Saturday, July 22, 2017

Review of Ariel Francisco's Before Snowfall, After Rain

Before Snowfall, After Rain

by Ariel Francisco

Glass Poetry Press, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-9975805-0-1
23 pages

The following bio was found on the poet's website:

Ariel Francisco is the author of All My Heroes Are Broke (C&R Press, 2017) and  Before Snowfall, After Rain (Glass Poetry Press, 2016). Born in the Bronx to Dominican and Guatemalan parents, he was raised in Miami and completed his MFA at Florida International University.

Ariel Francisco is a first generation American poet of Dominican and Guatemalan descent. He is currently completing his MFA at Florida International University where he is the editor-in-chief of Gulf Stream Literary Magazine and also the winner of an Academy of American Poets Prize. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Tupelo Quarterly, Washington Square, and elsewhere.

I've never met Ariel Francisco. When poet friend, Kate Fadick's chapbook, Self-Portrait as Hildegard of Bingen, became available for preorder from Glass Poetry Press, I learned that Editor Anthony Frame was offering a purchase deal on all the chapbooks he would publish in the first series, so I subscribed, and discovered Francisco's poetry in that Glass Poetry series. Karen L. George

You can read an interview with Ariel Francisco here.

Review of Ariel Francisco's Before Snowfall, After Rain

The poems of Ariel Francisco's Before Snowfall, After Rain are poems of place: New York, Miami, historic landmarks, bars, bridges, rivers, lakes. They are poems of motion and journeys in cars, buses, trains, planes, and boats, as well as metaphorical journeys. And they are meditations on memory and imagination, being lost and found, having a home and being homeless, connection and disconnection, of all the yearning and fragility involved in being human.  
The chapbook's title, Before Snowfall, After Rain, is taken from the title of the first poem, "Before Snowfall" and the last poem, "Self Portrait with Moths After Rain," which leans us toward one of the repeated images that works thematically throughout this book—that of transition and transformation—of the periods before and after.

The poem "Before Snowfall" begins with an epigraph by poet Jack Gilbert, "French has no word for home," which introduces us to several other repeated themes of the book—the importance of home and/or place and connection. The poem takes place near Washington Square Park, a public meeting place in New York, where the poem's narrator buys what he describes as an "orphaned book" of Baudelaire. The first line "I found Baudelaire on a street corner," sets up the contrast between the images of lost and found repeated throughout the book. The narrator mails the book to a "girl back home," but "She never got the book...and we never spoke again." He figures it must have gotten "lost in the dead letter office." But the narrator says that every year he imagines a homeless man rummaged through the mail box and found the book and his note saying "tell me, is the snow coming down / on you too?"  The poem ends as follows:
            ...And I imagine him looking up,

            his gaze tracing the skyline until it reaches
            the grey horizon, thinking of all the nowheres
            to go to lay his head down tonight,

            saying out loud:
            Not yet my friend. Thank goodness,
            not yet.

There is such tenderness in this imagined connection between the poem's narrator and the imagined homeless man, as well as a sense of sadness and longing in the lost connection to the friend back home, and how the narrator also says that the lost book reminds him every year "of what is lost." That simple phrase "what is lost" contains a powerful, haunting emotional impact.

In the second poem, "A View of the Statue of Liberty from the Brooklyn Bridge," the narrator talks about the bridge being filled with lovers' locks "inscribed with names in marker or lipstick." He continues:

            Their keys sunken to the bottom of the East River,
            combinations lost in the brackish waters of memory.

The above image contrasts the image of the lovers connected via these locks. The phrase "combinations lost" suggests that the lovers may no longer be lovers, same as the way he describes the bridge as "already heavy with rust." The poem ends with the narrator seeing the Statue of Liberty as "a dream-sized woman standing / ...arm raised to hail a cab that will never come." Again, an intense sense of longing is created through the poem's imagery.

One of the things I like best about Francisco's chapbook is the way each poem works on its own, and yet is part of a connected network of repeated imagery and ideas.  For example the third poem, "Reading Lorca at Union Square," references another French poet, Lorca, and "a man in a black trenchcoat," same as the way he described the seller of the locks in the previous poem. And same as the Statue of Liberty in the previous poem looks as if she is hailing a cab, this trenchcoat man is literally hailing a cab.  Snowflakes occur again in this poem. Water in all its forms (snow, ice, frost, rain, flood) appear in this chapbook, emphasizing the repeated themes of transition and transformation. The poem ends with the following stunning lines describing the man in the black trenchcoat:
            ...snowflakes settling into his
            slick back hair like nesting sparrows
            seeking safety, the sky crying its apologies.

