Sundress Reads: Review of when the signals come home

More eclectic mixtape than book, this richly imagined collection of poems is glittering and bold. when the signals come home (Switchback Books, 2021) by Jordan E. Franklin reverberates with the restless, dynamic energy of Brooklyn, a prismatic world through which love and identity are first realized. Franklin gives us a memorable soundtrack infused with complex songs of familial love, a transformation of Black girlhood into womanhood, the eroding effects of racism and gentrification, the pain of illness and grief, and the abundance of song. when the signals come home is a thundering debut that will make you feel painfully alive.

The “album” is divided into four sections, each featuring its very own soundtrack. With songs by Prince, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, and Fleetwood Mac, Franklin’s taste in music is as brilliant as her poetry. Her language is piercing and full of strong, bombastic beats that pull you in and won’t let go. The first poem, “Inheritance,” opens with lines so steady and rhythmic they become lyrical: “To raconteur tongue, / solar flare temper, / Mom’s cheekbones, / Pop’s weak eyes, / to knuckle-busted hands, / arachnid fingers, / Bible names, / terracotta curves, / to plantations taken, / vows broken, / a potential future.” One of the many triumphs of this collection is Franklin’s capacity to evoke fierce emotion from her precise, rhapsodic verse.

These poems stretch across time and space, from the speaker’s childhood in Brooklyn spent in the botanical gardens and their brownstone full of family recipes and good music, to getting her MFA in Southampton, to sterile hospital rooms and nursing homes. Franklin charts these movements with music, as particular songs become entwined with certain geographies and memories. Here, hands, spines, and mouths are entangled into an intimate awareness of the body—bodies that are gentle and cruel, strong and withering, dancing and singing. Music constructs the very sinews of this phenomenal collection, holding all of its fluid elements together.

A long family history is unearthed within these poems, as passed down stories are told from a multitude of voices. The polyvocal verse contained here rumbles with the dissonant notes of violence, despair, and love. The stories that Franklin tells are thorny, cacophonous things, but they are always compelling, always necessary: “I promised to stop / telling these tales / but they gather like thorns / in my throat. When my mouth opens, they cut its roof / as I sing.” In this collection, music and stories are the speaker’s inheritance. “Maybe I’m just like my Father,” croons Prince in the background of these poems, and at the heart of when the signals come home is the speaker’s complicated relationship with her sick father. She inhabits the difficult role of her father’s caregiver, which is undercut by their strained dynamic. They need each other in ways that are elusive, resemble each other in ways that are painful, and communicate in ways that resemble a wail. Together, “they harmonize a heavy fatigue.”

Franklin channels Emily Dickinson in her poem, “When I Wake up to More Grief”: “Hope is the thing with feathers that I clip / and leave in a jar— / I don’t bother to kill it— / I want it nowhere near me—.” Like Dickinson, Franklin’s poetry is suffused with the spectral presences of death, grief, and hope. In a poem titled “how to read my poems/,” the speaker tells us: “don’t say spider/ / say someone sews / in the trees…instead of grief/ / say someone rebuilt / your heart wrong.” These poems traverse a fragmented emotional landscape, unravelling into a new language to express ourselves with.

when the signals come home feels like a love letter to Brooklyn, even as it decries the encroaching forces of gentrification. Franklin gives her dynamic city a voice, a song, capturing its grandiosity and fierce character: “The bridge, green-lit / and dressed to the nines / in stars, straddles / the horizon.” Like a Bowie song, these poems are teeming with vibrant, starlit worlds. There is a tenuous balance within these poems between absence and presence. For example, the speaker tells her experiences of the stultifying, alienating effects of racism in white spaces: “A bar in Southampton / I didn’t question how / the only Black things / for miles were me, / the sky and the patches / on the dartboard.”                                                                

This weighty collection is not without its notes of sweet clarity. In “The Nikola Tesla of Compulsion,” Franklin weaves a repeating refrain about raspberries, reminding us of Prince’s raspberry beret and honeyed things on our tongue. She hides her own painful feelings behind the fruit’s delicate sweetness: “Some days, you eat raspberries to keep the / taste of these words off your tongue.” In this collection, Franklin’s mellifluous and mournful poetics is an exceptional feat.

when the signals come home plays with form and the white space of the page, most notably in the striking poem, “Black Girl’s Rondo.” Franklin echoes earlier lines, repeats themes, and bridges images like a song that won’t quite leave your mind. This collection crescendos into something so beautiful and moving that it can only be captured in the evocative language of music. In a bittersweet ending, the speaker finds a way to reach acceptance, though it is conditional and incomplete: “You are not the one / to let him go.” With a musician’s ear and a poet’s voice, Franklin has created a collection of poems you will want to sing aloud.

when the signals come home is available at Switchback Books

Abigail Renner is a junior at George Washington University studying English and American Studies. She is currently a writing consultant in her university writing center, where she loves unearthing writers’ voices and reading across a myriad of genres. She dreams of living on a farm, filling her shelves with romance novels, and laughing with friends over cups of peppermint tea.

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