What Is Worth Saving: A Review of Emily Franklin’s Tell Me How You Got Here

A well-published prose writer, Emily Franklin now shows polish as a poet in her first collection Tell Me How You Got Here. The title poem recapitulates themes woven through this graceful book. How does one live through loss and brokenness? When we move from place to place, what and where is home? What possessions are worth keeping and why? 

When I read a book of poetry these anxiety-fraught days, I look for insight into what matters, both in these cataclysmic times and, if you will, post-doom, as we face existential threats to humanity’s survival. Franklin’s answers to what matters affirm that through all our losses, love endures. We have a responsibility to honor the past by telling stories that imbue people, places, and objects with meaning.

In the title poem, “Tell Me How You Got Here,” “you” is a parrot that flies into the narrator’s home, settles there, then mysteriously disappears. Sometime later the longed-for pet reappears speaking Spanish instead of the English words he used to recite. With layers of depth that are a feature of many poems, Franklin finds sorrow, comedy, and a larger meaning in the bird’s peregrinations. The narrator reflects on our desire to think of what we currently have as permanent. Then suddenly, unnervingly, stasis is disrupted. The bird flies off. “No words from you, only discarded/ feathers, a split grape.” The poet signals the speaker’s grief: “We left the feathers and grape in place/ the way parents who lose children/ keep their rooms intact. Just in case.” The parrot’s return both delights and unsettles the narrator because, as Franklin shows in several poems, one experience of loss implies that at any moment anyone may be “Engulfed, summoned/ by the world” to leave, be changed, or lost. We cannot return from Blake’s world of experience to before-times innocence.

With exquisite attention to detail, Franklin watches as her mother, other loved ones, and she herself try to hold onto possessions. In “As My Children Outgrow Our House, I Consider Household Goods,” the narrator asks, “What is the need to catalogue/ every item in the house–to hold/ each sock, book, ladle, child-painted mug as reference/ library?” The simile hints at the answer. Our “object compendium” and “numbered lists” are “tethers” to our pasts and opportunities for meaning-making. “How useful to document what we made,” the hoarding narrator concludes, a stance that can be taken seriously or read with gentle sarcasm that pokes fun at a desire to justify choices about what to keep.

Such combinations of tone are one way in which Franklin shows a technical virtuosity that is subtle, not showy. Her poems are accessible and deep, with modest experiments like one prose poem and one where stanzas are numbered sets of questions. Mostly, Franklin tells stories, often set in homes–“We Bought the House,” “The Passover Table,” “Ode to Everyday Objects in the Home.” Like Vermeer paintings (Franklin’s forebears appear to have been Dutch), the stories depict moments and small events as precious, fleeting and yet suggesting whole lives and eras. Look at “The One Item,” for example, which catches the reader’s attention in the propositional first line, “If you were going through someone’s belongings–“ and then deftly finds the one object that can signify a life:

...no matter

which pile hulks in front of you bearing notes,

fragments of elsewhere life, take the skillet.

...Who held it?

What damage did they cause, or what good 

did they put in the world? Had they cooked with lard?

Had they met a Jew?

Suddenly, from a pile that might be mistaken for junk, we have lives with moral dimension (“What damage did they cause, or what good”) and a leap to a Jewish grandmother’s skillet, saved throughout the Holocaust.

...How on earth did it survive

her lack of cooking? Her oven used for storage

of shoes, shut-in existence post 1939. Advice:

take something useful and use it in a useful way.

...Fry the egg, bake the biscuits, slip the salmon

into dill oil.  Tangle the greens, use everything up.

Make as much as you can for as many as are left.

What does a skillet mean? A grandmother’s life, the lost millions, vehicle for the exquisite pleasure of dill-flavored salmon and greens to make a feast for those who are left.

One way Franklin imbues specific objects with meaning (“We should be specific,” the narrator of one poem advises) is to leap from an object to an emotional state. “A Cure for Grief,” for example, begins with a jar of jam in a beloved house, a reminder that the beloved one who used to share that jam is dead. In the penultimate moment of the poem, Franklin places the jar next to her grief: “Taste the apricots. For this moment have summer–/ and him–back. The jar is large. So is grief.” In “Remembering T. Lux,” the speaker addresses her dead writing teacher, “why/ do we write about people after they are gone?/ Can you just edit that for me? Make those alive notes in the margins?” Longing is embedded in the phrase “alive notes,” marginal notes that will never again guide the poet-speaker.

Wherever Franklin looks she finds objects and events that suggest questions that are the heart of this poet’s exquisitely reflexive way of being. In “Seventeen Ways of Looking at a Crime,” which echoes Wallace Stevens, the speaker wants to know what to do with the offender. “Trust therapy?” “Cage you...?” And, deeper, who was he before the crime “or are still now/...which is to/ say how can you know and just what would it change?” These unanswerable questions are a kind of mental torture that lead to questions about the offender’s little boy victim. Such haunting, imagined questions show the speaker’s pain and love for the child. In “Morning in Ushuaia (After the Court Hearings),” which focuses on the same trauma, the violation of her son, Franklin piles up “what if...” questions that probe a mother’s responsibility. “Oh, if I could warn you–keep the door closed?” Following this train of thought, “Do warnings protect or just state the inherent danger of being alive?” That huge question casts its shadow on many of the poems, which are full of both monumental losses–forebears lost in the Holocaust, the losses survivors carry, the loss of loved ones–and less catastrophic losses like homes we leave behind. 

But Franklin’s is not a dark vision; she celebrates what we have and what we have left.  In “Here are words I don’t want to write” we hear echoes of Anne Sexton’s celebration of daily life and Margaret Wise Brown’s goodnight litany. “Hello, white flowers...Goodnight same flowers,” “Good morning, white dove...Top of the morning to you, gilded flicker...Goodnight to you.” This poem ends with the speaker’s loving adieu to a lost love: “Goodnight...hands that held mine and beating desert to night–goodnight goodnight goodnight.” Losses, yes, along with the constant movement that is an essence of living: “water and movement and the rushing of what we have collected trying to mark the set and drift of these tides...before they give way to water” (“Moorings”). All things change, so take note of beauty; be specific. 

We are given lives in which “march of time makes everything muck.” So, Franklin’s poems affirm, let us make beautiful poems of this muck. “Come. Come see,” she has her grandfather say in “Grandfather Reappears.” It is an invitation that I hope entices readers to Franklin’s book. “Come see everything we have to offer.”

Merryn Rutledge is a poet, teacher and reviewer. Her poems have appeared in Pensive, Muddy River Review, Multiplicity, Speckled Trout Review, Aurorean, Mass Poetry and other journals. Other prose writing has been published in peer-reviewed journals, as books and book chapters. After earning two degrees in English from Smith College, Merryn taught literature and writing for many years at Phillips Exeter Academy. In a second career, Merryn ran a national consulting firm in leadership development. She participates in and teaches workshops in poetry craft from her home on the MA South Shore. merrynpoetry.org