NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Museum of Absences by Luis H. Francia
(Meritage Press, California and The University of the Philippines Press, Quezon City, 2004)
Luis Francia was born in the Philippines and earned his BA from Ateneo de Manila University. He immigrated to the US after College, moving to New York City. Journalist, editor, poet and teacher, his other collections of poetry include The Arctic Archipelago (1992), The Beauty of Ghosts (2010) and Tattered Boat (2014). In addition to poetry, he has also published numerous works of fiction and non fiction including A History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos (2010) and a play. As well as teaching at New York University and Hunter College CUNY, he also teaches creative writing at the City University of Hong Kong.
The title is intriguing. The original meaning of the word museum signified a temple for the Muses, a resort of the learned, a place of study. We understand it today as being a repository for the collection, exhibition and study of objects of artistic, scientific, historic and educational interest. Behind every object there is a human story—at one end of the spectrum, it may be about a specific individual; at the other, it may relate to the history of a nation. Similarly, the word absence conveys the state of being away or not present; a withdrawal from worldly things. It is closely linked to the word disappearance meaning to cease to exist or to leave without explanation or warning. It also has the meaning of to cause someone to vanish by imprisoning them or killing them, usually for political reasons. Another word that springs to mind is vanish meaning to fade out, to become zero.
By bringing these key words together, Francia constructs a museum of the emotions, a museum of the interior life. He catalogues the feelings that are often experienced by those who live in a permanent state of exile. These are the details that you will not find in a display case yet Francia lays them bare; he holds them up for our inspection and we feel for their vulnerability. Francia is the dark mysterious writer....the archaeologist...who brings these artefacts to the surface. It is a movement that starts at the toe, heads simultaneously for your psyche and your crotch, then seizes your heart.
The collection is divided into three parts. The first part is titled DIS / APPEARANCES. People die (Ode to Jimmy Hendrix), outrages happen (A Request to My Landlord After a Suspicious Fire), yet they all have a habit of coming back, (Winter Ghosts), of living on in the memory or, in the case of Catholics Anonymous never really leaving at all. In this section, Francia confronts through the use of narrative the problem of urban American alientation and the broken promise of opportunities for immigrants to live the American dream.
Part II is headed ZERO GROUND – not Ground Zero – possibly because of the fact that poems in this section also cover events that happen in other parts of the world, not just New York although Ground Zero is indeed the focus point in the poems September 11, 2001 and On Reading The Times Memorials for the 9/11 Victims). A certain amount of levelling takes place throughout this section and throughout the book in general. For example, Francia tells us at the very start of the collection that
Experience, that clever leveller, with
its greedy mouth, ate the walls
One by one behind which I had hid.
Part III, MEDITATIONS, contains a sequence of fourteen poems, some of which are untitled. In this section, there is a subtle change of tone in which some notion of hope is held out for the future.
Stylistically, Francia is a master of wordplay and double entendre. One of his trademarks is swapping words round as if they are freely interchangeable with each other. We see this in the heading ZERO GROUND instead of Ground Zero and in the poem vigorously do I:
dear postmodern world, cozy
with your nuclear tea, your parlor wars…
Or this example of sound play from the opening lines of the first meditation:
It starts with an itch, you see, so you scratch. Psoriasis? No. Metamorphosis.
In dogless in manhattan the word god and dog become interchangeable:
my dog, my dog,
why have you forsaken me?
The frustration experienced by immigrants is expressed particularly well in Blue in the Face —the constant repetition of the phrase (itself a double entendre) adds effectively to the growing sense of anger and resentment upon which the poem is founded. It is the same kind of frustration that is brought to the fore in another poem headed vigorously do I where the reader is left to supply the final word of the title—complain which, by not appearing in print, goes unheard amid the faceless crowd. In it, Francia rages against blue bureaucratic blottings…civil servants…rubberstamps: all things petty and stultifying.
Brokenness, alienation, commemoration and a reflection on the brevity of life are the themes that dominate this book. Religious imagery (covenant, testament, sacrament, blessed, hymns, bells, cathedrals, etc.) and imagery related to body parts (sinew, bone, heart, tongue, torso, limb, etc.) form some of the building blocks that he uses to construct his argument.
Sometimes the structure of a poem will mirror, or contain echoes of, a Biblical story: for example, the second of the MEDITATIONS, which begins with the line First was water out of darkness partly echoes the story of Creation.
The theme of brevity of life, especially poignant in the section called ZERO GROUND is brought out most forcefully in the first of the MEDITATIONS that opens Part III.
In the beginning….is always the beginning.
In the middle…there is no middle, only the end.
In the end…I hope it will never.
The word end is deliberately left out at the close of the sentence.
Sometimes the means by which Francia achieves his ends are extremely subtle. Notice how the following enjambment in Catholics Anonymous illustrates the pressing need to break away from institutionalized religion and, by implication, the past:
…I was break danc
ing yes I was dancing to
break a two-thousand year spell.
To lend emphasis, Francia does it twice: once within the word dancing and then again by breaking the infinitive of the verb to break.
This is a powerful collection from an undisputed master. It speaks to all people who, for whatever reason, have been pushed to the margins of society for reasons beyond their control and, as a result, feel alienated, aggrieved and dispossessed. Recommended.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, editor, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books include Hoarding Conkers at Hailes Abbey (Littoral Press, 2010), Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014) and Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017). His work has been translated into Dutch, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.