Luis H. Francia
University of the Philippines Press
Quezon City, 2021
Passionate, idiosyncratic, inventive and playful, the poems in Luis H. Francia’s fourth collection of poetry, Thorn Grass, reveal a mature poet using all the tools of the poetic idiom to illuminate the complexity and absurdity of the human condition.
In addition to poetry, Francia is a playwright, nonfiction writer and has edited, among other books, a Twentieth Century Anthology of Philippine Literature published by Rutgers University Press. He has won numerous awards for his work and has taught at Yale, the Iowa Writers Program, and City University of Hong Kong. He currently lives in Queens, New York.
Thorn Grass is divided into four sections: City States, Peregrinations, Transcripts, and Citizen Acts. Filled with insightful, sometimes humorous but also deadly serious poems, his book ranges over a variety of subjects, from inner-city violence in Manila, stories from the bible, and the repressive war on drugs in the Philippines. He often employs rhyme (slant rhyme and half rhyme) but it is never doggerel and he does it so skillfully (rhymes often buried in the line) that it is like bells going off throughout the book. In his playful, eccentric style he is fond of clever turns of phrase and word play.
“To look a storm in the eye
Will be a piece of park
A cake in the walk.”
Yet in this quirky, comic language the poems often carry serious messages as in “C’est la vie”:
“The thought of dying was always with
He was the thought
and the thought was he
and the only time he
thought of living was when he was dying.”
He often ends his poems with a kind of aphorism:
“You can never step into the same self twice.”
Every writer will love the list of insults the poet hurls at arrogant editors in “Ode to Odious Editors”:
“You rat bite foul buttock
Chickenwing, bat gizzard
Snailpuke, platypus’s bronchial wart!
In these one-hundred eight pages of dazzling language, Luis H. Francia is a verbal acrobat doing tricks, splits, and cartwheels on the high wire of poetry. Some of these poems might almost be called light-verse, and I don’t mean that pejoratively (John Updike wrote wonderful light-verse). Contemporary American poetry, with few exceptions, is so devoid of humor it takes a poet like Francia to lighten up the oppressive mood. With his humor he manages to burst the bubble of our pieties and hypocrisy as well as examine some very dark corners of the contemporary world.
In the section entitled “Peregrinations” the poems are all written from different countries:
“Manila, Madrid, Manhattan,
Hong Kong are just around
The corner but the
Woman at the next table is
A million miles away.”
Anyone who has dealt with the changing schedules and switching track lines of the New York City subway system will enjoy “Underground in New York on Easter Weekend”.
“Today R turned into E while F changed into D.
About the One, the Two or the Three
Someone has done a one, two, three.
No one said anything…
Deep beneath the city, the A
Suddenly appeared on the local.
Nowhere seen was the C.
Was that the B running (roughshod it
Would seem) over the G…?
But not all of his poems are this light-hearted. “Leon Lean in the Lane” borrows its rhythm from Mother Goose while relating the story of an inner-city youth being pursued by dogs and guns (and dogs with guns) that were parts of the brutal war on drugs waged by Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte. (According to some sources, in Duterte’s first 6 months in office over 6,000 people were killed) The combination lighthearted meter and rhyme with very weighty content makes Luis Francia’s poetry unique. However, in “Frater Noster”, another poem directed at Duterte all joking is put aside:
“When did you, my brother,
Become my bludgeon?
Was my face not yours?
This dark skin not our skin?
These hands not our hands?
“My brother, my brother,
You were never my keeper.
Sacred once was your name.
But when did you, Cain,
Become my killer?”
This is a wide-ranging book of poems by an erudite poet with the confidence to speak harsh truths while also making us laugh.
Mérida, Yucatán, México
Luis H. Francia’s poetry books include Tattered Boat, The Beauty of Ghosts, and Museum of Absences. He is a Palanca Prize winner in poetry, the Philippines’ most prestigious literary awards body. A new collection, Thorn Grass, will be published by the University of the Philippines Press this year. His memoir, Eye of the Fish: A Personal Archipelago won both the 2002 New York’s PEN Open Book and the Asian American Writers literary awards. In 2016, his RE: Reviews, Recollections, Reflections (2015), was awarded Manila’s National Book Award for Best Essays in English. He is included in the Library of America’s Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing.
Jonathan Harrington has published twenty books including poetry, novels, essays and translations. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop he has lived in Mexico for over twenty years. His latest book of poems is called Lift Up the Stone: The Gospel According to Jonathan (bilingual English/Spanish).