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.
The opening poem recalls a beautiful and emotionally charged experience, characterized by Franklin’s grief. She captures her heart-wrenching need to keep these memories 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, she uncovers the deep-set roots of grief 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 another poem, 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 she can never fully grasp, preventing her from knowing her mother deeply.
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. As Franklin looks back, she recognizes how much she changed in the face of motherhood. Just as Franklin cannot truly know all her mother’s past selves, she realizes her own children will experience this unknowing with her. Tell Me How You Got Here is painfully and beautifully existential in its exploration of loss, time, and identity.
At the forefront of Franklin’s storytelling are her relationships with her loved ones. 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 son, 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 son’s life when he 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 captures the familiar notion of kids growing up too fast.
Franklin grasps at the memories and time she has with her children in an attempt to immortalize their youth. 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.
Her battle against time continues as 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? How much do we truly know of each other? What stories will no longer live because they no longer live through you? Franklin tackles these existential 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.
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. You can find her on Instagram at @iqraabidpoetry.
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