A review of While Listening to the Enigma Variations by Diane Frank

Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

While Listening to the Enigma Variations
by Diane Frank
Glass Lyre Press
July 2021, $20.00 246 pages, ISBN: 978-1-941783-74-0

As the title of Diane Frank’s stunning collection of new and selected poems suggests, with its reference to Edward Elgar’s exquisite orchestral suite, music is an important theme throughout her work. Dance, spirituality, dreams, and love are as well. They all add up to profound wisdom and convey a sense of joyfulness.

Indeed, the final poem in the book, from Frank’s 2018 collection, Canon for Bears and Ponderosa Pines, succinctly sums up her attitude. It is an affirmation of life entitled “Best Day Ever.” She remembers her father, six years dead, “his memory / became a source of strength to me, / and joy.” At the end of the poem she writes:

I hear him whisper,
You were born to live in the City of Joy.
Every day, choose to walk around there.
Back at home, rainbow over the ocean,
unexpected light!
Best Day Ever!

Earlier from this collection, a poem about her wedding day, “Joy, Like a Purple Balloon,” expresses the same conviction.

While Listening to the Enigma Variations includes selections from several of Frank’s previous collections, including The All Night Yemenite Cafe (1993), The Winter Light of Shooting Stars (2003), Entering the Word Temple (2005), and Swan Light (2013), as well as Canon for Bears and Ponderosa Pines mentioned above. Music is central to them all.

The title poem opens on a violin “weaving ethereal music,” a phrase that almost makes you hear the instrument’s weeping sound, “the melody

like enchanted wood you discover
by digging underneath 
a cryptic message in a dream.

Dream, memory, and music weave throughout the poem, “her cello a call to prayer.” Herself a cellist, Frank’s instrument appears again and again in these poems, her cello like the Sancho Panza to her Don Quixote, her sidekick in idealism. “Cello Lesson” and “Magnificat,” from Canon for Bears and Ponderosa Pines allude to the almost mystical power of Frank’s cello, while the thrust of the title poem, “While Listening to the Enigma Variations,” is the enigma that is life, time, generations.

“Mahler on Race Day,” “The Princess Who Married a Bear” (Prelude of the Second Bach Cello Suite), “The Green Dress” (Ode to Joy – Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony), and “While Listening to the Sonata for Violin, Cello and Piano by Matthew Arnerich,” which accompanies the birth of a child, are among the new poems in this collection that celebrate music.

Music has the power to heal. This is evident all over Frank’s poetry. “Kaddish for My Mother” begins, “You need to play this music,” with further instruction to wrap her legs around the cello “and lean into the sound.” The poem sweetly ends:

When you were a girl, your mother 
sang to you every night, two lullabies,
her voice rocking like a cradle in the trees.
Lean into your cello now,
with your arms, your heart, your knees —
the echo of her voice.

“Circle of Stones” from Swan Light also alludes to the healing power of music (First Bach Prelude), as does “Violins of Hope,” from The Winter Light of Shooting Stars, a poem about Auschwitz and how prisoners coped day by day.  

Frank’s poems address other horrific events, to try to make some sense from the senseless, and to provide healing. “Visions from the Right Hand of Madonna” from Entering the Word Temple refers to the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center disaster.  “The Las Vegas Concert” centers around the 2017 mass killing at a country music event in which a lone gunman with an arsenal of lethal weapons killed dozens of people. “Tree of Life,” which inspired an orchestral piece performed by the Golden Gate Symphony, honors Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, one of the victims of the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue massacre.

But joy is indeed the governing attitude of these poems, and joy includes eroticism. Poems throughout this collection address erotic love, Including “The All Night Yemenite Cafe,” “Meridians,” “Angel of Eros” and “Better by Moonlight” to name a few.  “Better by Moonlight” ends:

I am the flower that blooms 
only for you
only at night 
only once.
By morning, it’s gone.

“Goats,” “Postcards,” “Between Two Languages” and “In the Voices of the Birds” address some of the more disappointing aspects of love, as does “Climbing the Scaffold,” in which a jilted lover contemplates suicide. 

It goes without saying that joy embodies a sense of humor as well. Frank has a sly wit that can catch you off guard.  Speaking of “erotic,” one of these humorous poems is “Virgins in the Uffizi,” the museum in Florence, Italy, which her eighteen-year-old companion calls “the penis museum,” for all the naked male paintings and statues. After “two days of naked marble men,

my eighteen-year-old friend
finds herself looking at men on the street 
the wrong way.

Frank notes that pigeons can make even sculptures look foolish.

They sit on the head of Adonis,
peck at Hercules’ shoulders,
nest on Neptune’s uncovered private parts.
They tease Diana and bite her fingers.

“My Mother’s Daughter” is another amusing and charming poem, in which Frank’s mother tells her how she “ruined her life.” A student at Weequahic High School in Newark, NJ, later made famous in Philip Roth’s comic novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, her mother was an aspiring nightclub singer who seduces Frank’s father, and one thing leads to another.

Years later, my mother will tell me how
I ruined her career,
but she has a transparent face.
In the photograph 
in the small apartment in Spanish Harlem
where they lived after I was born,
I see her completely happy.

“Meditation on the MUNI” and “When You Fly” are two others that raise a smile on the general idea that “Hell is other people.” The latter concludes:

And to the TSA agent 
who groped me during the pat down 
and then asked me out to lunch …
It’s not a hand grenade;
it’s an avocado.

“Chicken” and “Pheasant” are two of the newer pieces that read like parables and bring a smile.

Perhaps the most quintessential Diane Frank line, which captures the riddle of existence within the power of music and all art and prayer and meditation, comes at the end of one of her newer poems, “The Year of Opposites”:  “Life is a koan,” she writes, “and the most effective drum / is the one that makes no sound.”

This is a truly satisfying book to read – and to read again.

About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His latest book, Catastroika, was published in May 2020. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is). Another chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing.