Where the Back Roads Take You. Debra Franke. Baseline Press. London, Ontario. 2014.
Debra Franke's Where the Back Roads Take You does an awful lot of very good things in short order. This stunning little book from the formative stable of Baseline Press starts with a startling good poem and then never stops. "Gone" is about loss, and much of what follows explores that theme in one way or another.
Turn over the rock
at the river's edge, feel
moss and grass growing
even in the darkest space,
find substance in this quiet place.
Whittled light slides through
ridges of your heart like sun-burned
trestles of a train bridge
across an orange field.
This is a love poem.
When you are finished
with the rock, use language
to understand the river
and how it never ends. Or look
beyond to tall peaks of pines drinking
from sky to quench their thirst.
There is no one for miles.
Even the heron has landed
somewhere else, looking for home.
One of your friends you loved most
has been gone since winter.
The loss runs
through the bones of your river,
is the open trail calling
you deeper into a wilderness
pulled by a sky of blue horses.
This too, is a love poem.
These poems are carefully engineered emotional freight trains. Franke seems quite pleased to play both sides of the fence with her hopeful lamentations, her sad humour. Mostly what she is showing is enviable control.
Where the Back Roads Take You is exactly the journey promised when Debra Franke started it with a quote from Anne Michaels' "Miner's Pond":
Even in a place you know intimately,
each night's darkness is different.
I followed you up the sandy path
between pines and spruce that summer,
the burning sun our only witness. I was seven,
and my worry kept pace behind you.
They told me later your broken wing was pretend,
that you were faking to protect your babies
so I would follow you away from your nest.
I was only a kid, but I knew the truth:
that anyone with a wing dragging
in the dust needed more from the world
than it was giving them--
Today's book of poetry is utterly smitten with these poems. Franke does more with less in such a lovely fashion. To paraphrase Levon Helm as he affectionately sang about Spike Jones, "we just like to hear her talk."
Franke is not a Killdeer though, as much as she can skillfully direct our attention and she is certainly directing our gaze in these gems, she has enough game to throw us considerable misdirection just for the fun of it. And it is not a bad thing,
When people really know how to dance, you can just see it in the way they walk.
Sometimes I can't swallow truth any easier than a sparrow can
swallow a tractor. Sometimes a sparrow's view of the world is much
more grounded than mine. Sometimes precise angles of knowing
can make truth feel more acute, and less the degrees of separation
from honesty. Sometimes the most honest truth is rain falling
parallel to your loneliness. Sometimes I wonder which is more true,
today's rain or yesterday's rain, and what is more true than a snail
coming out of its shell after rain, or a bear attacking two campers in
Algonquin? Sometimes truth is beyond words, beyond metaphor.
Sometimes we can only love theoretically, although we want to dig
into love as hands into a garden. Sometimes the end feels like the
beginning, and I wish we'd gotten here sooner, so we could have
started before we ended. Sometimes we can't distinguish the end
from the end. Sometimes snow and rain at the same time cause
confusion. Sometimes loves carries with it an illness of the heart.
Sometimes there is only wood beating in my chest. Sometimes the
mind is a back road, pushing itself into potholes while night hurtles
closer, stars collecting at your throat. Sometimes come morning,
there is only one way to see a blackbird. Sometimes a person's
leaving looks like arriving, only backwards and for longer.
Sometimes people disappear into mountains and only white space
remains. Sometimes canoes disembark from shore and vow to
return again. Sometimes a storm brings lightning into our lives, and
splits a tree we love in two. Sometimes metaphors for love are
boats, carrying the aftermath of relationship. Sometimes the
aftermath is snow, falling like love from the sky and melting.
Sometimes love gets towed across bodies of water; sometimes not.
Sometimes love, with only one oar, keeps turning and turning.
"Sometimes love, with only one oar, keeps turning and turning."
That is the best melancholy-sad-hopeful-but-mostly-sad line we've seen here at Today's book of poetry in a while.
And melancholy is what I was feeling this morning when I discovered that one of our interns had brought a Kindle into the office. I could smell it right away and of course I took it away from her before it hurt her. I had to send her down to the furnace room to shovel coal for a few hours. I kept the etch-a-sketch thingy and wrote Franke's great line down on a piece of paper. Told the intern that she could read that.
We here at Today's book of poetry love books. We love books of poetry - and so when we get a Baseline Book we are reminded of what the very best books look like. This beauty, Where the Back Roads Take You is bound with St. Armand Canal paper, the flyleaf is of handmade Sugikawa (which we think is rice-bark), and the book is printed on Royal Sundance Linen 24lb. It was typeset in Perpetua. These things don't make poetry better, but Baseline Press consistently finds voices worthy of their artful printing.
Debra Franke is another one of those voices. Where the Back Roads Take You is a journey worth seeking out.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher. They are shown here for publicity and review purposes. For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.