MUSEUM OF ABSENCES by LUIS H. FRANCIARHETT V. PASCUAL Reviews
Museum of Absences by Luis H. Francia
(Meritage Press, St. Helena & San Francisco, 2005)
Luis Francia achieved a rare feat with his book of poetry, Museum of Absences. This book is critical reading for everyone. This book is a life guide; this book is history; this book is prophecy.
The book creates a literal museum where the very best and the very worst of humanity are picked apart and laid bare for inspection. Displayed in the museum rotunda, the first section "DIS/APPEARANCES" deals with the works of a man dealing with the past. How does a poet deal with religion and colonization? How does a poet deal with racism and anti-miscegenation laws? How does a poet reconcile the past with the present?
In the second section "ZERO GROUND," the poet depicts the human spirit as the main attraction to the museum. The violence and the chaos is melded with the creative power of humanity. And in the last section, in the recesses of the museum walls, Francia shows brute poetic power in "MEDITATIONS." The section is only for those who dare discover the truth within themselves. The task is not easy nor is it straightforward. But self-discovery is worth the pain. For those interested in understanding humanity's double edged nature of violence and grace, the museum is open for entry.
The knowledge of Francia is breathtaking. The book takes everyone on a tour of humanity from the plains of Sarajevo to Manila to Ground Zero. Time freezes as Francia leads the life of a "manong" in 1920's United States. Religion's grip on Filipino life is palpable as Francia tells stories of cathedral spires slicing the belly of heaven. Francia challenges the reader's intellect to keep up. Very often, the reader has to call to the internet to interpret the double entendre, sometimes even triple entendres. To gain full appreciation of Francia's work, one must already be on a journey of self-discovery. To be at any other stage in life will lead the reader to stare at truth and call it just another fable.
In the "Manong Chronicles," Francia flexes the bones and sinews of poetry. To depict a life in narrative is possible because of the limitless flow of narrative. To depict the life of a "manong" in poetry is writing at its finest. Poetry is a delicate rose petal. Add too much of anything and poetry becomes a burden. Add too little and poetry is vacuous.
In Francia's poetry, the anger, the disappointment and the debasement of a manong who immigrated into the land of liberty is freed from the page to the flesh.
Often have I stood naked upon
An imaginary peak, surrounded
By decay, and felt, though I was
Brown, the overpowering sense
Desolation, my keeper
Hostility, my bread.
Being Filipino is an experience in contradiction. In the early twentieth century, America was promised to the Philippines as the land of the free, where liberty and justice are for all. Yet, for a manong who finds himself remembering the youthful lessons from his American teacher, the contradiction of lesson and reality is immediate and life altering. All the dreams of riches, success and glory vanish. America is only free if you are white or look white.
The poem "Blue in the Face" echoes a poem that in many ways encapsulated race relations in America. The poem is hilarious in its irony. The poem is deadly serious in its depiction of the racial divide of America.
I can tell you I am a man
Of some weight and a certain
Past, a brown man
Until I am blue in the face
And I can tell you what I am
Not, not black nor red
Not yellow and not certainly
I can tell you all this is true
Until I am blue in the face
I can tell you
Only the moon speaks to me
Only the sun listens
I can tell you
Until I am blue in the face
Only pigeons coo over me
Rats whisper in my ear
Telling me to sing even more
I, a St. Francis manque
Is this, that I can
Turn blue in the face
While remaining brown
Francia's "Blue in the Face" shows the exasperation of a manong and a generation of manongs with the racial divide in ingenious imagery.
I can tell you I have hurtled
Through circuses of towns under
The big beautiful American
Tent, defying the whistles, the desire to see
This body in a shotgun marriage with dirt
The shock of reading "a shotgun marriage with dirt" freezes the brain. Stops the mental process. Makes a person look away and think. Then, the realization slaps one back into the early 1900's. What Francia has is an uncommon gift of imagery that controls time with words.
Francia addresses religion, a great contradiction in Filipino life in "A Manong Complains, as the Star-Spangled Banner is Played".
