Thursday, December 1, 2022




Thorn Grass by Luis H. Francia

(University of the Philippines Press, 2021)



When I was a child growing up in the streets of Pasay City, I played at a vacant lot in our neighborhood where thorn grass grew. My playmates and I harvested the grass seeds and pretended they were “rice” and set up a store where we pretended to sell them to each other. The skin cuts we endured during the harvest of the thorn grass were cured by mercurochrome afterwards. This childhood memory was sparked by the poems in Luis H. Francia’s Thorn Grass. The poem, "Plus ca Change," started out with “Do not grieve over those / you might have loved but didn’t, / or those you loved but soon left / or those who loved but left you bereft: / After the grieving what is left?” The first skin cut. As an immigrant, I felt the grief of leaving everyone you know behind. The poet took me on a journey to his neighborhood through his poem "Underground in New York on Easter Weekend" via the train through “Brooklyn and Queens, Bronx and Manhattan / I ride through gloriously delirious, until the tunnel / appears at the end of the light.” The bustle of the New York subway system is no match to the jeepneys and tricycles on the street of Pasay and Manila.


In the second chapter Peregrinations, Francia invoked the gods and goddesses such as in "Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess’s Complaint "where she laments the fact that she can’t show her love to everyone for “they Will be burnt to a crisp” and therefore must heed to “The one deity more powerful / Even than she: Fate.” As a reader of a certain age, I could relate to "Venus Arising from the Sea, at Fifty" wherein the poet pointed out: “The scallop shell she’s on / Has seen better days / And so has she.” The metaphors used are not all about Venus’s aging body but pointed to the earth’s global conditionseductive images used to hook the reader to something more serious. Another cut on the skin.


In the III. Transcripts a warning shot (or so it seems) is fired out with the first poem, "A Dictionary Is a Democracy, a Poem is Not," reminding the reader that while a “dictionary has all, has nothing...though smaller a poem stands mightier, lines sharp, letters at the ready, driven by the promise of infinity.” Be warned that in a poem, the poet will have sides taken and not all will be just words with literal meaning. But the poet is also a teacher as "A Poem Speaks" invites the reader to “sit down, and break bread with me” so that we may partake in "The Gift"“What is it I want to give you most? / If I were a god, it would be divinity.” Mercurochrome applied to the cut?


The last chapter IV. Citizen Acts (these poems deal with the brutal war on drugs waged by the Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte) made the deepest cuts starting with the "Requiem for the Common Tao"*. As a Filipino-American living in California with relatives living in the Philippines, I felt confused when my cousins in Makati and nearby cities told me that they felt safe at last to walk in the neighborhood once littered with drug addicts and also admitting that they did not vote for Duterte. I tried to point out that the big-time drug dealers are not being arrested, only the poor people who used them to keep working beyond their physical capabilities with the help of shabu. But I had to keep my mouth shut when they pointed out Trump as the President of USA and his siding with the enemies of the people in China and South Korea is akin to cozying up with the drug dealers.  My childhood pretend-store of thorn grass and its seeds as rice have to be shut down.  But I can’t help but hope as I read "To the Idol with Clay Feet"'s last verse: “We will rise up,  /angels ungrieving / unforgiving / and you: / Maggot.” 


I have had the chance to sit in a poetry class with Luis H. Francia in San Francisco a few years ago and his light as a teacher and a poet shines bright and is as healing as mercurochrome during these troubled times that are akin to running naked on a field of thorn grass. 


* "Tao" is a Filipino/Tagalog word for person


Tess Crescini was born and raised in Pasay City, Philippines. She graduated from San Jose State University with a Bachelors degree in English Literature and a Masters in Engaged Humanities and the Creative Life with emphasis in Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Her poetry can be found in San Jose State UniversityReed Magazine, UC-BerkeleyMaganda Magazine, Stay Awhile: Poetic Narratives on Multiculturalism and Diversity, Hay(na)Ku15 anthology, among others. Her fiction and nonfiction work has appeared in many anthologies: Three: An Anthology of Flash Nonfiction, Philippine American Short Story anthology, Field of Mirrors anthology, and Beyond Lumpia, Pansit and Seven Manangs Wild anthology. The main subject of her poetry, short stories, and nonfiction are mostly about the role of a woman of color straddling the identities of her Filipino and American culture.  She writes to heighten the awareness of writing as a political, social, and literary tool in her community. 


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