Review by Jennifer Martelli
In the Sophocles tragedy, the character of Antigone (daughter of blinded and exiled Oedipus) was the victim of state-sponsored violence. Entombed alive after defying King Creon’s order not to bury her brother, Eteocles, she became a symbol of resistance and betrayal and also, of a love that would not be extinguished. Jennifer Franklin’s latest collection, If Some God Shakes Your House, weaves this ancient story with sonnets and prose poems. The structure she builds is both organic and unbreakable. In “As Antigone—,” she writes
It was deliberate.
I heard music—a deep lament
The poems transcend personae because of Franklin’s music. I felt as if I were being led in a perfectly choreographed dance through time. Eschewing the traditional sectioning one sees in a collection, Franklin relies on the repetition of forms, creating a movement of Antigone poems all titled, “As Antigone—,” followed by the “Memento Mori” sonnets, and finally ending with prose poems all titled with months chronicling our recent past under the Trump administration, including the Covid-19 pandemic. These forms repeat in this order throughout the book, underscoring an “eternal return,” a “testimony to our brutality while we inhabit lives we never thought possible.”
The “As Antigone—” poems, which begin each of these sequences, blur the lines between the myth and the contemporary speaker. Franklin states “I realize why I love the dead. They are/the only ones who cannot betray me.” This betrayal fuses the abandonment of the speaker’s ex-husband and father of their daughter, not only to Antigone’s Creon, but to her ambivalence about motherhood—her own and her mother. “I’m tired of everyone/telling me what to do,” the speaker confesses,
That winter, I wanted to end
my pregnancy, after losing
thirty-three pounds in seven weeks.
She joined my husband’s campaign
to keep me sick and expecting.
Like Antigone trapped in a tomb, so the speaker is trapped by her own body, by the wishes of others, and, as we see in other poems, by the state. Questions of free will and bodily autonomy are raised when the speaker wishes to
Go back. Back, back.
Now that I love my daughter,
there is no way out. Not even if I tie
my own dress around my neck.
Franklin depicts the weight of motherhood with another myth: Mary. In “Memento Mori: Annunciation, without Angel,” the voices of the mother and Mary blend,
doom that first instant—your heavy weight
in my arms, umbilical cord still joining us,
your grown body draped over me like a cloying
The images of the Annunciation) and the Pietá are introduced in these “Memento Mori” sonnets. This term refers to a symbol that reminds us of the inevitability of death, and I came to anticipate these sonnets because of the repetitive movement in the book. Franklin’s choice of the sonnet to present these objects reaches back to an older form that contains the emotion in a specific number of lines. In “Memento Mori: Mourning Mother,” Franklin speaks to motherhood in both the ancient and modern worlds, shifting seamlessly on the line:
Your face is Jocasta’s the moment before she screamed. I wore
your expression in the neurologist’s office, my damaged baby
sprawled at my feet—all curls and flesh, sturdy as my Sicilian
The sonnets allow for close examination of the face, transforming it into a death mask. In “Memento Mori: Bird Head,” the speaker speaks of filling out a donor form, where she “checked off each box except eyes, / as if there were some way to see, even after death.”
The replica of Keats’s death mask in “Memento Mori: Death Mask,” hangs above the speaker’s desk so she can “study his ever-closed eyes,” where she tells us “I did not yet know how dying feels— / how painful and posthumous to stare at a blue / ceiling. . . .”
The eyes, too, transform in Franklin’s prose poem, “July.”
I recall Martha Nussbaum’s lectures on eternal return and watch the fireflies flit. Our daughter sees them and murmurs “eyes.”
The prose poems which follow the sonnets are titled by the months spent under the rule of a tyrant. These poems, written without lineation, engage myth and philosophy with the recent (and ongoing) American landscape. “I watched Saturn devour my child for nine years and now I watch as children suffer behind bars,” Franklin writes in “June.” In these poems, Franklin includes great artists and thinkers: Nietzsche, Orwell, Atwood, Arendt. In “October,” Franklin cites Sontag, “Someone who is permanently surprised that depravity exists. . . has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.’ ” This poem recalls—and predicts—the speaker’s own thoughts about aborting her pregnancy when she cites Senator Susan Collins’ confirmation vote for Supreme Court Justice (and credibly accused sexual assaulter) Brett Kavanaugh in 2019, when she writes in “October,” “A woman has voted against all women and the Supreme Court is lost.” The landscape grows barren, airless. “March” chronicles the shutting down of New York City “empty as the moon,” due to Covid-19. Franklin reaches back to ancient Greece again, quoting fragments of Sappho, who assures us, “What cannot be said will be wept. . . Someone, I tell you, in another time will remember us.”
In “June 24, 2022,” after the repeal of Roe through the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, Jennifer Franklin writes,
My daughter crumbles like a rag doll when she seizes—her body limp in my arms. I watch as from above, our forced and permanent Pietá. Can you see the truth? The child isn’t the one who is dead.
If Some God Shakes Your House speaks to timeless truths and horrors, but also love. “When I hold your bulky body, // shame disappears.” The movement of the poems and their rhythmic structures return us to love, despite the breathlessness of cruelty, despite the ever-present shadow of death. “Love,” Jennifer Franklin asks, “what do any of us have but this?”
If Some God Shakes Your House by Jennifer Franklin
Four Way Books, 2023
paper • 120 pages • 17.95
Jennifer Martelli (she, her, hers) is the author of All Things Are Born to Change Their Shapes (Small Harbor 2023), The Queen of Queens (Bordighera Press, 2022) and My Tarantella (Bordighera Press), awarded an Honorable Mention from the Italian-American Studies Association, selected as a 2019 “Must Read” by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, and named as a finalist for the Housatonic Book Award. She is also the author of the chapbooks In the Year of Ferraro (Nixes Mate Press) and After Bird, winner of the Grey Book Press open reading, 2016. Jennifer Martelli has twice received grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council for her poetry. She is co-poetry editor for Mom Egg Review and co-curates the Italian-American Writers Series. Jennifer Martelli received degrees from Boston University and the Warren Wilson M.F.A. Program for Writers.