A Proleptic Requiem

If Some God Shakes Your House
by Jennifer Franklin
Four Way Books 2023, $17.95

by Catherine Imbriglio





The sorrowful poems in Jennifer Franklin’s smart, deeply moving third book, If Some God Shakes Your House, range from tender to shattering. Some implacable force— you could call it fate, biology, god, cosmic cruelty, patriarchy, (whatever, choose your nemesis)— has forever shaken Franklin’s way of being. The book’s title, Franklin tells us in her endnotes, comes from a line in Antigonick, Anne Carson’s translation of Sophocles’ Antigone: “Blessed be they whose lives do not taste of evil/but if some god shakes your house/ruin arrives/ruin does not leave.” In Franklin’s case, ruin plays out, not as in Sophocles’ tragedy, with most of the characters ending up dead, their city-state in disarray, but as a life-crushing burden that does not cease. Antigone “was the first to understand that there are lives worse than death,” Franklin writes in her poem “August.” 

Readers and writers have long been fascinated with the central conundrum in Antigone, frequently described as a conflict between an individual’s conscience and a state’s rule of law, or as a conflict between higher-order moral principles and lower-order human ones. Readers may recall the basic story; in brief, Antigone disobeys her uncle Creon, ruler of Thebes, who has decreed that Antigone’s brother should not be buried because he led an attack against his homeland. Believing that divine law takes precedence over the human, Antigone performs burial rites for her brother; consequently, Creon condemns her to death for flouting his commands. Unwilling to waste away in the tomb she has been confined to, Antigone hangs herself, setting in motion the suicides of her beloved, Heamon, who was Creon’s son, and Eurydice, Haemon’s mother, viz., a house in ruin.

Though Franklin’s book is in constant conversation with Sophocles’ Antigone—Franklin echoes, borrows, and subtly reworks many details from the play—the poems in If Some God swerve from Sophocles’ urtext in fundamentally significant ways.  One key difference is that while Antigone, celebrated for her conviction and courage, has the strength to defy her uncle’s authority, Franklin is not strong enough to do the same:

Pregnant at twenty-six, in the hospital with hyperemesis (the same condition that killed Charlotte Brontë) an IV drip protruded from my right arm. As doctors tried to stop my vomiting and weight loss, my mother and my husband talked me out of the abortion. Fear was their shared weapon — he threatened me, she predicted he would stop loving me. I had the baby; he stopped loving me anyway (“May”).

The baby, a daughter, is born severely disabled, with Franklin left to deal with the heartbreaking consequences:

My daughter is crying. The doctors cannot help her. Her father is a surgeon; he refuses to pay for her once she turns twenty-one though she will never be able to wash herself or live alone. Her father hasn’t seen her in six years. She will be a life-long toddler. I love her, so he still controls me (“May”).

The question of ‘who controls what’ suggested here turns out to be one of the main obsessions of If Some God. In the case of the above passage’s last sentence, the cause/effect dissonance (“I love her, so he still controls me”) is indicative of the mixed feelings, outright contradictions, and incompatible perspectives that beset Franklin as she takes on the role of life-long caregiver. As this sentence makes clear, anger at her husband can’t be neatly disentangled from her love for the child he forced her to bear. Indeed, anger directed toward any number of oppressive controlling forces (her mother, her husband, Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade, a nation’s punitive leader who puts migrant children in cages) also includes resentment directed at the child whose needs now control Franklin’s life, even to the point of ill health: “One way//or another, you will/be the end of me — /inadvertent brute force,//vector of virus, constant/caretaking, your heavy/body forcing my remission’s//abrupt end” (“As Antigone – I still want to believe”). 

What is admirable about these lines is that they make clear that in attending to her daughter’s needs, Franklin does not present herself as heroic, unlike the way that Antigone’s stand against an oppressive ruler has been understood to be heroic. Instead Franklin’s devotion to her child can feel self-destructive, despite best intentions: “Every ersatz saint knows/ endless sacrifice/is suicide” (“As Antigone – I still want to believe”). Indeed what’s impressive about If Some God is not only how well Franklin represents the psychological distress of living with conflicting emotions, i.e., where Franklin’s genuine love for her disabled daughter —“Watching her is the closest I will ever come to prayer” (“Memento Mori: Shelter Dog”)—is perpetually compromised by the knowledge that she did not want to carry the child to term. What’s also impressive, in contrast, is how gently and plainly Franklin addresses the complications and limits of loving such a child. Simple diction in service of complexity is one of the many strengths of the poems in this book:

                                  Let go of the butterfly.

