Wednesday, December 21, 2005


Rivers of song

I recently had the pleasure of reading The Keepsake Storm, poems by Gina Franco (University of Arizona Press, 2004.) These are rich and finely worked poems, wonderfully evoking the poet's life and family and the copper mining town where she grew up. Franco builds her poems in the way a worker places stones one on top of another, piece by piece giving shape, as in these lines from the poem "The Spirit that Appears When You Call":

There were floods and famines, browns and whites,
miners and the company, tenants in The Hole and residents
of Jackrabbit Flats, water for drinking and water, sulfate blue,
welling up the slag banks of Chase Creek. There were mornings
of clarity and mornings to smelt, days for the swing-shift, days
off for church, priests for burial, reverends in tents. There were
wives and whores, part-timers and company men, hours
for union workers, salaries for supervisors, effigies burned past town
and scabs bashed at the gates. There were guitar assemblies, tear gas
set by the national guard, contracts, copper prayers, the gods.

Franco has an uncanny knack for noticing detail that conveys meaning. Her poems press forward in long sentences, the cadence of talk and story, gathering a steady cumulative power, transforming into music. The book is full of scenes I'll never forget, real as a person standing next to you.

When was the last time you went down
to the river with your brother, cousins, the babies
squirming to get down from your arms, the back
of the truck loaded with grocery bags
full of corn chips, suntan lotion, towels,
warm coke, and you in cut-offs and sunglasses,
smothered in bug repellant, hunting
for driftwood to burn on the fire? Let's go
down to the river, sit on the sand, blast
the car stereo till we burn the old
battery. We'll load up the ice chest
with cheap meat, take the babies into
the shallows and show them minnows,

we'll let them run naked, they love
to be naked. Mami scolding for leaving
the diaper bag behind. Marranos! Behind
us the sun drifts down in the usual
way. Richard tells stories of his days
as a prison guard, the last supper
this guy painted, the guy who learned
English reading auto manuals, who ran
down three teens on a drunken binge, who
spent all day with his rosary praying
for his brothers who deserve a better life.
How warm it is today. How late when the beer
runs low and the babies have lost their good
shoes, too, just as they did the last time.
(From the poem "Del Rio.")
Here and there in The Keepsake Storm, the erudition of the language seemed to me to weigh down the movement of the poems a little too much, creating a more deliberate pace I felt didn't always fit with the urgency of what the poems were saying. I found the long title poem, with its carefully interworked interior landscapes counterpointed across each other, difficult to follow at times, though still compelling, suggesting layers that might come to light with re-reading. And poetry of value need not always read simply and quickly. From the title poem "The Keepsake Storm":

She looks down at her wedding ring,
says to someone in the kitchen --
shall we announce our anniversary?

But she'd meant to connect this thought
to hurricane Cleo headed this way --
I've seen so many rings put carefully away --
and she notices her feet are slippered by cold,
though it looks like summer outside the door,
summers in Antarctica, winters in St. Croix,
islands upon islands giving way to more islands,
or the still blank surface of the door's glass pane.
At their strongest, Franco's poems move through memory, relentlessly questioning, pushing insistently for truth, however difficult or painful. From the poem "The Bells" (subtitled "Flood of '83, Clifton-Morenci, Arizona):

His orange cap turns in his methodical hands
as they hike with the din of the bells
down to the old gym and crawl
through one of its busted eyes
into the crypt of the basement damp
where he grips her palm to palm,
and presses her towards a corner

until her mouth dodges his in a daze --
wondering, she can't help it,
if somewhere she has seen this before,
so much vain reaching, almost in passing,
he, laughing, and she too,
laughing, but gauging the tiles back
through the belly of the building
to the stark fact of the outside light,
the bells shifting above floodwater,

Red Cross shovels, sandbags, trucks,
all laboring while the toll from the tower
rises over the wet clay drifts.
The flood occurred during a strike by copper miners against Phelps Dodge, in which the company was ultimately able to break the union. In the time since then, Gina Franco's hometown Clifton has become essentially deserted; it's listed in an Arizona guide to ghost towns. Franco has told more about this, and has posted photos of the area, in her weblog Reli(e)able Signs.

The first poem I read by Gina Franco (taking its title from a line in William Wordsworth's Prelude), was " 'That Cried to the Whole City "Sleep No More" ' ". The poem begins with a running account of getting up in the morning to leave for work and the routine details of life in a house with several people: telephone calls, carrying out the garbage, a burned-out light bulb. Then toward the end the poem seizes hold, and the heart emerges and speaks in clear light, and without hesitation.

[. . .] Last minute calls
from a brand new cell -- five thousand fold --
something repetitious -- how many planes?
How many did you hear? What is there
to do but return to the habit
of combat and sit with the dead and wonder,
if I had not been hit this way, over
and again, if not for this edifice of graves,
this apex of things in a complex
of things I have never lived without,
and without bodies, portions laid out
in the light for the living who are
walking the concrete waste, and if not
for windows, opening onto the slumbering
city morning, how could I know dominion
and prayer, reverting and enduring
as it was meant for me in the beginning?
How could I know? Tell me.
For I am sick with knowing.
I recommend The Keepsake Storm by Gina Franco.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?