On No Small Gift by Jennifer Franklin

Amy Strauss Friedman

New York, NY: Four Way Books, 2018. 88 pages. $15.95.

Jennifer Franklin’s haunting and lyrical poetry collection No Small Gift begins in the negative. “(Not) A Love Story” tells us that “these rooms are not my home,” that a “surgeon did not / take a long slice of my tongue” after a cancer diagnosis, that “the man who wanted us to take vows / in church did not give me a disease // that bloomed into malignancy.” It’s a way of telling the truth without telling it, of giving pain its props without propping it up. It’s this negation that sets the collection’s path for us as one of resistance, of pain, of strength, and most of all, of voice.

In fact, this book tells us much about what’s not acceptable, what will not be tolerated, what will not be taken. That illness, disability, struggle, betrayal, and abandonment never spell the ending of song, a motif that dots the landscape of this collection in myriad ways: in joy, in sorrow, in brokenness. So much of this book sings the song of solitude—of the husband who leaves, of the daughter who suffers seizures, of the asylum always looming: “Daisy’s little fools, side by side in narrow asylum beds, / hiding from the horror together.” Or after the narrator’s daughter is born, the mother “unaware / what asylum was in store.” But in “Waiting Again for Biopsy Results in the Second-Floor Exercise Room” Franklin tells us, “I wouldn’t / do any of this without music.” The tune is internal, universal, and accessible to all. “Philomela After the Metamorphosis” indicates that “my only / instinct was not just to sing / but to be song.” Philomela, a mythological representation of art and music, figures heavily into the weight of this poetic world’s challenges. She reminds us that the universe’s melody endures, that it outlives our temporary physicality.

While women in this collection are often caged, the author provides counterweights to our oppressive restrictions. Love imprisons, as does the body. Such is the nature of affection, being, and endings. But in this realization, Franklin shows us that pain can be pardoning. “Amor Fati” has the narrator assert,

I love this ruined body,
my numb neck, how
it led me back to the world

from dormancy as if leashed
to the resounding yes
of the universe.

“Philomela at the Loom” tells us that “I transformed agony / into a tapestry shaming afternoon light,” and that the man who worked to render her mute “doesn’t understand that losing / the ability to speak is not / the same as remaining silent.” We discover the endless universe beyond our physical boundaries when physical limitations are imposed.

Dreams abound within and without these constraints. “I wanted you to begin / like a gold mosaic, // folded in Vivaldi— / like cherub-wings,” the mother tells her child in “Hubris.” And indeed, she does. Perhaps not in the ways she initially intended, but through song, through being, and through love. Imposed strictures only serve to block the imagination as well as the spirit. “Don’t list what every child can do that your daughter will never master. / Master yourself,” Franklin asserts in “How to Ride the Subway Without Getting Hurt.” And her daughter will do the same. Every child has limitations and endless possibilities, as does hers. Because what we master can never truly be measured or defined. While the narrator “want[s] to lose my memory now instead / of wearing it over my slender shoulders // like a shawl,” memory also guides her toward freedom, toward “turn[ing] / this asylum into song.”

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