from the editor's desk

Review of ‘Ghosts Struggle to Swim’ by Jane Frank

Frank, Jane. Ghosts Struggle to Swim. Tamborine Mountain: Calanthe Press, 2023. RRP: $26.95, ISBN: 9780648574057.

Lisa Collyer

Negative Space

Jane Frank’s skill as a poet is multi-disciplinary, as is evident in her vivid collection, Ghosts Struggle to Swim (Calanthe Press, 2023). Frank paints interiors and exteriors with words, light and memory. Like a spirit photographer, she captures ghosts as a natural part of everyday encounters, intermingling the sacred and profane without getting bogged down in jaded nostalgia.

In ‘The House is an Aquarium at Night’, Frank’s persona considers a child’s perspective of seeing the world as fabled landscape; in the poem, she meets her children’s ghosts as memory of their younger lives:

I wake when river stones bump against my feet.
The current is strong—sometimes I fear being lost

My boys never sleep—they swim in the kitchen, sleek
with their backbones of silver, their tortoiseshell eyes. (6)

Another successful rendition of a childlike outlook is ‘Never Turn Your Back on the Sea’ (25), an instruction most of us have heard at the beach.

In ‘Rose Madder’, the speaker learns painterly colour theory from her father, whose legacy lives on in the poet’s deft ability to ‘hold memory in place’ with captivating strokes, often wading through water ‘with paint // brushes as oars’ (74). Water engulfs most poems, even the insides of rooms, so that the outside flows in, the past drowns the present and lines are blurred. There is also the animal motif of the octopus, be it ‘drying like knotted shirts on lines’ (13) during a fishing trip in ‘Behind Me’ or the ‘Dancing octopi. I can’t see them but I’m certain they’re there’ (25).

Frank’s phenomenological approach to the world, as experienced subjectively and non-linearly, begins with the chapter ‘Lunar Fish’, in which the moon symbolises seasonally-driven change. In ‘Bad Phase’ (10), a stunning prose poem, she straddles personal grief with climate anxiety, where ‘the moon draped / round my shoulders,  reflected in the coins of your eyes. // A photomontage of devastation each night on the news […] a calm salve in a tense terrestrial life’ (10), and once more we are reminded to not turn our backs on the rising sea.

Frank’s collection takes us on a journey of the imagination as creative practice, as emphasised in ‘Paul Klee: Life coach’ (84). ‘Like coral. I am placing arrows to remind me of the child buried deep […] The birds flew out of the cage this morning when the sun came up and I followed’ (84), and we are invited to ‘migrate (too) to beautiful places where the trees are rose-coloured’ (84). We arrive full circle for some respite, reminded that a playful imagination allows us to transcend the inevitable suffering of daily life.

Throughout this collection there is a definite sense of topophilia with the speaker’s natural surrounds. In the poem ‘Sericulture’, ‘silk worms munch / rhythmically on my heart— / shaped fingers // […] I don’t count but I retch / each time they moult / eat, grow fleshier’ (44), exploring the abject nature of sericulture and our human penchant for luxury ‘where they encase me in silk / thread’ (44) at the expense of the animal. In the Anthropocene, an eco-poetics seems more authentic than a pastoral representation.

The juxtaposition of beauty and horror are the strength of this collection, as Frank explores memories of people and places with both fond recollection and resentment, such as when ‘packed bags waited in pools of light— / and below the sign— / bitter oranges rotted’ (12). There is a reoccurring yet absent ‘you’, too: ‘I remember that / though a friend tells me you are bald now’ (12). Lightly and always with concrete imagery, Frank hints at a need to escape.

The staccato rhythm of ‘Shorthand’ mirrors the brief symbolic language of shorthand itself, as the speaker observes the city from ‘Mount Coot-tha’ and the capture of a whole city in oblivious action observed from up high. ‘Bad news or good. / Exhilaration or loss. / A dog escaped from a lead. / A dead phone line’ (43) interjected with the ‘memory / of other gardens forty years ago. / Other voices […] / People wandering the roads in my head’ (43). Frank captures all of it, the view and the memories, in brief strokes, so that we are witness to the artistry of the poet, as impressionist marks are made to create a landscape of remembering.

The non-idealising of life grounds the collection in the poem ‘All You’ve Lost’, where the speaker communicates their ineptitude to ‘help’: ‘I try / […] but I get the words wrong’ (51). It isn’t necessary to know who the friend being addressed is: the reader knows it is sometimes impossible to help those we love when they are ‘not coping’. The speaker’s ‘shrug’ at the subject’s dismay with their lack of understanding is followed by a discarded ‘cup’, a very ordinary but stark image, left on the ground ‘when you miss the bin’. This is perhaps a figurative nod to the end of a friendship.

The mise en scène of ‘Green Bathroom’, with its forensic details such as ‘a worn spot on the enamel’ and ‘the bitter smell of Ipana’, along with a florid, bald head, as a ‘photographic memory’ describe a site of shock for the speaker, who recalls the ‘moments before my / childhood ended’. It isn’t until the tenth stanza of minute detail that we learn this is a bildungsroman where the speaker must confront ‘a dead body’ (57) for the first time and be prematurely jettisoned into adulthood. Throughout Frank’s wondrous collection the reader is taken on a circular journey which allows us to tap back into our childlike imaginations.

Lisa Collyer is a writer and educator in Boorloo. She writes, with a lens on women’s bodies, like the jagged edge of a can opened-up. She is the author of the poetry collection, How To Order Eggs Sunny Side Up, which was shortlisted for The Dorothy Hewett Award and is published with Gazebo Books’, poetry imprint, Life Before Man. She is widely published and was a recent writer-in-residence for The National Trust of WA, The City of Swan, WA Poets and Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre. She is the 2024 judge of The Tom Collins Poetry Prize.

share this

Comments are closed.

Join our mailing list