Padre, my spirit has been
Sterilized, my slate clean, my text
Jittery with purpose but
Unhallowed by spark.
Padre, I demand my god to be dark,
Squat, thick-lipped, bright with
Garlicky speech and
To infect my tongue with divine
Blasphemy that I can charm hibiscus from my
Dead lover's hair far away and
Hear once again earth beneath me sing.
The double entendre of "padre" is poetic genius. If the word "padre" is taken to mean "priest", the poem is a confession of desires unfulfilled. If the word "padre" is taken to mean "friend," the poem becomes a declaration of independence from colonization. The poem is a treatise to freedom. Freedom to pursue life, sex, speech, and thought.
On a more personal note, during Lent, my siblings and I visited Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija where religious piety took the form of prayers to the stations of the cross and processions meandered through the streets in brilliant defiance of the night. The passage above brought me back to this time, to this place of my youth to remember that my image of god was that of a white man encased in glass. The town prayed to an aquiline nose, thin lips and brown hair.
How does a Filipino deal with life when he goes to work and sees the image of a god he prayed to as a child in the form of his coworkers? Perhaps this is one of the purest ways of describing dislocation. To see with your own eyes your god come to life, yet, to know with your mind that it is not a god. And to experience through interaction how far this person is from understanding the tenets of morality. For me, Francia is revelatory in allowing me to the freedom to trespass and demand that my God look like me.
But perhaps, god's true identity is revealed not in man, but in a dog? The poem "dogless in manhattan" asserts this point of view.
he looks at me now with
compassion, pats my
hand with his head,
tail motions all's Well
engulfing me in his love
I know beyond a seer's certainty
that he will die for me
The word play of "god" and "dog" has been around for a while. But Francia takes the topic to the metaphysical realm. For what are the virtues of a god that one can not find in a canine companion? All the anger, the pain, the love… canine companions have it all. Dogs even have the look of knowledge, the compassion in the eyes that see through man's struggle with existence and the meaning of it all.
The second section of the book deals with the human spirit. Francia's imagination takes the form of a dying man in Sarajevo, his grandparents, and a New Yorker after the collapse of the Twin Towers. More importantly, the section bares the great contradiction of human life. Out of the chaos, violence and death of war in the Philippines, a love between Agatona of Aringay and Henry of Philadelphia happens.
To the world, her pupil brown
Looked to have bowed before
his emerald eye, looked to have
Dropped her books to
Set up house, but this
Green text she took to school
Polishing his life's syntax
The rough grammar of a Yankee soul.
This is the miracle of human existence. That from chaos, there can be creation. From death, there is life. Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos were killed during the Philippine-American War. A century later, a Filipino living in New York recalls his grandparents meeting in the midst of a war. The story is hope. The story is timeless and eternal. But truth is so subtle that it can be mistaken or denied.
The third section of the book called MEDITATIONS grapples with some of the most fundamental questions of men: life, love, religion, and existence. In each of Francia's poems, he reveals his lifelong struggle to understand and balance the intellect and the emotions.
In perhaps the most revealing poem "#11", Francia bares his soul and the soul of many Filipinos:
I have known too many cathedrals
Known and worshipped in them.
I have heard too many bells,
rung them and rung them.
Cathedrals and bells – oh hell!
Why was I so eager for heaven
When I hardly knew earth?
With the backdrop of religion's role in the colonization of the Philippine Islands and its people, Francia shows what happens when a colonized mind wakes up. In seven lines, the effects of war, poverty, power and greed are revealed. Even in its simplicity, a Filipino immigrant can not help but flinch.
Rarely has a book of poetry attained such heights of passion, meaning and relevance to the world. To an immigrant, Museum of Absences prints into words his experiences. To a New Yorker, the book depicts the emptiness of war and the meaning of love. To an intellectual, the book is a challenge of understanding the double, triple entendres. To a human being, Museum of Absences highlights the elements which make man more than an animal.
Rhett V. Pascual is a poet, photographer and scientist. He documents the lives of Filipinos in America.