by Esther Lin | Contributing Writer
If Some God Shakes Your House
Four Way Books, 2023
As a woman comes to terms with the cruelties enacted on her body, larger cruelties descend. The Trump administration incarcerates children. Half the country is in quarantine. Roe v. Wade is struck down. Jennifer Franklin’s third book of poems, If Some God Shakes Your House, is an outpouring of grief for the last decade: We demand justice, we are refused. We fight, we are defeated. We live and we lose.
The speakers of this book are not newcomers to disaster. One is Antigone: the luckless daughter of Oedipus who buried both her brothers and, in doing so, broke the law of the king. Of the sixty-six poems that comprise the book, Antigone speaks in twenty uniformly titled “As Antigone—.” The other speaker, a contemporary woman who lives a normal life, is crossed by the twin burdens of familial and civic duties; the normal life devastates her. In the poem “May,” she says:
We sign petitions, make phone calls, march, send online donations. Yet we eat the kale and beans, curl or straighten our hair, bring the dog for long walks in the park. We know where this is headed.
Compare this to the sixth iteration of “As Antigone—”:
answers relentless calls
for help. When one
is most needy, one is most
alone. The ones I love
will go on with their little lives—
fucking. They won’t just
get by; they’ll be happy.
The hum-drum is not peaceful; it is stagnation. The book’s insistently reiterative titles emphasize that hum-drum: besides the twenty poems titled “As Antigone—,” there are thirty-three poems titled “Memento Mori” and fourteen poems titled after the months of the year. Didn’t the lockdown feel this way? Time lost the weight and speed we believed were intrinsic to it; even now I struggle to recall if an event occurred in 2020 or 2021. The power we surrender, or never held, is the central grief of the book.
Altogether, these rhetorically sharp poems form an extended essay on the revolving themes of motherhood and choice. Sometimes the language is chillingly plainspoken. Of her disabled daughter, the speaker says, “My girl skips down the wide avenue. For once, I am relieved she cannot read or understand the story on everyone’s lips.” In other moments, the reader is wrenched by language that appears like metaphor but is literal: “My daughter’s brain is stuck at twenty months, trapped in her body of nineteen years. She doesn’t yet know about hatred but, someday, her silence will destroy her.” The daughter’s condition will shorten her life, the mother will outlive her child.
She fights this terrible truth. In an exceptional prose poem, “June 24, 2022,” she recounts:
I begged them—first my mother, then my husband. Then together. I cried, hair matted and dirty from vomiting for twenty-three days. Seven weeks pregnant, I pleaded with them not to force me to have the baby. As if my body already knew how sick she was [ . . . ]
My daughter crumbles like a rag doll when she seizes—her heavy body limp in my arms. I watch us from above, our forced and permanent Pietà. Can you see the truth? The child isn’t the one who is dead.
“June 24, 2022” is one of several poems that describe a forced pregnancy, a manipulative husband, a wrongheaded mother, and the severely disabled child who will never grow up. The speaker nearly surrenders. “I have been disappearing. / Touch me; / I am not even here,” she pleads. Life is what Antigone and her father recognize well: the freedom to choose. Death is to understand that one’s path is mapped by greater forces, and to plod through it nonetheless.
Franklin doesn’t leap forward to the future. Rather, the book rolls like a glass bead down the spiral of a shell, into a deeper and deeper interiority. We learn recursively of the past and the present in prose poems or short-lined lyrics, of speakers assessing and ultimately accepting the ill. Early on, the poems lament. In “June,” Franklin writes: “Judith beheading Holofernes does not frighten me; I watched Saturn devour my child for nine years.” But about halfway through the book, anger appears in the form of fire and earth, in the poem “Memento Mori: Volcano.”
Visiting the active volcano of Solfatara of Pozzuoli, a young boy watches his father, mother, and older brother fall into a crater. Though it sounds like a myth, this occurred in 2017. Franklin writes:
He will never forget
the moment his family married fire. [. . .]
The way fire is only itself.
