A review of If Some God Shakes Your House by Jennifer Franklin

Reviewed by Aline Soules

If Some God Shakes Your House
by Jennifer Franklin
Four Way Books
Paperback, 120 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1954245488

“I realize why I love the dead. They are / the only ones who cannot betray me” (p. 75). The opening of this poem, one of many titled “As Antigone—,” reflects the tone of the entire collection. The “I” of the poem is beset by her ex, her child, her health, her life. Yet, she survives.

Tracing the many poems titled “As Antigone—,” the poet provides modern parallels to the legend. “I will go / when I’m led from the city // to the tomb” (p. 3). “I consider my father” (p. 10). “I consider my mother” (p. 17). “If you think I wasn’t angry / at his betrayal—you’re wrong” (p. 34). The parallels continue to the end, where the poet writes:

Every ersatz saint knows
endless sacrifice
is suicide. For twenty years,
I have been disappearing.
Touch me;
I am not even here. (p. 96)

There are two other categories of poems in this collection. One is a series titled “Memento Mori: [sub-title],” emphasizing the need to remember the inevitability of death, which is clear in the “As Antigone—” poems. The sub-titles are disparate, e.g.: Greek Gold, Moth, Wind Phone, Preparing to Move, Volcano, Colony Collapse, Aleppo. But they all explore death, either directly or indirectly. The death of the “Central Park Polar Bear” and the disappearing bees in “Colony Collapse” are direct. In “Memento Mori: Preparing to Move,” the “I” faces other deaths in the form of “leaving”: “They’re finally leaving me—each old good thought— / my favorite park with the dead dog and all the calm days / in countries you promise to unruin for me” (p. 31). Later in the poem, the “I” faces medical treatment: “I lay in a machine for seven weeks, / as oncologists irradiated my sliced tongue and slashed neck.” This is a death that teaches the “I” how to live: “I learned to walk out of my home and close the door / as if I were not coming back.” This leads to the conclusion:

You don’t know each day blooms
into leave-taking. That when I say goodbye, I mean it.
That all words will always be practice for no. (p. 31)

The prose poems are titled for the months from “February” to “November” (not in order). There is also a poem specifically titled “June 24, 2022.” “February” (p. 9) contrasts the cold of where the “I” and her daughter live with the sky that “opens to put out wildfires over the carcasses of burned marsupials.” But the contrast moves to the larger world where “politicians preen and posture; the air is damp with acquittal” and “a student paints a swastika in my old dorm. Another student covers it with a star.” She quotes Orwell on truth, describes “flowers climb[ing] up the lamp to the ceiling,” and the animals “escap[ing] the zoo.” She lingers, “wanting the story to end there,” with the animals “tucked into the corners of the zookeeper’s room—breathing their heavy eucalyptus breath across the night.” The poem ends with the image of “fur shining in the moonlight through the blinds.” Ending on the blinds makes the reader question the blindness of human understanding and the falsity of the image, since the desire for the story to end isn’t the end.

In “August” (p. 32), the poet mingles the month and Antigone, death present and death past. Always death. The poem opens with an approaching train which causes the “I” to brace herself because the oncoming train makes her think of death—“the one that struck Anna Karenina,” and “the one that killed the boy who flung himself on the tracks” where she teaches. She compares the trains “that stopped at the concentration camps” with the “former historian” who “refuses to see everything that happened and is continuing to happen now at the border, in our own streets.” We move to the Antigone of Sophocles, who wrote about the falsity of judgment, “when the one who does the judging judges things all wrong.”

The “I” notes that Antigone “was the first to understand that there are lives worse than death.” The “I” remembers her husband, who hated her for not “abandoning” their disabled daughter. She intertwines her ex and daughter through “a bestiary of animals,” now dying off, and reflects on her daughter’s school trip to the ballet. She notes how the dancer on stage “convinces herself it doesn’t hurt” when she “twists her small body,” and compares that to how she “erased [her] needs until [she] could no longer ignore the small voice of the hostage inside.” She returns to the train, but doesn’t sit by the window. Outside, “The Hudson runs sharp in morning light.” 

There is so much pain in this collection that it is hard to bear. What makes the reader continue is the poet’s ability to encompass so much in each poem. Whether it’s the varied content, as illustrated in the poems described above, or the raw emotion she conveys as she stares directly at life and its inevitable end, her work must be read.

The poem specifically titled, “June 24, 2022,” is about the birth of the “I’s” daughter, as the “I” is pressed by the medical profession, her mother, and her husband to do what she doesn’t want to do. She opens with the “alabaster” hospital room, the “white walls” of twenty-two years prior, and how she is still haunted by those walls and still trying to “crawl [her] way out” of the experience. She brings the reader to the present, thinking about “women and girls now stripped by the state of their right to choose.” 

That stripping overshadows the rest of the poem. The “I” is burdened by a palpable lack of understanding as she describes days of vomiting, pleading not to be forced to have her baby at seven weeks, her ex (a doctor) ordering a “psych consult.” “This has always been about control,” the “I” writes. Now, today, she tries to help women to travel to clinics, she writes politicians. “I love my daughter more than myself,” the “I” writes, even as the daughter “crumbles like a rag doll when she seizes.” 

The poem ends with these words: “I watch us from above, our forced and permanent Pietà. Can you see the truth? The child isn’t the one who is dead.” 

While “June 24, 2022” is not the last poem in the collection, it shows the quandary of life, the challenges and heartbreaks offset by fierce love, the awareness of the inevitable end unable to quench the ability to rise live the day’s “goodbye.” The “I” may “not even be here” at the end of the last poem, but she carries on, borne by that fierce love.

About the reviewer: Aline Soules’ work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Houston Literary Review, Poetry Midwest, The Galway Review, et al.  Her book reviews appear in Tupelo Quarterly, Heavy Feather Review, the Los Angeles Review, et al. She earned her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles in poetry and fiction. Online: https://alinesoules.com.