“A New Book from Pieces”
Franklinstein by Susan Landers
Roof Books, 2016
“Few indeed are the hobbyists in human memory who have known the craft of building a spacious, previously unthought thought of their very own,” a young Nicholson Baker wrote in “The Size of Thoughts”:
how to obtain, in arranging its long hallways and high, ornate rooms, that pull of an ever-riper deferment, by returning to it again and again, after some studied distraction—now full-face, now three-quarter view, now very near, now far off; how to gather in its huge, slow force with an encircling persistence that is three parts novelty, two parts confirming, strengthening repetition. I count Henry James, Brahms, Bellini. Burke, Bach, Pontormo. A mere eighty-six others.
Who, given this series, would not want to a chance to be number 93? Showing proficiency in that “craft” is the task of the contemporary poet who takes on the challenge of producing a single-focus collection. Eschewing breadth and variety for depth, such collections easily avoid the slightly brittle, piano-recitalish tone endemic to the worst post-MFA books even as they court the greater risk of descending into a tone of ruminating, algorithmic monotony. To succeed, an author must avoid repetition of sentiment and form while holding firmly to unities of person, situation, or place: the Ariadne’s thread that leads through (and ideally out of) a difficult subject’s labyrinth. And the subject must be difficult to be worthwhile.
Maybe the hottest example of such a book from recent years has been Sarah Blake’s Mr. West, gorgeously produced by Wesleyan University Press, which wryly and affectionately considers life through the eyes and over-the-top, overcompensatory lifestyle of a very frail and human but also very astounding musical genius (and poet). Another fêted work that belongs in this category is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. A mere 86 others? Franklinstein grapples with those other two books’ same themes of commodification and race from yet another angle, confining its attention to a neighborhood “in transition” (not only physically but also socially) and investigating the author’s relationship to that transition.
Like Mr. West, and even perhaps Citizen, Franklinstein’s subject is first and best approached through its allusive and slightly self-deprecating title. We are centuries past the heyday of titles on the model of “A Tragicall Historie . . .” that attempt to convey all their depth and seriousness through a somber and lengthy grandeur, on the order of a cast-iron fence; instead, our poets first present their inquiries winsomely, litotically, smiling through just-overbared teeth as they approach their subjects’ enormousness—or enormity. Franklinstein maintains a similar attitude, initially presenting the portmanteau-mashup “Franklinstein” as little more than a poetic parlor game, matching up in imagined dialogue snippets of American founding father Benjamin Franklin with expat twentieth-century modernist Gertrude Stein. That early scene, however, also presents Franklin and Stein as muses (or even patron saints), whom one feels one can almost see in the guise of the two saints, male and female, who frame the picture of the author’s parents’ wedding shown on the next page. The photo only has a short caption, and the image quality is not great, but the two saints appear to be praying on either side of a large fresco or mosaic of an angel holding a flaming sword—perhaps the sword that bars the way to Eden—behind the altar of the church.
The opening dialogue between Franklin and Stein touches on how to focus on an apt poetic subject. Whatever the true iconographic and art-historical reality of the following photograph may be, the image of a hopeful young couple overshadowed by the specter of expulsion from paradise is fitting as the opening to this collection of linked poems and prose pieces. The subject of the book really is lost paradise, specifically the decline and transformation of the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, where Landers grew up:
At the beginning of this writing I was reading. Reading two books I had never read before: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and The Making of Americans. And as I was reading, I thought: I should make a new book. A new book from pieces. A new book using only Ben’s words and Gertrude’s. And so I did that. For months. Cutting and pasting little pieces. To make a monster. And it was so boring.
It was so boring, my dead thing of parts.
Then the church I grew up in closed. The church where my mother and father were married. The church where they baptized their babies. A church in Philadelphia in the neighborhood where I grew up. A kind of rundown place. A place of row homes and vacants and schist.
And when I went there to see that place—the place that was with me from my very beginning—I thought, this will breathe life into my pieces. This will be the soul of my parents. I thought: if I could write the story of this place and its beginnings, this writing would be the right thing, a kind of living.
