Hand in Hand: No Small Gift by Jennifer Franklin

Valerie Duff-Strautmann
| Reviews

No Small Gift by Jennifer Franklin (Four Way Books, 2018).
Jennifer Franklin’s No Small Gift explores ideas of love and punishment, and the way the two can fluctuate and intertwine. That is to say, sometimes love ends in punishment, or sometimes a punishment exists side by side with love. She begins with a confession in the negative: I will say these things didn’t happen, but they did. The first poem, “(Not) a Love Story,” starts with a rejection of what she’s loved and lived: “These rooms are not my home./The last tulips stuffed in cut glass//were not witness to betrayal,” and the rest of the awful story unfolds from there: “The man who wanted us to take vows/in church did not give me a disease.” After an appropriate breath of a stanza break, we learn that the disease “bloomed into malignancy.” The story she offers in this and other poems can be read two ways. We can believe in the love or the punishment.

There is a fascination with the negative here. After beginning with “(Not) a Love Story,” we find “The Philosopher Did Not Say,” (in which she asks, “Why am I mining dead men for answers”), and “Jack Gilbert You Were Not Always Right.” The allure of the negative begins to surface in poems about a child. Poems like “Hubris” chart a rise and fall, and they begin to allude to a cipher:
               We flew to Venice
               to conceive you.
               Now I realize
               the folly—to create
               life in an unreal
               city, burdened
               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.
Conception of a child in Venice, even though focus is on the emptiness of the once-bustling center, feels right in a book like this one. Franklin’s poems are drawn to antiquity and suffused with elegance. The connection between punishment and love is found in various classical myths, which Franklin uses—from the stories of Philomela, Orpheus/Eurydice, Paolo/Francesca, Daphne, Shakespeare’s Lavinia. The ideas of these characters and their downfalls inhabit the poems, and Franklin turns old myths against the light to reflect or refract her own experience.

While she seems most at home in the classical, there’s nothing of art, drama, or literature that seems too far out of reach. The book is filled with literary allusion—to F. Scott Fitzgerald, to Samuel Beckett, and others, and all of these seem a way to approach her daughter as a subject. In her poem “Hostage after Klimt,” Franklin imagines herself and her daughter entering into the pose of Klimt’s figures: “I knew you’d be born/with a head of dark hair and we’d resemble//Klimt’s figures once your new, red face turned/pale as museum marble.” What follows that image is a withholding that also mimics Klimt, whose models appear frozen in the moment, their lives unspoken: “What I didn’t know is//too much to tell. In their gold Venetian frame/you haunt me as I hold you to my empty breast.”

Antiquity and art are the worlds Franklin’s poems exist in, but there are also surprise moments of the all-too-present, the here and now, the myth as moment. There is a shock of recognition that “The intensity of this joy/won’t last. But it should.” (“After Radiation”) She clings to the details: “I try to memorize this shade of sky,/the busker’s hoarse voice//as he strums his broken guitar/on the subway stairs,/the cinnamon apple cake//the baker gives me when he kisses/my folded hands. The wheaten/terrier’s fur as I bend to him.”

Valerie Duff-Strautmann is the poetry editor of Salamander. Her poems have appeared recently in Poetry, The Common, and Cortland Review. This year she will also serve as a consultant to Bob Atwan for The Best American Essays (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Implacable: Thomas Bernhard: Collected Poems, translated by James Reidel
Head to expose