Rebecca Morgan Frank’s Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country (CMU Press, 2017)

Bridging in Rebecca Morgan Frank’s Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country

by Stacey Balkun 

Rebecca Morgan Frank’s Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country is a study in dualities: can the place where we live ever be foreign? Is it possible for “foreign” or “familiar” to exist “sometimes”? The poems collected here say yes, constructing bridges between intimacy and distance, destruction and creation, the self and the outside world, and even form and free verse.

We begin in “Pawn Shop” where our speaker sits amongst discarded knickknacks, including “a cracked Grecian urn,” reminiscent of the one Keats made famous in his ekphrastic poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Here, Frank uses image to link contemporary poetry to its forebears. Immediately, this urn and other items in the narrative of this poem become a vehicle for ars poetica. About a “globe spackled with globules of color,” our speaker says she’ll “finish the work,” a metaphor for announcing herself as part of the lineage of poetry. Now, she’s writing about writing, referencing poetry of the past, bridging the division of time and even ownership.

This opening poem clocks in at fifteen lines—one line more than the traditional fourteen of a sonnet. Frank’s deft poetic hand proves this to be more than oversight; rather, she wants us readers to immediately grapple with our preconceived notions of history and form. This is the first poem of many that will nod to tradition while rewriting history and re-creating form. In fact, poems throughout this manuscript exhibit the “nonnet”: always showcasing a turn but often a line or two shy of or over the traditional fourteen-line sonnet form.

Structurally, many poems in this book rely on couplets: two lines linked together to form a singular unit. Such a visual further demonstrates the act of bridging that characterizes these poems.

Poems like “Bombed” and “Rosewood Triptych” do the difficult work of pulling history into the present. In “Bombed [In memory of Vernon Dahmer 1908-1966]” Frank retells the story of a civil rights leader whose home was attacked by the Ku Klux Klan on the order of Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers. Dahmer died from his injuries, and Bowers was tried multiple times for the murder. In the poem, we watch Dahmer’s family flee their home in Hattiesburg, MS while being assaulted: “They called themselves Christians, she says. / I was only ten.” The poem ends, “It was 1998 before Samuel  Bowers / went to trial again.” By giving this story a second life in a poem, Frank bridges the distance between the violence of 1966, the long-awaited trial in 1998, and the present.

“The Freedom Tunnel” is the central poem of the second half of this collection. An epigraph immediately informs us about the modern situation (“train tunnels under Riverside Park where people / made their homes in the 70’s and 80’s. They were evicted in the early 90’s”) before diving into the conceit of Jonah in the whale. Frank weaves these two threads into an exploration of home and marginalization, insinuating that “home” may be an impossibility as “there is always / an elsewhere.”

The Jonah of the poem says, “What I mean to say // is anything / can devour you.” This is a poem of power and powerlessness. Comfort and fear are stitched together, as in the following poem, “Leda, After.” Like “The Freedom Tunnel,” our speaker here is desperate to understand and communicate the truth: “The truth / is that sound / of thousands of wings.” Our speaker questions herself, as her body suddenly becomes a great distance: “I migrated away from my / Self. It was cold there.” In the end, she finds herself “suddenly alone. All / clouds. The silence now / its own stampede.”

Does what happen to us belong to us, or do we belong to it? Are the two notions really much different? Perhaps our experiences and trauma can be put on or taken off. In “Pyre,” our speaker claims, “Grief didn’t belong anywhere, but I wore it.” An emotional response turns into clothing, wearing down our speaker, perhaps? This line comes after she describes herself swinging from a bridge, “as if there were somewhere to jump off / to.” The metaphorical bridge that has so often punctuated these poems becomes tangible and is described through a new lens: it’s not just a trestle but also a space of danger, lifted above the river “where the city’s history had sunk into itself.”

Elsewhere, a bridge “was strung over the water / and it looked like Christmas, a temporary / lacing of stars connecting the banks” (“The Bridge”). This imagery serves as an overall reminder that what’s separated may only be so because the connections have not yet been revealed. What we belong to and what belongs to us can also connect us to each other, to place, and to time.

Sometimes, we feel may feel we’re in foreign territory, but only until we’ve spent some time there (here?). Surprisingly quickly, we will begin to recognize the bonds that bridge our illusions of distance and separation. Even the format of this book is divided into two sections, again forcing us to recognize how two halves make a whole; only when split can something be sutured. Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country reminds us that such splits are better served with bridges than with walls.

Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak, and Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets 2018, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, Muzzle, Bayou, and elsewhere. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn and The Loft.