This is where my writing began. (p. 17)
The “kind of living” represented by what Landers calls “[her] writing” is indicated not only by the title of the work or its patchwork front cover, not only by the distantly ominous happy photograph of her parents’ wedding, but by its scope and how the work chooses to present large stretches of time. Neither falsely epic nor tweely lyrical, it instead essayistically uses small concrete instances—even small abstract flashes of recollection—to speak volumes about the past. With the due piety expected from any bona-fide progressive it recognizes cultural narratives overshadowed in the vastness of the story it wishes to tell, as when Landers recalls the neighborhood’s 300th anniversary festivities in 1983 and editorializes, of this “founding” in 1683, that the Lenni Lenape had created the area’s first great road ten thousand years earlier (p. 21). The author is at her best, however, when she presents hodgepodge collections of particulars that build into a narrative only she can tell. Because of a (quite valid) sense that all historical narrative is personal and merely a narrative of one given person at the time, Landers’ story must begin with her parents—the beginning of her story—but it continues with these nods to things and places known through maps and record books and perceived in the individual hand as much as the mind, such that Germantown comes across as
A place of good blocks and bad blocks and brick roads
and boxwoods. The site
of America’s first gingko tree.
The birthplace of pushpins and Louisa May Alcott.
A place of sparrows and spires and schist,
that last word again offering a gritty refutation of the white marble that festoons Philadelphia’s historic core (p. 29). This sense of history as a shared interweaving of particular stories, narratives that are owned by individuals and that can only be judged on those individuals’ own terms, will gain fuller voice later in the book when Landers attempts to incorporate recollections told in other Germantown voices into her own.
Like the monster to whom its title alludes, the work behind Franklinstein, the story of its own making, is forever visible within and upon it. That work is, Landers assures us, hard and almost overwhelming, as in the poem “The Sense of Beginning or of Ending,” where she confronts how “to write about the / church whose ending was the / beginning of this ending” (p. 64). Visiting those church archives in order to patch together her story of the place, there are some obvious connections to be made:
It’s two years after the church’s
closing, and I’m in the archives.
I find pamphlets from the ’60s
full of advice for parents. A
warning against the use of racial
epithets. It says don’t turn slurs
into the air your children breathe.
months later or decades
people are screaming,
We can’t breathe. (p. 71)
In this sense the entire history of Germantown easily offers itself up as a microcosm for larger currents, tracing an arc through years of racialized conflict and the murder of Eric Garner alluded to here (among so many others) that has paved the way for the Black Lives Matter movement.
In another way, however, the particulars invite confusion:
After the church closed, the man
who learned to make stained
glass from the son of the man
who made the windows in the
church removed them from the
church piece by piece. Only then
did he notice that a saint’s legs
were upside down.
pelvis for ankle
red sash interrupted
It can be difficult for a maker to see the whole
when focusing on its pieces.
a cigar box full of medals
It can be difficult for a maker to admit mistakes
after completing the whole. (p. 72)
In the end, the many disparate elements that might be able to tell an effective story must be aligned with the interpreter’s personally lived experience, as Landers hints:
I look down to touch them:
the rust on my shirt
the dirt under all of my nails[.]
That salvation may come from a practice of (so far as it’s possible) being in a place, even if one has left that place, is an important lesson that is communicated throughout the book—most poignantly in the voice of “Ray,” a man who wanders the streets of Germantown using the street view function in Google Maps, and who is haunted by others’ (incorrect) suspicion that he left his home in Texas “because of white flight” (p. 103). Yet that is no excuse for half measures, as another poem (“Here on My Scraps of Paper for You”) attests in belabored half lines:
I find it all too much.
Though I can’t let it go.
the curse of the researcher once immersed
the only way to get it right
is to read every scrap
to sift through
a gold mine. (p. 105)
It is after all Germantown’s shifting and strengthening emotional resonance, rather than its physical sameness and occasional decrepitude from year to year, that Landers seeks to chart: how Germantown’s self-told story can become “the makings of an autobiography of America” (p. 99).
