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Glimmers and Ghosts: Review of Laura Van Prooyen’s Frances of the Wider Field

by Kim Jacobs-Beck

Cover of Laura Van Prooyen’s Frances of the Wider Field

Reviewed: Frances of the Wider Field (Lily Poetry Press, 2021).

In Laura Van Prooyen’s Frances of the Wider Field, time and space are slippery things, as is memory. Memory and the mysterious Frances of the title hover over the book like glimmers and ghosts seen from the corner of the eye. The book shifts back and forth between the narrator’s childhood and her present as family members age and confront illness. Good memories and unsettling ones are recalled in concrete, memorable details, and often, the narrator wonders what they mean, simply documenting rather than attaching significance to them.

In the poem “Location: Frances” Van Prooyen gathers many of the book’s motifs: childhood, adulthood, death, voices and utterances. Trees and coins become preternatural, almost talismanic:

          You might say, I don’t understand,
          And I’d say, This is not my voice. It’s something
          in the leaves that keeps speaking. Something that saw me
          as a child, rubbed a coin on the sole of my foot.
          When I say Frances, I mean a woman. I mean
          a place. The dead cling to the land.

The wind speaks, but what it says is not clear. We don’t know why a coin was rubbed on a child’s foot. The narrator is willing to sit with ambiguity rather than searching to make sense of what Frances is, or is not.

The fading memory of the narrator’s mother is contrasted throughout with memories of growing up in a close-knit, extended family. In “Elegy for My Mother’s Mind,” Van Prooyen, a Chicago native, employs an image familiar to any Midwesterner as a heartbreaking metaphor: “We’re walking inside your mind where it’s beginning to snow,/and no matter how quickly I shovel, the path will go blank.” Her deft ability to bring simple images like these into emotional and situational connection is one of the strengths of the book.

Place figures strongly here too. Numerous poems are located in Van Prooyen’s hometown in the south suburbs of Chicago, which serves as the liminal edge between the urban and the rural. On one side, there are the historical onion fields, planted by European immigrant farmers long ago; on the other, the rust of  20th-century industry, as the “The Calumet Region” shows: “Where beauty/has something to do with highway noise, with grass breaking//through the cracks, with the kicked-in door on the foreclosed home.” Interspersed with scenes set at the bottom of Chicagoland are poems of Texas—warmer, floral, more comfortable, yet both seem like home; this is where she chooses to make her own life: “Miss you is a street full of pecans that roll/under my feet” (“Postcard from Texas”).

Van Prooyen evokes all of these complexities with a reflective, almost meditative voice driven by care with the sentence’s pacing and attentive use of sensory language, in particular of the childhood tastes and smells that evoke memories: faint onion on the air, bacon frying, Sunday pot roast and gravy, metallic tang of coins on the tongue.

Frances of the Wider Field is tender, nostalgic, and slightly surreal. Laura Van Prooyen captures the illusory quality of memories rooted in emotion. The ones that stay with us often recall powerful moments of shame, grief, or joy, yet the tone throughout is calm and reflective, showing the distance in time and place from the moments recalled. These poems are a finely-polished series of delicate meditations on the everyday.

Amie Whittemore standing by a pond in the woods

Kim Jacobs-Beck is professor of English at the University of Cincinnati Clermont College. She is the author of a chapbook, Torch (Wolfson Press). Her reviews can be found in Constant Critic/Fence, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review, Gigantic Sequins, Crab Creek Review, Barrelhouse, Drunk Monkeys, and drizzle review, among others. Her poems can be found in West Trestle Review, Nixes Mate, Gyroscope, Apple Valley Review, SWWIM Every Day, and roam literature, among others. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Milk & Cake Press.