On Ariel Francisco’s ‘All My Heroes Are Broke’
Francisco’s poems necessitate a difficult balance between the reality of the working-class experience and the human drive to dream.
6” x 9”
Review Format: Electronic ARC
ISBN # 978–1–936196–75–3
Before reading any of Ariel Francisco’s poetry, I followed him on Twitter. His tweets, sent from the handle @AriCisco, are intelligent, humorous, and often despairingly relatable as he details the life of a poet seeking employment just after graduate school. From photos of his cat Basho posing with poetry collections to gifs illustrating the process of submitting his work to journals, it is evident right away that the author is one who is active in the literary community. This awareness of his craft and appreciation for his artistic influences also shows through in his poetry. In Francisco’s debut full-length collection, All My Heroes Are Broke, from C&R Press, the speaker is one who is constantly reading and reflecting on the work of his predecessors. As he moves from New York City in Part I to Florida in Part II, the speaker uses poetry and his experiences as a working class, first-generation American as a lens through which to paint a narrative of victories and struggles.
Way out on the jilted water:
the silhouette of a dream-sized woman standing
on a distant corner looks so familiar from this far away —
arm raised to hail a cab that will never come.
(“A View of the Statue of Liberty from the Brooklyn Bridge”)
The speaker’s knowledge of literary history and its influence on him is both implicit and explicit throughout the collection; the speaker often references other poets, writers, and even rap musicians by name, but the influence of these artists is evident in Francisco’s stylistic and formal choices, as well. For instance, “Reading Basho on the 2 Train” is written as a series of five-seven-five haiku, the rhythm one that reflects the flat, unaccented feel of Japanese poetry. As I am but a lowly prose writer, I have limited knowledge of poetic forms, but even I was able to see that the Basho poem sounds like Basho, “Reading Bukowski at Gramps Bar” sounds like Bukowski, and “Reading Lorca on Union Square” sounds like Lorca. Francisco is an uncharacteristically generous poet in that he makes a conscious effort to ensure the reader experiences a connection with and understanding of his work on a plane that is separate from the poet. While poetry might be an art form that lends itself, purposefully or not, to obscure references and stagnant navel-gazing, Francisco instead creates a speaker who is always moving in real space and not just in his own head.
What makes Francisco’s speaker so appealing is the way he views connection with poets the same as connection with real-life people in his life. In “Before Snowfall,” the speaker buys a beaten-up copy of Baudelaire, all in French, to mail to a girl back home; the girl never gets the book, and the speaker imagines a homeless man picking it out of a mail box while digging for Christmas cards with money in them. Instead of expressing anger at the loss of the book, the speaker imagines the homeless man opening the book, reading a line, and finding a small, fleeting bit of solace. The connection the speaker feels to Baudelaire is the same as the connection the speaker feels to the real girl and the potentially imaginary homeless man. For the speaker, poetry has blood and its own beating heart. Writers even appear as fully fleshed-out characters within the collection, their humanity just as emphasized as their work. In “Lights Out, Vagabond,” the speaker sees a mural of Jack Kerouac’s face on a wall outside a bar in Florida and imagines him wandering through the city. Francisco describes Kerouac with such tenderness and understanding that it almost made me rethink my intense hatred of Kerouac.
Of patience, I know only
what sea turtles have taught me:
how they are born on lightless
beaches so the moon can serve
as a beacon to lure them
into the water; how they spend
their whole lives trying to swim
towards it, enamored, obsessed; […]
(“Meditation on Patience”)
The emotional and tonal range of the book is notable. Loneliness, sadness, anger, joy, and irreverence all appear in many different forms all within fewer than a hundred pages. My favorite aspect of this collection is that so many of the poems have a kernel of humor embedded within them. In “Thinking I See My Cousin Bussing Tables at an Uptown Restaurant,” the speaker details just that: being uncertain as to whether or not the busboy is his cousin, who always had a hot temper. The speaker doesn’t leave a tip in hopes that, if the busboy is his cousin, he’ll be so angry he’ll follow the speaker out to the street and confront him. Often in the collection, this dry humor is tucked between moments of despair. In my favorite poem of the collection, “O Christmas Tree,” the speaker, who is poor, works at Home Depot during the holiday season. He contrasts the physically exhausting labor with the entitlement of families who pick a tree, wait until he’s almost done netting it, and then decide they want a different one instead. In a burst of bitter imagination, the speaker describes wanting to light all the trees on fire, burning Home Depot to the ground as a Christmas present for himself. It is a poem that addresses the seeming hopelessness of poverty in conjunction with the over-the-top and understandable fantasy of physically destroying one’s job location. In the literary community, where many published writers also make a living as professors and academicians, the voice of the working class is often lost. Francisco’s speaker never lets the reader forget that he is, has been, poor, and that he is still a full, vibrant person.
I sit at the end of the bar
so there’s only ever one
empty seat next to me —
in this way I limit possibilities
and think it control. Everything
(“Having a Rum and Coke Alone”)
Along with poetry and poverty, another facet of the speaker’s identity is his status as a first-generation American. Through narrative-driven poems, we are introduced to the speaker’s family. In “My Dad’s Gun,” the speaker recounts the story of his father being jumped by muggers one night who let him go once they notice his “Caribbean curls” and identify with him. After the incident, the speaker’s father buys a gun which only causes him anxiety about being noticed by authorities and getting deported as a result. In “Transients Welcome,” the speaker addresses his grandfather directly and describes him arriving in the United States and looking for work. The immigrant statuses of the speaker’s father and grandfather, compounded with New York City as the setting of Part I, create the sense that, even implicitly, the speaker is commenting on, and against, the difficulty of “the American dream.”
The stars howl their light into the ether, try to reach
each other. They only look close together
from this great distance. The record ends
and I let it spin on, static filling the room like smoke,
the soundtrack of this hollowness.
(“When Everyone Leaves for Other Planets I Will Stay in the Abandoned City Drinking a Last Glass of Beer”)
Location is another important facet of the experience the speaker conveys to the reader. Part I takes place in New York City amidst many culturally significant icons that hold implicit meaning for any American, first generation or otherwise. Part II takes place in the fever-dream that is Florida, an environment which boasts new images and wildlife, from jellyfish to sea turtles. Both regions are beautiful and disheartening in their own unique ways. In “Even in New York, I Long for New York,” the speaker visits a neighborhood in the Bronx in search of the apartment building his family used to live in only to find that the whole block is now unfamiliar condominiums. In “Pissing on the Lawn of a Foreclosed Home,” the speaker, stumbling home after drinking, pauses to urinate on the white Foreclosed sign in front of the house while a chorus of Florida frogs sing at the moon. Francisco consistently uses the imagery of the place to support or, more often, conflict with the thematic elements of his poetry. For the speaker, a man who spends much of the collection living in poverty, there is no place that really seems to feel and function as “home.”
I do my best to get every drop onto
the ugly white sign but fail miserably.
That gold coin of a moon appears, fat
and disapproving, and I think maybe
the frogs are crying for someone else.
(“Pissing on the Lawn of a Foreclosed Home”)
For me as a reader, the best part about Francisco’s work is the accessibility for the reader, even one who isn’t that familiar with poetry. His speaker is one without airs, whose very existence depends on practicality and persistence, a sensibility that is reflected in each of the poems via their straightforward tone and economy of language. This is not to say that there is no artistry or imagination in the work — quite the opposite. Instead, the poems necessitate a difficult balance between grounding oneself in the oppressive reality of the working-class experience and the human drive to dare and to dream.