If Some God Shakes Your House by Jennifer Franklin
Four Way Books, New York
2023 / 96 pages / $17.95
The Theban Trilogy is Sophocles’ most famous work. It consists of three plays written in Greek sometime in or before 441 BC. They are: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. In Jennifer Franklin’s new book of poems, If Some God Shakes Your House, the poet uses the final play in the trilogy, Antigone, as inspiration for a cycle of poems that explore questions of gender, loyalty, fidelity to family, civil disobedience, the power of the state, the conflict between personal conscience and the law, individual autonomy (especially for women) and other questions that were as relevant in the time of Sophocles (400 years before the birth of Christ) as they are today.
Antigone concerns the children of Oedipus (who killed his father and married his own mother who in turn gave birth to Antigone, Polyneices, Eteocles, and Ismene). When Polyneices, is killed in a rebellion against the state, King Creon refuses to allow a proper burial for him since he is a traitor. His sister Antigone secretly buries Polyneices in defiance of Creon’s decree and she is cast off and hangs herself.
On this premise, Jennifer Franklin has crafted a collection of poems. The title of the book, If Some God Shakes Your House is taken from Anne Carson’s translation of Antigone. “But if some god shakes your house / ruin arrives / ruin does not leave.”
Many of the poems are dramatic monologues told from the point-of-view of Antigone. The poet begins her cycle with this:
“I will go
when I’m led from the city
to the tomb…
They have never
“I buried the body at night
But knew I would still be caught…”
This brave woman’s courage is highlighted from the beginning. Not only is she fearless in the face of the power of the king she is not afraid of the fate she knows awaits her (and in Franklin’s version) awaits any woman who defies the patriarchy.
These dramatic monologues are interspersed with prose poems written in a more contemporary idiom that reflect on current affairs. Sometimes these prose poems only obliquely refer to the original Antigone. In fact one of these is an homage to the Central Park Polar Bear. Yet even this poem empathizes with the sad fate of a polar bear trapped in a pool in Central Park, the limits of its life severely curtailed for the amusement of city dwellers. Franklin compares this to the life of her disabled child entrapped by physical and emotional limitations. By extension, the poet compares the bear and her child to the limiting circumstances both Antigone and all women face in the hands of an authoritarian state. Even the poem about a polar bear, like all the poems in the book, resonates with the ideas expressed in Antigone. The poet paints many layers of meaning onto the canvas of Sophocles classic play. Franklin’s book is not a rewriting of the ancient Greek story. Rather it takes the major themes of Antigone and apply them to contemporary issues. This is a very readable and highly intelligent collection.
Here we imagine Antigone as a contemporary teenager:
“I am tired of everyone
telling me what to do.
For as long as I can remember
my mother told me how
I should feel, what to eat,
who to date…”
If that does not sound like the original Antigone in details it captures well the defiant spirit of Antigone who believes her brother deserves a proper burial and King Creon and the state be damned.
This is a decidedly feminist play and Jennifer Franklin captures this well in her poems. Antigone stands up to Creon as a matter of conscience (and out of love for her brother) and will not back down nor is she intimidated by the threats of the king. In one of the prose poems Franklin writes this:
“Antigone wanted to lie down thigh to thigh with her brother
She was the first to understand that there are lives worse than death.”
To live a life of principle and to stand up for what one believes even in the face of death; to live as a strong woman unafraid of the machinations of men and a society determined to contain and control is a life worth living. Anything less is “worse than death.” This is both the central theme of Sophocles’ play as well as Jennifer Franklin’s book of poems. The poet powerfully articulates this theme in lyrical and evocative language. The poet recognizes there are consequences to a principled life and Antigone bravely accepts them. Franklin writes:
“…all I had left
was the ability
to be good. To be right—
envied by everyone
who didn’t have my courage
It is incredible that this nearly 2,500 year old play is so relevant today. This speaks both to the power of Sophocles’ writing and to the power of Jennifer Franklin’s stunning collection of poems that makes evident Sophocles’ significance to the social and political atmosphere in which we live. In “Creon Creates His Own Truth,” the poet could be speaking of our own times as well as the ancient Greek world of King Creon:
“It took me years to see the chaos
he wanted to create—he brought
blight to the roses and cut them
back to claim the cure. All summer
he set small fires with words
but kept his hands clean.
He turned us against each other…”
If Some God Shakes Your House is highly recommended for both lovers of Sophocles as well as outstanding contemporary poetry. Jennifer Franklin deserves much praise for this thought-provoking and enlightening work.
Mérida, Yucatán, México
Jennifer Franklin holds degrees from Brown University and Columbia University School of the Arts. She is the author of three full-length poetry collections including If Some God Shakes Your House (Four Way Books, 2023). Franklin received a 2021 NYFA/City Artist Corps grant and a 2021 Café Royal Cultural Foundation Literature Award. Her work has been published widely including in American Poetry Review, Bennington Review, The Nation, The Paris Review, and Poetry Society’s “Poetry in Motion.” Most recently, Diane Seuss chose one of Franklin’s poems for The Academy of American Poets “poem-a-day.” She teaches workshops in Manhattanville’s MFA program and manuscript revision at the Hudson Valley Writers Center, where she serves as Program Director.
Jonathan Harrington has published twenty books including poetry, novels, essays and translations. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop he has lived in Mexico for over twenty years. His latest book of poems is The Frozen Sea Within Us: New & Selected Poems (www.beltwayeditions.com). The book covers forty years of a life in poetry.