September 2023

Back to Issue 14

Ghosts Struggle to Swim

By Jane Frank

Calanthe Press (2023)

Reviewed by Rosanna E. Licari, StyusLit



Jane Frank’s third collection, ‘Ghosts Struggle to Swim’, is deftly crafted and compelling, incorporating both lyrical and narrative elements. Frank mostly writes in lucid free verse but the collection incorporates a medley of stylistic approaches including a smattering of prose poems. While at one point, Frank may flippantly play with the notion of whether a poem actually needs to say anything:


                        It’s sad that poems have to mean something.

            Say something. That a poem can’t just take a day off”

            [Not Saving the World, 30]


at its core, ‘Ghosts Struggle to Swim’ is a poetry collection brimming with meaning and reflection, that explores the relationship between memory, human experience, and art in the poet’s life.

            We all make sense of the world through our memories, but for Frank our memories are akin to ghosts of our previous selves which inhabit our daily lives, and she effortlessly takes the reader to the memories of all her selves. In ‘The Dressmaker’s Garden’, for example, a younger self explores her surroundings as “a fitting could take hours” [48], her masterful language contrasting the child and adult worlds — the indoors (“upstairs” or domesticity) with the outdoors (or the natural world). And for the poet, the latter invites adventure and creativity [48]:

                        I was a beetle

            Hunter and herder, twig-

            Fenced farms and mustered


            Insects, while upstairs,

            Pale blue linen was pinned,

            Pleated, tucked and hem-

            Lines debated. Conversation

            Floated down intermittent

            Like rain. I worked with lost

            Pegs, pebbles, stems and

            The soft cases for nuts until

            My own patterns emerged:

            Among the cool corpora

            Of ferns and succulents

            Were vital new languages

            Scraped in sandy soil


            The natural world is never far away for Frank’s adult self either. It is a place where the poet can make sense of the world as well as find much-needed peace. Frank also conveys to the reader that the natural world is a magical space. Water and the moon occupy her world in poems that hint at the supernatural such as ‘Moon Garden’ and ‘Taking the Auspices’. In ‘Moon Garden,’ [14] the poet states:

            The moon is auspicious, new

            and you have written your intentions

            in ornate script across a brooding sky.


            You need this cosmic reset

            to plant seeds of intention

            from pale-barked and burled trees.


She concludes:

            Purge what does not serve you

            as the moon wanes [15]


            In ‘Taking the Auspices’, a poem that references the ancient Roman practice of augury, the poet has walked to high ground:


            where the view is clear to the horizon both ways [40]

and she finds resolution as:


            last colour is red —

            I stay as it narrows to a fine

            forgiving line [41]


            Memory also encompasses the themes of family, parenting and the impossible struggle to hold back time as the poet emerges from the rainforest with her kin in ‘Keeping Records, Rainbow Beach’ where

                                      Our feet were driftwood, alien shapes of winter grey.

            The boys shepherded gulls, stretched arms to eagles— [18]


and parents warn of danger as if a shipwreck’s “blight was contagious” [19]. Frank delves into the past as well as the future as time capsules and messages in bottles become a way of remembering, but also:

                                                Earth’s black box — a steel-walled,

            solar-powered structure at a remote Tasmanian location

            is storing climate data


           and other assorted facts […]

           but it won’t record our sadness


           at the new houses built on the hill overlooking the sweep of beach stretching

           almost to the island. [19]


A number of poems in this collection touch on wider problems like the climate crisis, juxtaposing them with personal concerns.


            Finally, art is a major preoccupation for Frank and these poems witness the profound influence of her father who was an artist. Through strong imagery, she reflects on their relationship of shared creativity. In ‘You Always Said Black isn’t a Colour’, the world they co-occupy in memory is “a painted surface” [78] and the poem’s narrator speaks directly to him:

            Now that you are gone, I pore closely over all I can see, pare down

            shapes — mountains, roofs, fields of cane,

            areas of positive and negative space — the parts that perhaps

            needed more work. [78]


            She delves into the materials and mechanics of painting. In ‘Rose Madder’ [74], she reveals her father’s favourite colour and his sharing with her the techniques of the artist:

                        You liked — I know — the fugitive

            transparency, and showed me the way Turner

            used it in his skies, explaining its powers of




There’s a deep intimacy and understanding in this simple interaction.

            Ekphrastic poems, a favourite sub-genre of mine, also fill Frank’s collection, including the works of Frida Kahlo, Paul Klee, Pierre Bonnard, Brett Whiteley and Georgia O’Keeffe. In ‘Day of the Dead’ [92], Frank responds to Kahlo’s ‘Girl with a Death Mask, 1938’ which was painted after Kahlo suffered a miscarriage, addressed to the young subject pictured during Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations that reunite the living and the dead:

            You are too young to know

            there will be no graveside


            rung in offerings for the mis-

            carried, no altar of electric


This is a stark description of the unborn, the unbaptised. The question of whether the spirits of the dead will find this child and take her with them lingers.


            In ‘Backyard Anamorphosis’ [49], Frank questions the unusual perspective of O’Keeffe’s painting ‘The Lawrence Tree, 1929’ of a large ponderosa pine on the D.H. Lawrence Ranch in Taos County, New Mexico:

            We each have a Lawrence Tree

            Don’t we? When we first ask which

            Side is up?

Here, art imitates life. Pondering life through the natural world, Frank recalls a comparable time from childhood experience, stating that:

            […] We hold the trunk, both arms

            Tight around it to protect a dream.

            Keep it planted.

Life is undisputedly about change, like the shoreline in ‘Keeping Records, Rainbow Beach’ [18].

            Frank’s Ghosts Struggle to Swim is an absorbing and very readable collection which will particularly appeal to those who enjoy immersive imagery and the visual arts. Thoughtful and reflective, it provides a sensitised account of real and imagined experience.




Available at Calanthe Press