Yolanda J. Franklin: “Climaxes & Joints”

Climaxes & Joints


After leaving the parlor, my ink still bleeds pomegranate

sunrise over you your own best thing onto the inner hem

of my white cotton-blend tee.  Maari smokes


Marlboros ‘cause she can’t stand the length of history

it takes to smoke the American Spirit Jodi offers

her on our sidewalk break. Second-hand smoke


feels up my cleavage & greets customers like the fury

of a Tiger Woods’ fist pump, catches the raven-

haired boy with bangs in a Doors t-shirt & skinny


jeans off guard in front of Osakas, where I frequent

& order jasmine rice with ornately painted chopsticks—

the kind my sister Lisa likes to stab into her imperfect “Love


is a Racket” brunette bun. I’m totally into OPI® nails

& Pureology hair since my boyfriend Juan, a poet from L.A.

who used to DJ at The Moon’s Latin Night Sweats, broke


up with me over chicken Yakisoba & salmon shioyaki;

rumor has it, a splinter still prevents him from scratching

vinyl like he used to. Jodi & I still frequent The Moon though.


We crossfade between a joint & a trio of Jäger bombs

just to extinguish my memory of the guttural sounds

of sex we once made. While sitting on the stool


covered with the ordinary-black sweater I bought

that year from The Limited, among neon lights,

the smoke from the fog machine must have hid


my crisscrossed chopsticks, those extra appendages—

flicking Juan off; a memento tattoo of a bass line

joint’s holler & beat-breaking his final climax.


From Blood Vinyls (Anhinga Press 2018). Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Available for purchase here.


Yolanda J. Franklin has been selected as an alternate candidate for Barbados for the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program for the 2020-2021 academic year. She has also been awarded the 2020 Vermont Studio Center/Callaloo Writing Fellowship. Franklin is a Cave Canem and Callaloo Fellow and recipient of a 2016-17 McKnight Dissertation Fellowship and a Kingsbury writing award. Nominated for a Teaching Innovation Award, she is a Visiting Assistant Professor teaching Writing Across the Curriculum certified courses at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University, ranked the #1 HBCU by Forbes Magazine in 2017. Franklin’s poetry, a two-time recipient of a J.M. Shaw Academy of American Poets Award, appears or is forthcoming in The Langston Hughes Review, Sugar House Review, and It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip-Hop (Minor Arcana Press 2017). A third generation Floridian born in the state’s capital, Tallahassee, Franklin is the author of Blood Vinyls, a debut collection of poems that Roxane Gay insists is a “must-must-must read.”

Read an interview with the poet here.


Commentary by Amanda Moore, Poetry Co-Editor

When I first read Yolanda J. Franklin’s poem “Climaxes & Joints,” I couldn’t help but think of Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” in which the speaker wanders around New York City getting a shoeshine and making purchases for friends as he waits for a train to the Hamptons. It’s a favorite, and I admire the way O’Hara uses specific details to guide the reader’s understanding of the speaker, his life, and his friends, all while evading the reality of Holiday’s death—a denial that lends heightened significance and urgency to each act in the poem.

Franklin’s “Climaxes & Joints” likewise incorporates specificity to paint a rich tableau of the poem’s speaker, her friends, and their lives by describing the things they enjoy and do. Like O’Hara, Franklin alludes to literature, name-drops cigarettes, and incorporates venue and brand names with a breezy style that moves quickly from detail to detail. Her speaker isn’t necessarily moving through the world as she amasses these details, though. Instead, she moves via stream of consciousness, shifting back and forth between various characters, memories, and histories to create an expansive sense of various kinds of “climaxes” and “joints.” While O’Hara’s and Franklin’s poems strike similar notes, Franklin’s sings out in its own register.

In today’s poem, the opening, “[a]fter leaving the parlor,” signifies a denouement or falling narrative action, in this case, the impetus, design, and execution of a tattoo. The climax of this particular scene has passed, but just barely—the “ink still bleeds.” In it, the speaker has had the words “you your own best thing” tattooed on herself. The phrase comes from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where Paul D offers it as an affirmation of self-worth to Sethe, a woman who escapes enslavement but loses a sense of her own purpose and goodness following the death of her daughter. The phrase is a gift of deep love tinged with an acknowledgment of the trauma that begets this kind of devaluation. Even without the literary allusion, the literal meaning of “you your own best thing” imparts a sense of the speaker’s headspace, suggesting that she needs a daily reminder of her own worth.