This beautiful image of the "nesting sparrows / seeking safety" echoes the homeless man in the first poem. The sense of yearning in this poem is further strengthened in the repeated vowel sounds in the last line above.

The poem "Nighthawks of the 24-Hour Donut Shops" continues with the idea of people lost and/or alone in one way or another—those who need shelter. The "Nighthawks" in the poem's title references Edward Hopper's 1942 painting titled "Nighthawks," that depicts people in a similar diner.  Francisco describes the donut shop's patrons as "wanderers/ looking to escape the cold, or thrown-out / drunks trying to keep the night-talk alive." 

Literary references are another motif that connects these poems. In "Jay Gatsby on Karaoke Night," there is a drunk man who "sits in the corner of a windowless bar" who keeps calling the bartender "old sport" and who, when he gets on stage, only sings the song's "bridge over and over again...There is a light that never goes out," which alludes to the green light that Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby sees at the end of Daisy's dock. That green light represented the hope of Daisy that Jay doesn't want to give up, and the reader gets the idea that the Jay Gatsby of this poem has an unrealized dream he likewise refuses to give up, to his own detriment. That image of a light that never goes out also echoes the previous poem's "red blazing 'O' in the window, a beacon" of the 24-hour donut shop.

The poem "Meditation on Happiness" uses the image of a joyful bus driver at the end of the day, done with his shift, "his display / glowing a single gleeful / orange word: GARAGE."  This glowing word represents hope and happiness that the other poems touch on, in much the same way as the "red blazing 'O' in the window of the 24-houer donut shop, and the song about the "light that never goes out."  This poem also contains a repeated image of motion, transportation, and journeys that speaks to the course of our lives as humans.

In "Reading James Wright on the L Train" the narrator tells of a stranger vomiting on the crowded train.  The narrator had been reading the poetry of James Wright to himself, but he tells us he walks to the other end of the car, to a "now vacant bench," and "Beneath a sun-marred window blossoming / with jewels of frost, I begin to read aloud."  The other passengers retreat to adjacent compartments, covering their noses with scarves. But apparently the narrator is still in the same compartment, and there is such tenderness and compassion in the image of him reading aloud, as if trying to offer whatever comfort he has, even if at a distance, to the sick man.  The narrator doesn't judge that man or even suggest whether the man's drunk or motion-sick. As a fellow poet and lover of James Wright's poetry, I can't help but be nourished by this image of a train rider reading Wright's poetry aloud. The poem is also strengthened by the effective contrast between the man being sick and the beautiful image of the window "blossoming with jewels of frost"another image of transformation.

The poem "Silence over the Snowy Fields" with an epigraph "for Robert Bly," references Bly's collection of poems titled Silence in the Snowy Fields.  The poem takes place on an airplane as the narrator looks out the window.  He tells us:  "a harbor / bites into the mainland like a great blue dragon," and continues:

            Heavy whiteness douses the landscape, forces
            it to forget what it looks like, what it is, like
            a mind that fails to recognize itself...

Echoing previous poems, again we have this image of snow as transformation and/or change: "the echoing nothingness of erasure," as well as a sense of loss as is seen in the images of the above three lines.

There is a longer poem (over 3 pages) at the center of the chapbook, titled "Driving Past Lake Tohopekaliga," in which the narrator visits his father who still lives in Florida near the lake in the poem's title. The narrator delves into memories of riding with his father driving the car, and stopping to move turtles safely across the road so they wouldn't get hit. The poem begins with a dreamy, lyrical line: "Tilted trees suffer dusk" that is perfect to lead us into this poem of reminiscence. He describes the species of turtles in the following lines:

            alligator snappers with their giant
            beartrap jaws and huge heads,
            too big to withdraw into their shells;

            map turtles whose namesake comes
            from markings along their bodies
            that resemble contour lines;

            red-ear sliders, named for the woundlike
            markings on their faces,
            streaks of feverish evening light.