(You never accepted the word moth and have no use
for synonyms.) I can’t tell if you understand me
or if you let go on your own. Everything’s like this
with us; I know next to nothing. I cannot forget
your face as you pinch the fluttering wings,
oblivious to the suffering you cause.
                              “Memento Mori: Moth” 

For me, however, what makes If Some God emotionally stunning and conceptually and aesthetically rich, are the book’s organizational strategies. They are this skilled poet’s means of selecting and controlling material to paradoxically counter the lack of control that is one subject of the poems. They are also what take this collection far beyond confessional autobiography, into wider realms of existential grief and social and political critique, with multiple cross-resonances. First, for the book’s overall architecture, Franklin employs three complementary threads that interweave the heartaches that drive If Some God. Each poem in the book (with one key exception, “Creon Creates His Own Truth”) is given one of three titles: “As Antigone -,” “Memento Mori,” or the name of a month. (One of these has a specific timestamp, significantly the date Roe v. Wade is declared unconstitutional.) Then, inside these three sets of sequences, Franklin employs three different types of poetic form that, from different angles, provide us with an unflinching focus on death and death-in-life, which I read as the book’s central preoccupation. 

In the “As Antigone – ” poems, which are lineated, Franklin sometimes speaks as the character Antigone, sometimes as herself, often blending the two together in a single poem. (In spite of the distancing “as” in the title, the “I” in these poems often feels unfiltered, like a voice crying out.) The “Memento Mori” poems are unrhymed sonnets, written as mourning poems for a diverse range of subjects, such as the polar bear in Central Park, bee colony collapse, the decline of the Stradivarius, the Virgin Mary. These also include poems written for people who have died or for people who have lost loved ones. There are also some lovely, appreciative poems addressed to her current husband, which take on an eerie quality since they appear under the Memento Mori rubric. The poems with the names of months are prose poems that provide a sense of time passing and are somewhat obliquely responsive to current events. (In these poems Franklin keeps referring to “the news,” reminding us that one’s personal story does not take place in a vacuum.) In addition, the month poems each contain quotes from writers and thinkers that function as reflective commentary on existential matters that the poet is wrestling with. Susan Sontag, Samuel Beckett, Hannah Arendt, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Paul Celan are just some of the people who make appearances. Franklin is especially good at blending these writers’ insights with her own or with ordinary details from her own life: “I watch light lace the trees. ‘The meaning of life is that it ends,’ Kafka wrote. At home, you bring me coffee in the mug smothered by Warhol’s outlandish poppies — purple, red, purple” (“October”).

The three threads alternate with one another throughout the book; cumulatively, they give the collection an arc with a momentum and dramatic tension that build to a final, devastating “As Antigone-” poem: “I still want to believe.” The poem begins by voicing a wish to go back and change what happened; it includes references to the damage caretaking has done, and reaffirms her commitment to her child: “I will not walk away.” But it is also a poem that emphatically does not end with the poet making peace or finding solace. The final lines contain a disturbing allusion to Antigone’s suicide, bringing us back to Sophocles’ story of a house in ruin:

Constantly confused,
            your jagged voice
requests Christmas songs
all spring.  You shove
             words of grace
into my dry throat
and I sing.  I don’t need
            a bottle of pills,
white as sleep, to silence me.
Every ersatz saint knows
            endless sacrifice
is suicide.  For twenty years,
I have been disappearing.
             Touch me:
I am not even here.

The discordant language in the first three stanzas, juxtaposing “Christmas” with “spring,” “shove” with “grace,” “dry throat” with “sing,” aptly point to the disharmonious harmony between this mother and child. The switch to lyricism in the final stanza is at once shocking and risky. Is this another form of anger and/or self-pity? But if the poet’s intention is to shake the reader’s house, in choosing these words I think she has accomplished her aim. For me, the last stanza is an effective rendering of the loss of self that Franklin has been writing about all along. These final lines provide a beautiful pianissimo ending to a collection that is itself a Memento Mori, a warning, a proleptic requiem. 

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