Sundress Reads: Review of Tell Me How You Got Here

Emily Franklin’s Tell Me How You Got Here (Terrapin Books, 2021) is a well-crafted, deep dive into the human experience and the bounds of time. The storytelling of this poetry collection is fragmented like a kaleidoscope of disordered vignettes; reflective of life’s absurdity and the feelings that come with digging up the past.

The collection begins in the middle of a memory, the retelling of it implicated by the knowledge and feelings of Franklin’s present. Recalling a day she spent with her father before he developed Alzheimer’s, the opening poem is characterized by Franklin’s evident grief. She captures her heart-wrenching need to keep her memories of him alive when she says, “This is what we need: take only / what your hands can keep. Maybe that / is pain’s definition: Only one person / retaining memory for two.” As she takes on the burden of remembering her father’s life on his behalf, she uncovers the deep-set roots of death and time within her own life. Suddenly, Franklin’s past is filled with lessons in mourning that sometimes foreshadow the things that later go wrong in her life. Further into the collection, in “Morning in Ushuaia (After the Court Hearings),” she asks, “How much of my current, earthbound self is built on earlier disasters?” Franklin continues to ask her past self similar questions throughout the book, knowing only her future self has the answers.

This concept of multiple selves continues to appear throughout Tell Me How You Got Here, where each version of herself, or each version of her loved ones, is defined by time. In a poem about her mother, Franklin writes “Standing in the kitchen I’m with my mother and all / of her former selves I will never meet at the cocktail party / of photo boxes unearthed in the basement”. Here, each self represents the stories and memories that were buried with her mother. Everything she doesn’t know about her mother reminds Franklin of how much death takes from the people left behind.

While she keeps her father alive through memory, there are not enough stories of her mother to do the same. In the same poem, she says, “We are all in some kitchen somewhere / missing our mothers—the one we had or wished we had / plus all our selves. Can we all fit at the table, fit our faces around / the stovetop to taste a simmering sauce? Having arrived too late, / daughters will never know all the selves of their mothers, but mothers know / us.” This is one of the poems that really moved me. Becoming a mother opens up a whole new understanding of what the role entails and Franklin knows this now as she is a mother herself. As she looks back, she recognizes how much she truly lost when her mother passed; not just the chance of getting to know the woman who brought her into the world and the lives she lived before starting a family, but the connection they would have had as her mother would have been the one person to know every version of Franklin. As readers we witness this realization— witness Emily Franklin examine her memories through the perspective of someone who has simultaneously lived through the past, present and future. 

Tell Me How You Got Here is a lyrical documentation of Franklin’s grief, and at the forefront of Franklin’s storytelling are her relationships with her parents and her children. She reflects on a different kind of loss as she thinks of her own children and how they will not stop getting older. In “Biking to Uncle Teddy’s Farm So Late in June It Feels Like July”, a poem about a morning spent with her daughter, she writes: “It will have to be enough, this morning, / just knowing whatever it is / in front of me.” Throughout the piece, she paints their morning with beautiful imagery while also experiencing small flashbacks to other points of her daughter’s life when she was even younger. She writes “I want always to be here”, “And I memorize you— / it’s not enough.” So many more moving quotes from this poem depict the familiar thought of kids growing up too fast.

While trying to remember her parents and processing her own grief, Franklin grasps at the memories and time she has with her children in an attempt to immortalize their youth, too. In other poems, Franklin mourns the ways her children’s lives could have been different, with less suffering. The lines “and I am on the porch, re-re-renacting / how I save you this time” are a declaration of Franklin’s pain in watching her son struggle in the aftermath of a traumatic experience. The heartbreaking poem illustrates how parents do what they can to protect their children yet still come out powerless. Here, Franklin’s sorrow lies with her son and how she wishes she could have done more, to have known what her future self knew to protect him.

Attempting to challenge time and harness grief, Franklin revisits seemingly mundane moments of life, now treasured as the experiences she wishes to relive the most. For instance, “In Praise” is an ode to the nostril and the ability to smell. This poem cherishes and appreciates the ways memories take up space in our brains, even as smells that remind us of things we love. Many similar poems appear throughout the collection as Franklin depicts the weight of grief in its many forms using descriptive imagery, extended metaphors, and scientific references.

How much have you forgotten? What stories will no longer live because they no longer live through you? Franklin poses these questions and more. The need to be remembered, to leave something behind, to exist beyond death, to keep loved ones alive through memory; Tell Me How You Got Here encompasses all of these aspects of mourning in a profound and thought-provoking way. This collection was a heavy, but welcome read and I know that these are poems I will return to time and time again.

Tell Me How You Got Here is available at Terrapin Books


Iqra Abid (she/her) is a young, Pakistani, Muslim writer based in Canada. She is currently a student at McMaster University studying Psychology Neuroscience, and Behaviour. She is also the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Kiwi Collective Magazine. Her work can be found in various publications such as Stone Fruit Magazine, Tiny Spoon Lit Magazine, Scorpion Magazine, and more.

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