Krista Franklin

Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Krista Franklin’s “Under the Knife” appears in the July/August 2018 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.

There are long stretches when poems and I don’t speak. I don’t call these periods writer’s block. I think of them as processing time, or time when language desires another form. But no matter what I do, poems trail me like a stray cat. When I feel unmoored, I read the Book of Psalms—some of the most profound lyrics on record scribed by an eloquent adulterer and murderer who named himself the apple of God’s eye. When life’s mediocrity bores into me, I shock myself with the poems of Aimé Césaire that pierce the thick skin of my pessimism with their ferocious tongue(s); or strum my index finger along the tight stanzas of Lucille Clifton in an attempt to find the hum of my own song buried in the grooves of memory.

A line that floats by may lead to a pen or a pair of scissors, a magazine, a paint brush, a palette, an unlined journal, a sheet of watercolor paper, an X-ACTO knife. I regularly find myself at the crossroads of image and text as I try to decipher the internal maps pointing me in multiple directions. Once, I sat in a gallery surrounded by Rashid Johnson’s black soap paintings and a fountain of words poured from my Uni-ball as groups of field-trip children chattered nearby. I stared into a looking glass with “PROMISED LAND” scrawled white across its surface, glimpsed my fragmented self between spray paint alphabet, and

It’s you. It’s you. It’s you. It’s you. It’s you. It’s you.
It’s you. It’s you. It’s you. It’s you. It’s you. It’s you.

chanted down the Babylon of the white canvas of my notebook.  

Often art pounds at the door where language barricades itself, and gradually the words start to spill out. Occasionally I’m invited to compose poems in response to works of art. Last fall I was asked to participate in “Three Perspectives on Senga Nengudi’s Improvisational Gestures,” a panel at DePaul Art Museum in connection with Nengudi’s exhibition Improvisational Gestures, which provided a unique opportunity to be in conversation with the artist’s dynamic sculptures; to consider the ways in which women’s bodies are stretched to capacity from experiences solely connected to gender; the elasticity of flesh and its expansive abilities to be pulled apart, to regenerate, duplicate, snap back.

My experiences with multiple surgical procedures, particularly connected to living in a woman’s body, surfaced in the white cube punctuated with Nengudi’s sheer sculptural architecture. Though the didactics of her exhibition focus on reflections of pregnancy and childbirth, I encounter myself in the lines of hosiery pinned and weighted wall to wall to floor. In the months prior to composing the Improvisational Gestures poems, I wrote, destroyed, and rebuilt my forthcoming book, Under the Knife, a genre-jumping, limited-edition artist book about the ways familial and historical trauma pollinate and bloom in the body. The opportunity to turn my gaze to Nengudi’s work was a challenging but welcome interlude; to bounce between the gallery, the writing table, the cutting floor, and consider the interplay between art and writing in my own practice. (In addition to her visual work, Nengudi also writes poems under the “persona” Lily Bea Moor).

Under the Knife marks my foray into marrying my writer and artist selves. After four months of writing a straight forward memoir about my maternal line and formative years, once again I hit a wall of the words’ refusal. When I sat down to write, the narrative wouldn’t move. I found that the well of words had run dry. Rather than punish myself, I stepped away from the manuscript to figure out what the book wanted. I remembered the page is a canvas, and accepted that I could not write a traditional narrative about my family and body being torn apart, cut open, and sutured back together. I considered a Nengudi artist lecture wherein she ruminates on both the body and the psyche’s capacity to expand and endure. I reflected on the extensive documentation (in memory and photographs) of my flesh stitched and stapled, the idea of the book as metaphor and stand-in for the body, and of generational healing(s) that my mother, aunts, and I have undertaken individually and collectively over multiple decades.

I put the manuscript under the knife. I marked it, excised entire passages, and made words smear. I time-jumped, omitted sections of the story, and redacted names. I embraced the family photograph as record and document, and collaged over them, I painted watercolor on the pages and made them weep. I interrupted them mid-thought, and taped the mouths of the pages shut. The book is a body under a series of surgical procedures, a vessel of lived-through pathologies and keloid memories. What are the textures of time lost under anesthesia? Where are the pieces of me that have been carried away on silver trays? As Clifton relentlessly writes in “poem to my uterus”:

my bloody print
my estrogen kitchen
my black bag of desire
where can i go
without you
where can you go
without me.

Under the Knife is imperfect, broken, seething, and seeping on the road to recovery. May I continue to stumble my way back to the poetry that remains among the ruins of me.

Originally Published: July 16th, 2018

Krista Franklin is a writer and visual artist. She earned her MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Columbia College Chicago. She is the author of Under the Knife (Candor Arts, 2018) and the chapbook Study of Love & Black Body (Willow Books, 2012). Her work has appeared in Poetry magazine, The Offing,...