A review of Tell Me How You Got Here
 by Emily Franklin

Reviewed by Kim Zach

Tell Me How You Got Here
by Emily Franklin
Terrapin Books
February 1, 2021, Paperback, 114 pages, ISBN-13 ‏ 978-1947896338

Emily Franklin’s debut poetry collection Tell Me How You Got Here is an emotional exploration of the ways family and possessions become embedded in our consciousness, perhaps even lodged in our DNA. Our attempts to soothe the pain of inherited memories by “forgetting, mottling as salve/for the soul” are often fruitless because the “potholes of memory” make erasure impossible. 

From the opening “Japan, Autumn”—”Maybe that/is pain’s definition: Only one person/retaining memory for two/How burdensome/being the architect, collecting flaws/unable to sieve memories”—to the final lines of “Epigenetic Inheritance,” which acknowledge the “fearsome” mystery/that inheritance of sorrow, unable to let go”—these forty-five poems are a haunting reflection on collective memory.

Several poems speculate about the transfer of intergenerational trauma. “Flowers in Odd Numbers” envisions our ” … mothers passing on decades-old trauma/So if your great-grandmother escaped/you did not.” “The Geneticist and the Surgeon Confer” asks, “Should you have a child?/How big is your body, how wide/your pelvis?/Not for delivering/but housing all of that offspring’s/(and the offspring’s offspring’s) sorrows?”  The poem continues with startling imagery: “Let me at least tell you this/children are buried inside us/our organs becoming tombstones/ markers of loss dug deep and noted/with dates, names, incidents.” These kinds of images are a strength of Franklin’s skills as a poet. She shapes abstract ideas into concrete pictures, pivoting the reader’s view to some discomfiting snapshots.

Other poems ask us to consider how a relative’s presence lingers, whether they have passed away or grown older. Figures appear at will, flouting the natural rules of time and space. In “Grandfather Reappears” Franklin writes, “I dream you are back from the dead/and working at Walmart/ Even when visiting me posthumously/you must keep busy/work off our debts.” The final lines of “Mark Twain’s Ghost” declare, “We do not get to choose/which ghosts come to stay.”

A box of photographs “unearthed in the basement” conjures up the various selves of the narrator’s mother in “Standing in the Kitchen with My Mother”:

We are all in this kitchen together—folk singer
with one clog missing, hopeful marcher, researcher
for a now-obsolete disease, even you on some
city corner grinning wide as your bell-bottoms. I am
tucked on your hip, you are egret-thin, unstraightened
hair clipped with something silver, hammered,
purchased at a craft fair or made by a friend no one
knows anymore. Even this friend who is not
in the photo is here with us as we sift through boxes, dealing
with moss-edged images, basement rank, and lost
time. This is the truth. We are all together
and it is crowded.

Not only do ancestors carry a haunting presence, but possessions too are fraught with meaning. Franklin fills her poems with concrete objects—the ordinary, everyday things that collect and multiply through the course of a life. 

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? In this age of paring down, giving away, unburdening/the house becomes still, the quiet after an organized tornado/spews its contents just so on shelves, in drawers.” 

Sometimes the urge to collect one particular object becomes an obsession and exasperates other family members, as in “Spoons.” The narrator says, “My mother is so drawn to spoons, we have forbidden her/from gathering more,” and the collector’s teen-age grandson asks, “What is it with her and spoons?” To make clear the attraction, Franklin creates delightful metaphors like “bouquets of metallic spoons” and “drumsticks on Tupperware.”  When the grandson questions the spoons’ usefulness, the response is this: ” … they take up small space. They need/nothing—no watering, walking, reading to./So this is what she has: piles of spoons, gentle clusters/that can neither grow nor walk away.” The unspoken meaning is clear: spoons don’t leave, but people do. Franklin, who once worked as a chef, populates her poems with a cornucopia of foods—fried eggs, vanilla, cookies, apples, biscuits, asparagus, mushrooms, new potatoes, dandelion greens, toffee—and kitchen items like salad bowls, skillets, and cookbooks. The preparation and eating of food, rife with sensual stimuli, can trigger powerful emotions, especially in the context of family. 

For example, “In Praise” offers a perspective on the role of smell in excavating memory: “Let us praise the nostrils for what they are—/time travel, gateways to every meal, place./This is how you bring back the dead.” In “A Cure for Grief,” taste is the vehicle for capturing the past: 

Each morning you will awake alone. This is when
you dip your teaspoon or knife into the jam or even
your piece of actual bread (no one is judging—
suspend the crust directly into the jar).
Taste the apricots. For this moment have summer—
and him—back. The jar is large. So is grief.

Franklin’s strength as a poet is her storytelling ability. (She is also the author of several novels and short stories). Many poems are reminiscent of memoir, viewed through the lens of character and setting. Franklin’s poetry is straightforward, without the overuse of literary devices that so often can entangle a reader.  When one does appear, such as these lines, crafted with s-sounds, from “Ode to Everyday Objects, it is delightfully surprising and particularly lush on the tongue:

Sponge, blessed temporary keeper
of memories: scrum of sweet potato
and gratin of char. Scrubber of oil,
you are soaked less with praise
than with suds, saddened
as we turn off the taps.

Franklin is also adept at line breaks and stanza divisions. End stops and enjambments are designed to keep the reader smoothly moving through the poems, while simultaneously building tension. This reflects on her background as a novelist, where chapter endings are designed for page-turning. The last stanza of “This is How the Jews Say Good-bye” exhibits this skill:

This is how we say good-bye—
words, warm food, coat bundled
around the infant of this gathering.
Which is to say perhaps you could stay
a bit longer? Or at the very least,
take something with you.

A sense of sadness does permeate the poetry in this collection—after all, the overarching theme is family trauma and loss—but Franklin also sprinkles in a few reassuring glimpses of hope. “Remembering T. Lux” mixes sorrow and memory, but tempered with optimism.

” …This is what I would ask: why
do we write about people after they are gone?

Can you just edit that for me? Make those alive
notes in the margins? Your solid poems
were made of junk store items, objects
or creatures unearthed at the town dump—
lawnmowers, wheelchairs, bees, scraps.
Useful things. That’s what we’re left with—
You, that light, those words.

This poem is a perfect embodiment of the entire collection. Each one is a reminder that  our familial history is pain, inherited through the generations. The question “How do we learn to live with the past as our constant companion?” is a tangled thread, one which Franklin’s poetry so poignantly attempts to unravel.  

About the reviewer: Kim Zach is a writer whose work has appeared in U.S. 1 Worksheets, Genesis, Clementine Poetry Journal, Clementine Unbound, Adanna Literary Journal, and Bone Bouquet. Her poem ‘Weeding My Garden’ was nominated for a Pushcart prize. She is a lifelong resident of the Midwest where she taught high school English and creative writing for 40 years. She currently works as a book coach, giving other writers the support and guidance they need to complete their projects, whether fiction, non-fiction, or poetry.