The poem reveals that this time of moving the turtles "was so many years ago, / before the divorce, before my family / entered the new millennium in splinters." The narrator says his dad "still lives in the same house we left." This image of leaving the home he grew up in, before the divorce, echoes the themes of having a home vs. being homeless or lost, as well as the repeated images of connection and disconnection. The idea of life's changes and transformations also reappears in this poem, as seen in the following lines about rescue and release:

            There's a buddhist ritual
            that involves buying turtles
            at food markets, turtles destined

            for soup, and setting them free
            an unselfish act meant
            to accrue good karma,

The narrator goes on to reveal what he doesn't know about his father, creating a sense of questioning and intense yearning, perhaps for a time when he still lived with his father, or a desire to be more deeply connected to his father:

            I don't think he knows
            about the ritual. I don't know
            that he thinks much about karma,

            I don't know if he knows
            the name of the lake just south
            of his home is Tohopekaliga,

            which is a word in a language
            older than any turtle he's ever found
            and returned safely to that shore,

            a word that translates
            to something like a promise:
            we will gather here together.

The fact that the poet places this poem at the time of dusk also reinforces the idea of change and transition. 

The poem "Reading Bukowski at Gramps Bar" speaks to connections between strangers and the fragility and vulnerability of human beings. There is such yearning in the haunting ending, where he says there is a blonde "eyeing" him "with her bluebird eyes," and continues:

            and I'm tempted to smash the little lamp
            over my own head, scoop up the glass
            pieces in quivering hands, and offer
            them to her as the shards of my heart.

In the above lines, the lamp again echoes the many images of light threaded through these poems.

"Post Hurricane Miami" opens with a striking image of vulnerability and fragility in a violent world, in which the city has been reduced to shapes and sounds, such as "wind chimes hanging from the doorframe, / silent now in the aftermath like the hollow / bones of birds they so resemble." The streets are flooded, power lines downed, and transformers ruptured, yet the narrator presents hope through the image of light:

            Even dead stars give us their light.
            One twinkles occasionally and I recall
            looking up at the sky through the window
            of my childhood room, catching the shimmer
            and making a wish...

The poem ends with the narrator seeing another kind of light, candles lit in a fortune teller's window, and he makes a connection with a stranger, wanting his fortune read, even if he has nothing to pay.

The poem "American Night, American Morning" opens with the narrator's insomnia, and an image of connection:

            When I can't sleep I go
            up to the rooftop
            of my apartment building

            and watch the man who sleeps
            on the bus stop bench
            across the street, brown by birth
            or sun. I want to ask him
            How do you do it?

The ending poem, "Self Portrait with Moths After Rain," contains the "After Rain" part of the chapbook's title, creating a satisfying sense of having come full circle, of completing the ideas and images examined throughout.  The poem is only three lines:

            Moths stumble through dusk, descending
            towards the glow of a glimmering lamppost
            mirrored in the water of a rain-filled pothole.

Again the poem takes place at dusk, a time of transition and transformation. The narrator speaks of the change that has taken place because of the rain, echoing the various states of water seen in many of the previous poems. What a beautiful image of contrast, likeness, and hope in the image of the lamppost reflected in the water of a "rain-filled pothole." The narrator suggests with the poem's title that he, like the moths, stumbles through times of change and darkness, but that he is descending towards the lightan intriguing dual image, because we normally think of ascending towards the light, as represented by the "glimmering lamppost," but in this instance, the moths are heading for the mirror image in the water, rather than the actual lamppost. I saw this poem as a closing mediation on the dualities of life.

The poems in Ariel Francisco's Before Snowfall, After Rain pull me in with their emotional intensity and haunting imagery. They pulse with the tensions and rhythms of our lives as humans: how we change and stay the same, how we connect and disconnect, how we hope and despair. Franciso's attention to detail and his sense of intimacy, compassion, reverence and vulnerability make these poems ones you'll come back to again and again.      

Karen George retired from computer programming to write full-time. She lives in Florence, Kentucky, and enjoys photography and traveling to historic river towns, mountains, and Europe. She is author of the poetry collection Swim Your Way Back (Dos Madres Press, 2014), and five chapbooks, most recently Into the Fire (Blue Lyra Press, 2016) and the collaborative  Frame and Mount the Sky  (Finishing Line Press, 2017). You can find her work in Rogue Agent, Blue Fifth Review, Heron Tree, The Ekphrastic Review, and America. She holds an MFA from Spalding University, and is co-founder and fiction editor of the journal, Waypoints. Visit her website:

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