‘No Small Gift’ by Jennifer Franklin



We flew to Venice
to conceive you.
Now I realize

the folly—to create
life in an unreal
city, burdened

by sinking churches.
I wanted you to begin
like a gold mosaic

folded in Vivaldi—
like cherub wings.
My punishment’s simple—

your legacy mirrors
that of obsolete
palaces, every lit

window, wide open
to the Grand Canal. All
the exquisite rooms, empty.


First published in Mentor & Muse.

I want to tell them to memorize
not just the shape of their baby’s
sleeping face but the feeling

they hold, now, for each other.
They believe this is just
the beginning of happiness.

I force myself to walk past
wondering if God feels this sad
looking down at the world.


First published in STAT®REC.




When I was your age, I read Gatsby for the first time
and cringed when Daisy hoped her daughter

would grow up to be a beautiful little fool.
All you read are songbooks and sing to yourself

out of tune. At least you’ll never believe in fairy tales
or blame me for walking out after each of us was betrayed.

Like Sisyphus, I push away all thought of statistics—
like those caretakers who’ll overdose you

with your anti-seizure drugs to keep you still.
It’s your birthday again. The few people who love you

celebrate but only the two of us know we have no cause.
You sit beside a fancy cake that you refuse to taste

and you try to blow out the candles. I cannot extinguish
this small fire. Days like this, I wish we were both

Daisy’s little fools, side by side in narrow asylum beds,
hiding from the horror together.


First published in LIPS.


“Hubris,” “New Parents Over Stroller,” and “Humankind Cannot Bear Very Much Reality” are from No Small Gift  ©2018 by Jennifer Franklin and appear with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.


Jennifer Franklin has published two full-length collections, most recently No Small Gift (Four Way Books 2018),available for order here. Her third book, If Some God Shakes Your House, will be published by Four Way Books in 2023. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Bennington Review, BlackbirdBoston Review, Broadsided Press, Gettysburg Review, Guernica, JAMALove’s Executive OrderThe Nation, New England Review, Paris Review, Plume “poem-a-day” on poets.org, and Prairie Schooner. Her poem, “Memento Mori: Pistachios,” was featured in the Poetry Society of America’s Poetry in Motion, RI in February 2021. She holds an AB from Brown University and MFA from Columbia University, where she was a Harvey Baker fellow,  and teaches in the MFA program at Manhattanville College. For the past eight years, she has taught manuscript revision at the Hudson Valley Writers Center, where she runs the reading series, serves as Program Director, and co-edits for Slapering Hol Press. She lives in New York City. For more about Franklin’s poetry, visit jenniferfranklinpoet.com. (Author photo: Richard McCormick)


Selected Online Reviews of No Small Gift


Poet’s Note

My second book of poetry, No Small Gift (Four Way Books 2018), is a series of linked lyric poems that explore the subject of radical grief through the lens of disease and disability. The poems document my extrication from a twenty-year relationship with a dangerous and malignant narcissist with whom I became involved as a teenager and the damage that he inflicted on my life and that of my daughter. The poems mine the aftermath of divorce and the rediscovery of the speaker’s identity and voice. They address the complexities of raising a severely disabled child alone while being diagnosed and treated for head and neck cancer. It uses the Philomela myth to chart the ravages of tongue cancer surgery and subsequent radiation treatment. It grapples with patriarchy and the way women are abused and controlled in a society that tries to render suffering invisible by forcing it behind closed doors. Using the story of my autistic and epileptic daughter as touchstone and hub, the book extends outward to other voiceless and nameless women who were and are systemically discounted, otherized, and made invisible. Beckett’s work and worldview inspired several of the poems in the collection. Ultimately, the primary speaker in the collection discovers what Dickinson knew—“a wounded deer leaps highest,” and unwavering devotion to a vulnerable loved one can bring suffering but also strength, purpose, and fulfillment. The last poem in the collection is a retelling of the Philomela myth. Hope is indeed the “thing with feathers,” but in this version of the story, there are no birds.


Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I recently joined Jennifer Franklin to read for a new series curated by poet and doctor Owen Lewis during National Poetry Month for the Stockbridge Library. In preparation, I read Franklin’s book No Small Gift, whose title could be a micro-review of the book itself, describing poems that deal with painful subjects in ways that are subtle, wise, gorgeously written, and ultimately, healing. In them, a speaker confronts tongue cancer, betrayal, divorce, and a daughter’s profound autism. It is this last subject that connects her work with mine and was the subject of our April reading, which can be viewed here. Recordings of other readings from the “Poetry & Narrative Medicine” series can be found on the library webpage.