It’s as if he were always an orphan—and their death
fated for the bluest day of September.
The pitch of anger only heightens from there on. And it fascinates that a stranger vocalizes this powerful feeling first, not Antigone or the contemporary speaker. Perhaps this suggests that anger comes from the outside world, the one that keeps failing us. When the calendar turns to the first iteration of “October,” there is the crescendo of a declaration: “Now that we have our own concentration camps and ghettos, I am finished with history.”
Franklin was a student of Lucie Brock-Broido; a facet here or there of her mentor’s influence shimmers, particularly in the admiration of beautiful objects: “Gold diadems and crowns host two cicadas / and a bee.” But it’s clear Louise Glück, whose lines make the book’s epigraph, beckons Franklin toward this interweaving of myth and unembroidered lamentation. Where Brock-Broido may have drawn a gauzy curtain on facts, Franklin pierces the reader with awful truths. A touching elegy arises to another mentor, the recently passed Richard Howard. He appears as “the greatest mind I ever met,” whose “hands seem to sew/ invisible thread.” And here is sorrow too: at the end of his life, Howard appears nearly as muted, as absent, as the daughter.
If Some God Shakes Your House is a haunting and ambitious book. To read it is to share in the wound. I admire its focus and its far reach, its rare moments of tenderness, the wild Brontëan violence. “If you think I wasn’t angry,” says Antigone, “you’re wrong. / Fury moved through my body // with the gravity of a waterfall.” In 2023, this is precisely what comforts me.
It would be a significant inaccuracy to call this work grim. The book’s imagination is formed, but not confined, by grief. Shafts of light appear, and how welcome and delicate they are. One poem, in particular, summons a miracle: the rare illuminator of manuscripts who was a woman. Franklin writes,
Imagine her kneeling at a wooden table—
in candelight, at dawn, drawing the tip of the fine
brush through her lips to make it finer still. Listen
to her sigh, as her open mouth cradles ultramarine
that will hide in the cracks of her teeth for centuries[.]
Surviving in the teeth of a skeleton, that ultramarine (blue pigment) allowed archaeologists to identify the occupation of the deceased: an artist. This artist would have sharpened her paintbrush with her mouth and therefore, unwittingly, infused herself with her medium. The hallowed argument goes: The artist has vanished but the art lives. Franklin adds: Art lives and so do the materials that made the art. Materials mark us as much as we’ve manipulated them. Here is the hope of a woman who has lost her freedom to choose. She may rest in the knowledge that even if she has not lived quite as she’d expected, there will be another woman to pick up her materials and continue the work.
Esther Lin was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and lived in the United States as an undocumented immigrant for 21 years. Her book Cold Thief Place is the winner of the 2023 Alice James Award, forthcoming in March 2025. She is also the author of The Ghost Wife, winner of the 2017 Poetry Society of America’s Chapbook Fellowship. Most recently, she was an artist-resident at the T. S. Eliot House in Gloucester and Cité Internationale, Paris. She was a 2019–20 Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown; a 2017–19 Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. With Marcelo Hernandez Castillo and Janine Joseph, she co-organizes the Undocupoets, which promotes the work of undocumented poets and raises consciousness about the structural barriers that they face in the literary community.
Jennifer Franklin is the author of two previous full-length poetry collections, most recently No Small Gift (Four Way Books, 2018). Her work has been published widely in print and online, including American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Beloit Poetry Journal, Bennington Review, Boston Review, Gettysburg Review, Guernica, JAMA, The Nation, New England Review, the Paris Review, “poem-a-day” series for the Academy of American Poets on poets.org, Prairie Schooner, and RHINO. She received a City Corps Artist Grant in poetry from NYFA and a Café Royal Cultural Foundation Grant for Literature in 2021. For the past ten years, she has taught manuscript revision at the Hudson Valley Writers Center, where she runs the reading series and serves as Program Director. She also teaches in Manhattanville’s MFA program. She lives with her husband and daughter in New York City. Her website is jenniferfranklinpoet.com.