Veronica Golos on Jennifer Franklin’s If Some God Shakes Your House

Inscribing poems with Greek myth, especially in the West, is a cultural habit.  The Greek tragedies somehow speak to many poets: Louise Gluck, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gregory Orr, Jack Gilbert, Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney, Rita Dove, and of course HD, Elliot, Auden and Pound,  among others.  We also see this use of myth in African, Chinese and Japanese poetry, as well.  

It is as if below the poetry written is another poetry, adding a coloring, another voice, a half heard echo.   

In Some God Shakes Your House, Jennifer Franklin does not use Persona all the way through, but rather uses the title Antigone to purchase a resonance beneath what the poem is saying.  The other title she repeats is Memento Mori, Latin for “Remember you must die.” 

So here the poet has set up a way for us viewing her poems, with the shadow of titles.  

She begins As Antigone, “it’s not/a death wish that made me//tend to you, my love,/even though I knew//nothing could save you.”  What we gain here is the finality of death, not believed. As the poems continue, she uses the prose poem to orient us into the present day. In Memento Mori: Bird Head

she writes: 

A suitable end to February—waking and drawing

the blinds to discover a bird’s head, stuck by its own blood

to the sill, outside the window.  Thirty-three floors up, a hawk

devoured the body on the roof and discarded the eyeless head...

So as the book opens we know that the poet is speaking of the dead, of rescuing the dead, and the nearly-died.  In her prose poem, May, she tells us what has happened in the present time, to her: 

Pregnant at twenty-six, in the hospital with hyperemesis: (Hyperemesis gravidarum refers to intractable vomiting during pregnancy, leading to weight loss and volume depletion, resulting in ketonuria and/or ketonemia). 

“I grew up confusing opinion/with oracle...” Escaping or trying to escape the hold of her mother and her husband, who both convinced her to have her child, her child who “will never be able to wash herself or live alone...” the poems gather into the struggle of tearing oneself away. 

As the book progresses, with alternative Memento Mori and Antigone titled poems, we find in Memento Mori: Annunciation, without Angel, a Pieta-in-process, 

Look at me—I was already acquainting myself

with anguish.  I was not special. I sensed

doom that first instant—your heavy weight

in my arms, umbilical cord still joining us, 

your grown body draped over me like a cloying

velvet curtain—

Yet, yet, throughout her poems, love interferes with fear and grief: 

But I could not turn down all of that love. 

Too late.  I found it was not worth it. God

does not take no for an answer.  If I had refused,

it would have ended the same.  But then I could

wear some scar of comfort that mine were not

the hands that married you off to wood, to ruin. 

We are brought to the speaker as mother, with a daughter with whom she tries to communicate—and identifies: 

How can I tell her I know the corners

of chaos where her mind has lured

and trapped her? 

In her world there is insanity, a difficult subject for poetry.  Franklin’s choice is statement:

I know how it feels to be a tree stump, unmovable

as the oak’s thick bark, suffocated by snow. 

Whenever I see white, I wonder how I resisted

all the drugs, incidental and prescribed, 

that taunted me for decades. After each surgery,

I wean myself off the small pills the color of angel’s wings. 

Later in the book, in another As Antigone poem, we find her describing her reasoning: 

I realize why I love the dead. They are

the only ones who cannot betray me. 

I talk to them without judgment.  They have

said every cruel thing they will utter, stolen

everything they will take...

...they are quiet;

their closed mouths stitched shut like the dolls....

....i hear them echo my words back to me

while the moon watches with its rough, cold face. 

This is a poet who is treading the dangerous ground of abyss and gorge.  She uses herself as a stepping stone, carrying the weight of her choices, guilt and its banishment, always coming back into the world, even its “rough, cold face.”  

Veronica Golos is the author of four poetry books, A Bell Buried Deep, Vocabulary of Silence, Rootwork and GIRL.  She is a review writer for Tupelo Quarterly. She lives in Taos, New Mexico.