Out on the sidewalk we meet Maari and Jodi smoking, and in the references to their cigarettes I hear echoes of O’Hara, whose own poem mentions both French Gauloise and Picayune cigarettes from the American South. Maari is smoking “Marlboros ’cause she can’t stand the length of history / it takes to smoke the American Spirit Jodi offers.” This ingenious line break is an example of Franklin’s careful craft and lineation. The short pause after “the length of history” forces the reader to consider the long, horrifying past of American tobacco, a crop first planted and harvested by enslaved Africans and their descendants. The reference makes me reconsider a detail from the previous line— the “white cotton-blend tee”—as a subtle reference to another slavery-supported crop. The syntax in the line after the break broadens the lens and invites further interpretation. Is it the length of our violent history that is so intolerable to Maari, or is it the length of time it takes to smoke a particular cigarette? “American Spirit is an actual cigarette brand that itself evokes another instance of racial violence and oppression, this time of  Native Americans. Adding a layer of irony, there is nothing Native or Indigenous about the tobacco company that culturally appropriates the logo and name for its product.

For her part, the speaker doesn’t choose one cigarette or the other. Nevertheless the “Second-hand smoke // feels up [her] cleavage.” Infiltrating everything, the smoke winds its way through the street, into the speaker’s shirt, and ultimately to the end of the poem, which takes place in a club filled with another kind of smoke, “from fog machines.” This tightly-cohering repetition of imagery creates a sustained metaphor, a technique Franklin deploys with various elements from T-shirts to chopsticks in these lines.

In the third stanza, the poem gathers momentum, pulling together references to “Tiger Woods’ fist pump,” a kid in a “Doors t-shirt & skinny // jeans,” a restaurant named “Osakas,” and the speaker’s sister Lisa, who wears chopsticks in “her imperfect ‘Love // is a Racket’ red bun.” These varied and detailed descriptions point to an observant, culturally omnivorous speaker who creates a collage so diverse and rich that probing almost any detail offers new ways to frame the narrative. The specificity also offers vivid details about the speaker herself, for example, in lines that foreground the “OPI® nails & / Pureology hair” that she is “totally into.”

The fancy hair and nails come in the wake of the speaker’s relationship with Juan, “a poet from L.A.” who broke up with her over “chicken Yakisoba & salmon shioyaki.” This wending back to Japanese food is further evidence of the poem’s tight weave, inviting the reader to revisit and reconsider images that curl through the stanzas like that multi-directional secondhand smoke. It also mimics the unique way time works here, as many of these events happened chronologically before the tattoo parlor visit that opens the poem. As the action unfolds, it moves backward and forward at once, recounting some experiences that preceded the visit, and others that came after. While it’s true that many contemporary poems resist the conventional pattern of exposition (rising action, climax, and falling action), this one seems goes a step further in playing with and flouting traditional narrative expectations.

The poem closes at The Moon, a club where Juan “used to DJ,” in a move that echoes O’Hara in the 5 Spot listening to Billie Holiday at the end of his poem. These final stanzas revel in the versatility of the words of Franklin’s title, “Climaxes & Joints.” I’ve already noted how the poem’s narrative structure variously embraces and resists the idea of dramatic climax, but here we see another denotation of the word “climax” in the context of “the guttural sounds / of sex we once made.” To drown out these unwelcome memories, the speaker and her friend Jodi “crossfade between a joint & a trio of Jäger bombs.” In this delicious moment, they smoke a joint in a joint listening to a joint, tripling down on the utility and flexibility of the word. I also appreciate the ingenuity of using “crossfade” (a term for how one song or soundtransitions into the next in a DJ set, album, or film) as a verb.

Moving into the final stanza on a wisp of smoke, Franklin explodes the syntax of the last two lines in a way that, like O’Hara’s poem, opens them up to various readings. “The Day Lady Died” ends with a memory of Billie Holiday “while she whispered a song along the keyboard / to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.” Here, the fluid syntax groups “everyone” with Mal Waldron as a collective audience to the whispering, but it also connects “everyone” to the “I” who stops breathing.  It’s a delight to discover how meaning shifts with each of these readings.

In the same way, Franklin’s final lines—“flicking Juan off, a memento tattoo of a bass line / joint’s holler & beat-breaking his final climax”—offer rich interpretive possibility. Are the “crisscrossed chopsticks” flicking Juan off, or is it the speaker herself who is doing the flicking? (It could even be the “memento tattoo” performing the action as a symbolic severance of any goodwill remaining toward Juan.) Similarly, “beat-breaking” can be read as part of that flicking off (the speaker is “flicking . . . & beat-breaking”), or alternatively, the flicking can be read as part of what the “bass line / joint” is doing, along with hollering. Again, I find pure delight in the range of readings that are possible here.

The music of the poem’s conclusion, not to mention the clever deployment of so many musical terms throughout, is typical of the poems in Franklin’s collection where this one appears. Shaped like an LP cover, Blood Vinyls comes with “Liner Notes” and is divided into four different “Tracks” featuring poems that include samples, hymns, Stevie Wonder songs, and 8-tracks. The collection traverses tragedy and joy and is equally wide-ranging in style as Franklin explores the limits of bops, odes, elegies, and a show-stopping “Left-handed Golden Shovel Ghazal.” Within this remarkable breadth, Blood Vinyls—like “Climaxes & Joints” itself—is remarkably cohesive, with a strong bass line and melody to tie it all together.



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