Franklinstein is marked always by its tone of polite and cautious exploration. Its subject–matter is stark, potentially explosive, and therefore not to be expressed in categoric terms. In some ways it is a banal story, but Landers enriches it by successfully contextualizing Germantown in a much broader history—a significant swatch of which is the long history of her own very large immediate family, of which she is the youngest member. Her place as the baby of the family has positioned her as a witness of things initiated or experienced by her parents only at their end, or only partially, and never with full vindication or condemnation of their actions as a result. This perspective contributes a little to the Landers’ paradoxically John-of-Patmos-esque vatic sound when recalling the past—notably in “Moving Through a Country Is Never Done Quickly” (a piece that, while written in prose form, offers through its breathless imbrication of phrases some of the strongest poetry in the book):
The old neighbors flew like birds from the new neighbors, the neighbors fleeing a fever, a flu that shared its name with a bird. They flew, the old neighbors, to houses next to houses with people who looked like them. But we didn’t fly with them. We didn’t fly away the way other white people who looked like us did.
And this might have been because of money. I say might because these changes were not discussed or explained, but there were many children and not a lot of money so this reason seems reasonable. Or maybe we didn’t fly away the others who looked like us did because of a feeling. I say maybe because those feelings were not discussed or explained, but there was an exchange, my sister told me, much later, my sister told me our mother had asked her a question, a question not meant to be answered, a question about a feeling, the question was, how would you feel if you moved into a new house and all your new neighbors moved away? [ . . . ]
I am telling you that it’s likely that if my father had more money or less children or a car or a different religion or a desire to change or a desire to not change or a greater or lesser desire to keep everything exactly the same, we would have flown away the way others who looked like us did, but these things were not discussed or explained and we didn’t and I am explaining that.
From time to time on pieces of paper such thoughts. (p. 36, 38)
It is admirable restraint and circumspection from a poet whose parents—notably her father, whose final letter to her is reproduced as a grainy photograph in the book and is the subject of a poem—provide some of the most affecting moments throughout Franklinstein, exhibiting mutual affection and care from across many years and a potentially wide divergence in perspective: the exact sort of care that Landers aims to lavish on Germantown.
That care is, finally, the reason for the hope that imbues the work and that closes it out. For although there are many crack pipes and broken windows, there is also Walt Whitman’s nutmeg grater; there is a doorstop owned by the author’s parents, shaped like a friendly frog. In contrast to the literally empty false historicizing indulged in by Philadelphia and other cities in the bicentennial year 1976—a “ghost structure” of Ben Franklin’s house paired with a literal hall of mirrors being the most egregious example—in Franklinstein there is the rich and full historicizing formed by a final “we”:
of incense and boxwood and brick
pride and bullets and prayer
wisteria and helicopters and figs
turtles and burkas and hacks. (p. 134)
Not for nothing is that opening image of an archway—the angel baring his fiery sword at the gate of the Garden of Eden—quietly revised at the end of Franklinstein with the photograph of an ivy-festooned local mural: another archway, leading toward an idealized past and present Germantown of blue skies that are somehow contiguous with those above the building that bears them. This final image points in turn toward the book’s apt subtitle (“the making of a modern neighborhood”).
Much more could be written about this remarkably cohesive and emotive book, from its documentation of city fathers’ cold aloofness in tracking the progression of demographic changes through much of the twentieth century to the quiet and entirely personal pathos of moments like those chronicled in what is perhaps the book’s finest prose poem (“A Dead One a One Being Dying and I Am Filled Then with Complete Desolation”). The documentation gives Franklinstein its scope, but the pathos lends the book weight—and epic poetry, as the critic Paul Merchant noted in his 1971 literary history of that genre, is finally “not a matter of length or size, but of weight.” More than Whitman’s nutmeg grater or any other artifacts, and more than many of the people and places it chronicles, Franklinstein seems destined to be a monument of its neighborhood: a “we / who are always / beginning” (p. 135) that endures.
M. L. Harrison is an occasional critic, sometime medievalist, and rumored poet who lives in the District of Columbia. He tweets here.