One issue discussed at the reading is the difficulty of writing and publishing poems about our children, particularly children with neurological and other challenges. How can you do that without betraying their trust or invading their privacy? Franklin’s poems gave me a few ideas. One technique is the use of “via negativa,” or using negation to express a positive, which works like the literary equivalent of an altar screen or iconostasis to protect human eyes from the sacred. No Small Gift is bookended with two poems brilliantly employing this strategy: “(Not) a Love Story” and “In This Version of the Story.” In the first, we see lines like “these rooms are not my home,” a “surgeon did not / take a long slice of my tongue,” and “the man who wanted us to take vows / in church did not give me a disease.” The book’s closing poem, “In This Version of the Story,” frames an alternative narrative—a sort of “not-narrative”—where “there are no birds” and the (abandoned) “mother and her child” are “the lucky ones.” Other poems in No Small Gift use this negation technique as well, for example, “The Philosopher Did Not Say” and “Jack Gilbert You Were Not Always Right.”

Another strategy is Franklin’s use of persona poems based on characters in myth or classical literature such as Philomela, Orpheus and Eurydice, Paolo and Francesca, Daphne, and Shakespeare’s Lavinia. The book also uses literary allusions to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Samuel Beckett, and others (see “Human Kind Cannot Bear Very Much Reality” above, for example) to offer another way to obliquely approach—and protect—Franklin’s poetic subject. In them, Franklin inhabits personas in a way that allows them to refract her own experience, always keeping the klieg light of sensationalism turned away from her daughter.

Franklin also uses ekphrasis, taking inspiration from works of art or music as a way of telling her story. In “Hostage after Klimt,” she imagines herself and her daughter as Klimt’s figures, and art is the filter that gives readers access to subjects that might otherwise be too painful, or violative, to view. Another strategy for expressing highly personal and painful material is the use of deep image, as seen in another poem in No Small Gift, “July Calf,” that, but for the context the rest of the book provides, could be read simply as painting a word picture of a mother cow and her calf on a summer day.

In these and other poems, Franklin discovers two important lessons: Her situation is not unique but is part of a universal human experience that always includes suffering, and all grief can be transformed by art into song. As one reviewer notes, No Small Gift “works to honor pain, not bury it without elegy” and “lovingly digs ground and makes space for a requiem.” (Washington Square review, linked above.) The same reviewer notes that Franklin’s voice in these poems is “clear, constant, powerful throughout” and “does not waver under the weight of trauma,” and I agree.

The exquisite crafting of these poems shows qualities that define the best poetry. Franklin’s gift for extreme poetic compression is evident in lines that are mostly spare but nevertheless communicate worlds of nuance and complexity. We see this in “Hubris,” whose precise tercets are cut and bezeled like jewels, recalling those “gold mosaics” and the famously tiny miniature paintings of Italian antiquity: exquisitely small, but what immense aching spaces they contain! Notice the important work done by one word in the title (“Hubris”) that transforms what would otherwise be a poem merely about loss into one about tragic and flawed humanity. Another striking quality of these poems is their utter clarity, the kind that permits seeing down to greater depths where true mystery resides. Add to this Franklin’s strategic and effective use of line breaks, the brilliance of images cut like diamonds, and the attention to sound. In these sometimes-painful poems, beauty is the balm that allows readers to understand what the speaker has experienced and to approach those experiences close-up but without getting overwhelmed.

I love the idea of the book’s title describing itself, but the title’s actual source is from these lines in “Philomela considers forgiveness,” based on a myth about a woman who is raped and finds revenge in her transformation into a nightingale. “He’ll / never admit what he has done,” Franklin says of the man who betrayed her, “but / in the blue afternoon of regret, // I realize this is no small gift. / I need not wrestle with absolution / since he will never repent.” One not-small gift is not having to work at forgiving a terrible betrayal, and another is the consolation found when pain and grief are transformed into song. These poems do that, and they do it gorgeously and movingly, in lines that never flinch from the hard realities that inspired them.


Rebecca Foust is the author of three chapbooks and four books including ONLY, forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2022, and her poems are widely published, in The Hudson Review, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poetry, Southern Review and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2020 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry judged by Kaveh Akbar, the CP Cavafy and James Hearst poetry prizes, a Marin Poet Laureateship, and fellowships from The Frost Place, Hedgebrook, MacDowell, Sewanee, and West Chester Poetry Conference.



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