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” , 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 :
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,’  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.
Purge what does not serve you
as the moon wanes 
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 
and she finds resolution as:
last colour is red —
I stay as it narrows to a fine
forgiving line 
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— 
and parents warn of danger as if a shipwreck’s “blight was contagious” . 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. 
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”  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. 
She delves into the materials and mechanics of painting. In ‘Rose Madder’ , 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’ , 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’ , 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’ .
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