Dogs waiting at a San Antonio crosswalk for the light to change. Brothers throwing frogs into the fire. “Time is mashed like potatoes.” All imaginative images from Laura Van Prooyen’s third poetry collection, Frances of the Wider Field, whose fundamental premise is that images have the power to put lifetimes in a specific place. How amazing is it, after all, that every day we carry around an entire lifetime of memories with their associated places, people, and things?
The mind-field of life’s memories is the setting for Frances of the Wider Field. Van Prooyen’s poems continually ask: if memory is a place, then how do we walk around in it meaningfully? “I have a room in my head,” writes Van Prooyen in “Rush of Pulse and Song,” “Frances climbs the ladder in my ear. / She’s going to clean the gutters. Says / there’s a lot of roof up there could use some sweeping.” Poems, like memories, give our headspaces a much-needed and refreshing house-cleaning from time-to-time. Poems and memories, as Van Prooyen’s Frances reminds us, are ways of waxing nostalgic about past life that help us from feeling present life too much.
We can only remember, however, when we move into our own pasts, and the poems in Frances of the Wider Field serve as transport vehicles to our childhoods from our older, more aware selves. Only with the distance of age can we truly see what we hoped and dreamed of that either happened or didn’t, as in these lines from “One of Those Days”:
And when you sort
through childhoods stiff with mold, your acceptance
quietly throws clothes into garbage bags, drives them
to a dumpster, gives up what won’t be missed. You
won’t know in what ways you failed, hundreds of possibilities
thread your sheets. You can’t have it all, but you can
still . . . gather cuttings, the sun warm on your back.
Van Prooyen points out by example throughout Frances the ultimate irony of memory: mistakes are never mistakes when we make them but only later on, after regrets or acceptance have had time to settle in. And that’s what poems do, too: they pause us in past moments long enough to see our friends and families and lives lived from new perspectives over time.
The Frances of Frances of the Wider Field is a ghostly presence throughout many of the poems who is, at various times, internal and external—a conscience, an alter ego, and a friend. Frances is the people, places, and things that trigger thought, and Frances is the thought itself:
Frances drives her leather-topped Cadillac
between the electrical signals of my brain. There’s
a railroad crossing, and I don’t understand
the way she’s looking at me . . . Still, if I were drowning
I know Frances would save me.
“Frances of the Cadillac”
One of Van Prooyen’s technical strengths is her complex poetic voice that is both grounded and ethereal, at the same time intimately personal and powerfully omnipresent:
I say Frances and I sound like a leaking bike tire.
Frances: my purple Schwinn, my flowered banana-seat.
My legs pumping through the subdivision
that springs from the field. Frances
rides on the air. 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.
Part of the poet’s task is to be individual and collective in ways that connect the two—to be the voice of the leaves speaking at the same time as the inner voice, regretful and confused, understanding and misunderstanding what we can just barely hear, and, even then, only when we are listening very closely.
What else distinguishes Laura Van Prooyen’s Frances of the Wider Field is the collection’s attention to the specific imaginative image. Images are emotion’s rivets that fasten our feelings to language of a specific time and place. In Van Prooyen’s poems, images go beyond representing emotions to actually recreating them with evocative language and details. Even if we haven’t felt certain emotions before, we feel as though we have:
After a while you learn catsup
is not spaghetti sauce. Love
can be a grilled cheese sandwich
paired with tomato soup. You play Scrabble,
and learn you like to win. You learn war
can make a man see your favorite scarf . . .
Traffic can sound like rain. Sometimes
people leave and don’t come back, and
not everyone likes to watch a coming rain.
Life is the full spectrum of realizations—from small, concrete understandings about food and what to wear to large, abstract realizations about why people love, hate, and leave each other. How beautiful is it, after all, that we can love both sandwiches and people, and how telling is it that we can feel the same attraction and repulsion to people as to rain? Frances of the Wider Field helps us see and appreciate the little moments mixed with the big moments in life because they are both so essential to the full living of it.
In the end, Van Prooyen’s poems demonstrate that the essence of what lives on in life is, ironically, beyond the details and memories of places and people. The paradox of memory is that, by remembering, we realize why remembering is not enough. Why remembering can never be enough compared to actually living life.
But remembering is all we have, and Van Prooyen’s poems change how we think about memory by suggesting that the act of remembering is enough—and enjoyable in itself—and, at times, even the best part of living. Memory is a lived life’s ongoing consolation prize. In life’s continuing process of always being more or being less of whatever we are, we require attention to the details of our memories because our lives are often absent from us, forgotten. We need to fill our lives with our own thoughts and imagination in those amazing moments when we can find time to reflect on and recapture our past:
Let’s not let the world fool us
with its presence.
Let’s go into that absence
like the most remote part of West Texas,
where we might sit
under the star-pocked
dome of darkness, far from
cities and loves and sources
of light, molecules
bouncing in our ears,
in a silence that hurts to hear.
“Parting the Dome of Dark Skies”
Silence, empty earth and sky, and deep thought are the most fulfilling parts of life, as Laura Van Prooyen reminds us in Frances of the Wider Field. Van Prooyen collects, curates, and displays the most essential themes of our complex and beautiful lives through her poetic attention to life’s details in the landscape of memory. She reminds us that attention, reflection, and imagination are always rewarded, never pointless. As often as possible, we need space and time and silence to create a place where we can understand ourselves. And that’s the place, after all, where good poems are always guiding us.