Calanthe Press, 2020
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
There are those who caution against judging a book by its cover. However, were you to pluck Jane Frank’s Wide River from the bookstore shelf, feeling compelled to dive into the marvellous, multi-hued blue river painting on the cover, you would find your choice vindicated by the poetry within. Frank is a poet of endings. Her last lines are replete with meaning, some forming a clever volta, others punching home the point of a poem with the power of a Shakespearean heroic couplet.
The ending of the poem “We are all Wildflowers Pressed Between Transparencies” (20-21) encapsulates the appeal of Frank’s work. The poet ponders the rows of “rejected // volumes” (6-7) on the “al fresco honesty shelves” (5) in the “bookish / town” (5-6) of Hay-on-Wye in Wales. As in many of her poems, Frank eschews a final full-stop, acknowledging the myriad possibilities of what might follow. The last, unfinished sentence of this poem reads, “Always there is a shaded / caudex for the mind—the peace of having trees inside” (21). These lines reveal the wondrous thing that a book is, with its pages made of “trees inside” a cover. We are also like “trees inside” – incongruous living things, out-of-place plants brought indoors, away from our element, to bring joy to the other inhabitants of this bounded space that we call Earth.
The first poem establishes the motif of water that runs through Wide River like a tributary of the collection. “The Mary” (2) ends with the observation that rivers are like a guide to life:
of the wash of years
the need for deep reserves
that it’s easier
to follow the natural course of things (2)
This vivid extended metaphor of “the wide river” (2) wending its way through the world as we do is made manifest in the pleasing patterns of the lines winding across the page.
The next poem, “Mort Street, Paddington” is also a celebration of a way of living, despite the deathly connotations of the street name. The famous tin and red roofs of the sprawling suburbs of Brisbane are viewed from a vantage point by a painterly eye. They are “roofs patchworked in silver and oxblood” (3). Frank affectionately sketches out, then fleshes out, the trappings of suburbia: “the sardined houses holding tight to / hills;” “ridges of fig and jacaranda;” “lantana-laced / yards where chickens ran among vegetable rows;” “séances / we witnessed in the house next door from our / window just a metre away” (3). This poems’ last lines will also linger in the reader’s memory: “Those months camping in a deep crease of the city, / and not just surviving—taking on the colours.” These are the colours of a painter. When we live exuberantly, we inhabit the once-white space of the canvas as part of our own vibrant creation.
“Blue Door” (4-5) is an exploration of the joyous fear inspired by finding a room of one’s own. The titular door belongs to the shed at the bottom of a share house garden where the speaker takes up residence. There, she “would write and doze though hidden days” – a playful instance of Frank’s trademark use of alliteration, half-rhyme and onomatopoeia – “rarely back from the restaurant before two” (5). The speaker says that she “grew brave about parking in the dark” (5). Thus, this “… lesson in self-acquaintance” and exercise in “carving out an unconventional orbit” ally her to the Earth’s companionably-aloof satellite: she finds herself “descending through eucalypt / shadows to my pale blue door / luminous under its own moon” (5).
Like the river, the moon is a motif in this collection. The mundane and the magical – coffee-drinking and creativity – converge in the final stanza of “Wolf Moon” (11). Frank observes that “… it’s not easy to create / your own early calm / if the woodblock resists the paint / if the palette is leaden” (11). The lovely last lines mix the elements of water and heaven: “I sit at Enzo’s drinking coffee / watching pure colour swirl into the sea / as the first drops fall” (11). Delightfully visual, Frank’s work is endearing and enduring – the last lines linger in the memory even as the reader encounters the next poem in this collection of bright sifted gemstones.
Perhaps the standout poem in Wide River is “Wishbone” (8-9). Lines of upright, plain font form observations about wishbones, their zoological function, and the history of their preservation as granters of wishes and dashers of hopes. Frank reminds us that for every wishbone winner there is a luckless loser. Interspersed with the statements of scientific and historical facts are italicised glimpses into the speaker’s psyche and her experiences. Variations on the word “dry” row us down a stream of consciousness: “no wishbones drying on the window ledge / in this house” and “as I dried up, I’d rehearse the ritual: / fingers curled tightly around a brittle furcula” (8). In a couplet buoyant with joy, the speaker notes: “there was a domestic magic that lifted us— / that extra spring of hold and release” (8). Then, a jarringly-discordant note sounds through the house: “I watch you leverage the words that wound / in your dominant hand—you choose the stronger side” (9). Rhetorical questions come and go in the tidal ebb and flow of the poem. Frank asks: “should I stand still and resist? Or reel myself back” (9)? Just before the relationship breaks with the “distinctive ‘snap’” of a “fragile bone” (9), she wonders, “wasn’t I the strut between your shoulders once? / the one that helped you fly?” Again, it is the ultimate line of the poem on which the meaning rests, like the strongest strut of an A-frame house: “I still need to be the one who makes the wish” (9).
“2am, Beach House” (12) is another jewel in this collection. Addressed to the speaker’s child, this poem is replete with exquisite imagery. There is “Bartley’s / Lookout where stars chiselled / messages on the wide sheet of river / below” (12) and the final few lines which are worth quoting in full for their perceptive observations about
… the small events and
family dramas that punctuate days,
sleep like that elusive closing line in
the long rhymeless poem of summer
The waves are louder now and I will
keep counting the whinny of engines
along the empty esplanade
won’t sleep, I know, until the music stops (12)
Once again, it is fitting that no full-stop closes the last line – one that finishes on the word “stops.”
Another highlight of Wide River is “Fractals” (19): a poem so dense with meaning and devoid of excess that it seems a shame to carve up the poetry to quote from it. Nevertheless, the final couplet is worth holding up to the light to see the refractions shimmering through it. Frank likens human experience to the “dynamic chaos” of fractals (19): “‘Unbroken patterns (and people, / I’ve decided) hiding in plain sight’” (19).
Elsewhere, “Survey” (24-25) delights in words and water like a bathing bird’s song. The lines soar through the sky before landing on the final, flooring sentence with pleasing bathos. Then, there is “Terrarium Workshop” (27), another delicious display of the joys of alliteration. This poem ends with an appeal to the sense of sight: “I watch / leaves curl from damp balls like bubbles, / ferns shivering in a gentle spray of rain” (27). Yet another poem bursts through the surface of the pond like the mouth of a koi, but the speaker is hungry for life experiences rather than scraps scattered from a tourist’s hand. “The Fall” (29) concludes with the assertion that:
There will be kinetic
Cold and this madness of my own
Making will end. People have
I will fall. (29)
Frank is a visual poet, the vitality of her verse springing from its visionary depths.
Wide River dazzles like sunlight dancing on the water’s surface. This collection is daring in its defiant display of wordplay. Here are portents of the potential unfolding before each of us as we plunge further into the river of life. This slim volume of short poems punches above its weight yet rains soft blows: each a gentle reminder that there is joy to be found here on Earth. Frank’s collection is worth reading during a lockdown, with her suggestion that endings are not final. It is a celebration of death in life and life in death, especially the poems “Afterlife” (31) and “Ampersand” (32-33). In the latter, Frank writes of bereavement, calling the person’s life, “the particularity that has passed elsewhere” (33). Frank is a poet of the particular, even as she speaks of and to a common humanity. Wide River reminds us of the infinite possibilities of existence.