenting a daughter with autism. “…I did not wait five years to admit I still / have a body nor seven to be loved // for the first time. He will not always want / my scarred neck under his wrist.” By writing this poem through negation, we at once understand how such circumstances feel unbelievable and yet are undeniably real. The speaker in this poem is not in denial, but equally not passive: already we see an empowered speaker, capturing the natural feeling of disbelief that occurs in trauma, whilst fiercely setting forth the facts with clarity and boldness. This thread of bravery pulls through the book.

Franklin interweaves her own experience and rumination on song and voice with that of Ancient Greek tragedies and other literary allusions (Shakespeare, Beckett), layering time and building a sort of resilience through relationship, feeling companionship with others throughout time and space who understood isolation and found creative ways to counter it. The opening of “Philomena at the Loom” strikes the tone, “He thought when he took my tongue, / he could keep me from telling / but my fingers speak for me now” (33). In Greek mythology, Philomena, too, lost her tongue, after being raped and not wanting to hide what had happened to her. Philomena weaved her story into a tapestry as her way of speaking, and these poems, too, comprise a way of speaking through body, heart, and mind in a medium other than the mouth. This book is a continual unfolding of Franklin finding and re-finding her voice. In the last stanza of “Philomena at the Loom,” we see both women’s songs bursting through: “He doesn’t understand that losing / the ability to speak is not / the same as remaining silent” (34).

Resilience comes through Franklin’s use of form as well as her music. What could feel like restraint for such painful poems—many are in short tercets or longer couplets— feels like a carefully crafted container to hold something exceedingly powerful. The song can come through because of its concentrated form— the music is not dispersed or dissolved, nor is it caged. The mastery of form in this work is not dissimilar to Philomena’s tapestry: the boundaries and edges make the story clear.

One of the most beautiful aspects of No Small Gift is that while it renders a personal and particular story, there is a thread that opens—perhaps blooms— into the universal, or into the universe, which I feel as empathy. Despite different experiences, I relate deeply to lines like “Everything hurt me the same—” in “First Born.” This poem describes a childhood sensitivity to harms in the world, from “the grave for small animals / the boys dug to hide what they did / when they were bored” to circus animals, discarded hydrangeas, homeless cats, and damaged limbs. In this poem, the speaker of the book’s present predicament(s) connects with the past—her voice becomes even more fully filled in. When we get to this poem, it feels like the body’s bracing for it, the body’s stance of strength developed thus far softens, buckles, dips into a tender-hearted position no less or more but rather adding to the strength. Something about the force of the present, which is already so full, looking into the past offers connection, puts the pieces together. We see this again in “Still Life With Tongue Cancer”: “…Even before // death got its taste of me, I loved / this spectacle. As a child, I was kindred // to relinquishment, one foot in the paper / graveyard I taped on the playroom wall. // All winter, I hunched under the crabapple tree, / hoping it would bloom.” How many poets can relate to taping a graveyard on the playroom wall (or some version thereof)? I venture to say most, though that paper graveyard— that one foot in the world and one foot in the otherworld(ly)— would follow us each in different ways. We could read most books with inquiry into how the poet is navigating the one foot in the graveyard and one foot out—all poetry feels like a dance in that way.

No Small Gift is not only a powerful force of resilience in the face of tragedy, but a transformation from isolation to a re-opening into tenderhearted empathy in relation to the world (people, but also birds, stories, and an intimacy with time itself), which is a miracle. I am moved by even the nearly two page single-spaced gratitudes at the close of the book, which read like a beautiful continuation of Franklin’s poetry— those gratitudes stretch back out into the world and it is hard-won for a heart to do that after such trauma. This book could accompany someone through immense difficulty—both the poet’s own and those of our violent world— and it is also offers new windows into tenderness and compassion. Love, also, finds its hard-won way into these pages. “…I didn’t / know these cuts would save // more than my body. / I wouldn’t negate any of it / now if I could. I carry // the discomfort—a koan / in my mouth—mindful / of the days I lost unliving. // I love this ruined body…” (61). Koans, in Zen Buddhism, are puzzles or riddles not solved logically, or perhaps not “solved” at all but rather existing outside the paradigms of “problem” and “solution,”—paradoxes to explore experientially, with the heart. There is not nothing where the tongue once was, rather, there is a koan in the mouth. I find this verbiage extraordinary: carrying a koan in the mouth could have birthed this entire book, these poems both as the koan and as the response to it. In a few lines, Franklin moves from koan, to unliving, to love. This is a compact version of the entire book. This collection inspires me to understand where the koans in my own body and life are, and to open to them. It also, as any good book does, inspires me to love, despite the impossible and endless violence thrown into each day. This book will leave you with awe for its author, but it will also feel like camaraderie in awareness, and the true places awareness can take you.



Rebecca Doverspike holds an MDiv from Harvard Divinity School and an MFA in creative nonfiction from West Virginia University. She is training in hospital chaplaincy, and practices in the Zen Buddhist tradition. Her poetry can be found in Ruminate, Leveler, and Souvenir Lit Journal, among others. A chapbook of her poems, Every Present Thing a Ghost, was published by Slapering Hol Press in 2019.