Frances of the Wider Field, by Laura Van Prooyen
Published by Lily Poetry Review Books
Reviewed by Donna Spruijt-Metz
In Frances of the Wider Field, Laura Van Prooyen’s third full length book, we never really find out who Frances is. Francis is ethereal, she could be anyone, anything—a vagabond, a haint, Saint Francis, a god, the land, perhaps a confidant—Frances permeates everything. Whoever or whatever Frances is, she is a major presence in the book. The reader gets to fill Frances in for themselves. Filling in missing information to piece together stories has been very much a part of the author’s background, and she bequeaths this to the reader here.
The author grew up in South Holland, IL, in a house her grandfather built, next to the house her mother was raised in, and next to her great-grandma's house. She was raised in the Calvinist church and attended Calvinist schools. Her grandmother died giving birth to her mother. When her grandfather then married his dead wife’s sister, the stoic Dutch community in which they lived closed ranks. Silence surrounded the family history. The author’s mother was left to gather bits and shards, trying her whole life to fill in the absence. And now, as this book is being written, the author’s mother is falling slowly away into dementia.
Van Prooyen explores the impact of living with so many secrets, of leaving a family and a place where the roots run deep and are deeply intertwined, and the need to shake off the residue of Calvinism’s strict doctrines to develop wider, more inclusive belief system. The speaker has a strong sense of faith even as she takes issue with the god of her childhood. There is the struggle of deciding how best to live if not by the doctrines she was raised with. The trajectory of these themes across her three books fascinates.
Her first book, Inkblot and Altar (Pecan Grove Press), centers on relationships—with Christianity, with lovers and longing, between body and spirit, with motherhood. Take, for instance, the poem titled “Wheel”. The mother, always amenable to thrills, takes her small child up on a Ferris wheel at a fair, and is suddenly shocked as her perception shifts from the thrill of it to its perils—the sheer height of it—the possible threat to the child, the mother’s own irresponsibility. One of the things that Van Prooyen’s first book shows us is how shifts in our lives—shifts in roles, in place, in attitudes, in faith, can shift our perceptions suddenly, unexpectedly—a whiplash shift that catches you unawares. In the final line of this poem, the mother clings to her daughter’s shoulder ‘as if it could save her’.
In her second book, Our House Was on Fire (The Ashland Poetry Press), her focus moves to the stewardship of daughters, a child who has been diagnosed with a disease that might be incurable—marriage, husbands, and birds—many birds. Her poems in this book often wrestle with the confines of a good marriage, a responsible household.
Now, beneath the pier, is that low-pitched
croak called want? With the water so thick
with reeds, there is no way to be sure.
The second book seems to ask—what is slipping away? Van Prooyen does this with elegance and honesty—calling up what is familiar in the reader. Evocative and down to earth, her poems let us stare ourselves in the face—without a mask.
In her third book, Frances of the Wider Field (Lily Poetry Review Books), the poems are populated by a shifting but constant group of personages, often gravitating towards loss. Mother, daughter, sister, husband, and the enigmatic Frances recur, nearly cyclically, along with God, and with silence. There is mold, decay, loss and regeneration. Fields are present and shape-shifting across the pages. The book opens with a ‘Frances poem’, paving the way for the speaker’s interrogation of God, and for Frances’ surreal presence.
…God will never reward me
in the way I hope…
and later in the same poem
…the street can’t hold
my desires. Who painted those white lines?
Frances, there’s a dog in the road.
In many ways, the book pays homage to a mother who is gliding slowly away into dementia. The slippage is described with remarkably disjointed, eloquent poems that describe, both in words and through the use of space on the page, the shards of memory falling away. The poem Imaging Test, begins
my mother’s brain
scans the dense fields
and in another poem—
Inside my mother’s head of clover
we find a wider field.
The fields that the speaker keeps coming back to could be many things. But here, they seem to be to be the fields of the mother’s meandering mind, or the fields of the Midwest landscape. The speaker has little access to the first landscape, and has left the second one. She is…
…The daughter who moved to warmer climes,
because you said—remember?—everything would be okay.
The speaker is also the ‘faraway daughter’
…From twelve hundred miles away, I duplicate.
I splinter. I fly. Mother, I float to your ceiling, drift over
your body. Your body my heart once beat in,
where as a dark cluster of cells I began furiously to split.
The secretive nature of the community the speaker left has marked her—has left its mark—and silence is a theme that recurs.
how do you define
silence? Quiet does not mean
dead Quiet does not mean not listening
and in the next poem the themes of silence, sister, and the speaker’s seeking of the holy intertwine
I don’t know if silence
is an ocean. I’m swirling
in a canyon riddled with shells.
Hear me, my sister has cancer
Throughout the book, the speaker is looking for God, for gods, has questions.
some days, the gods go silent. You wait, and walk
the cracked stretch of your street. Wait and wait,
You wait on your paint-peeled stairs. A cricket
in the grass goes on a long time. Listen, listen.
While the speaker might suspect that she isn’t always looking in the right place—she keeps looking, keeps listening. And she finds something new every time, as I did, coming back to these poems again and again. What does the reader find here? Stunningly crafted mirrors, and many paths across our own varied fields.
Laura Van Prooyen is author of three collections of poetry: Frances of the Wider Field (forthcoming from Lily Poetry Review Books, 2021) Our House Was on Fire (Ashland Poetry Press) nominated by Philip Levine and winner of the McGovern Prize and Inkblot and Altar (Pecan Grove Press). She is also co-author with Gretchen Bernabei of Text Structures from Poetry, a book of writing lessons for educators of grades 4-12 (Corwin Literacy). Van Prooyen teaches in the low-residency MFA Creative Writing program at Miami University, and she lives in San Antonio, TX.
Donna Spruijt-Metz is Professor of Psychology and Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California, where she works to improve the health of underserved populations. Her first career was as a classical flutist. She lived in the Netherlands for 22 years and translates Dutch poetry to English. Her poetry and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in venues such as the Los Angeles Review, Copper Nickel, RHINO, The Cortland Review, and Poetry Northwest. Her chapbook, Slippery Surfaces was published by Finishing Line Press in 2019. You can find her at www.donnasmetz.com