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“All I know is I don’t want to die here": Ariel Francisco’s A Sinking Ship is Still a Ship



The parallel translation edition of Ariel Francisco’s A Sinking Ship is Still a Ship is part sentimental celebration of renowned poets, part misanthropic criticism of a city and a nation gone askew. In these keenly melancholic observances depicting sleepless nights, alligator crossings, and potential UFO sightings, A Sinking Ship is Still a Ship bears the punk rock attitude and rebelliousness of Johannes Goransson’s The Sugar Book and the philosophical insight and meditative reflection of Li Po. With a confident sense of selfhood and gritty, Baudelaire-like awareness of the influence environment holds on one’s filter of the world, poems’ narrator walks readers through their world, pointing out the less obvious, often more depressing, sides of life. The collection invokes Floridian legends like Jack Kerouac in quaint portrayals as simple humans, longing for both personal and universal peace. The Kerouac portrayed in the poem “Jack Kerouac in Florida, 1957” is resolved to die but is also content—“but tonight, you have your small / notebook on the porch, maybe the radio / tuned to local jazz or the play-by-play.” Here, a poet whose biography possesses folklore-like retellings, becomes human and real, like a neighbor one might see standing on a back porch observing the sunset rather than the superhuman writer of the literary pantheon. 

The humanity displayed in poems like “Jack Kerouac in Florida, 1957” juxtaposes the misanthropy-laden “Don’t Ever Come to Florida,” which opens with a two-finger salute at the explorers of history who took it upon themselves to tame the untamable: “Think of Ponce de Leon, that idiot.” The narrator describes Florida as “this great / rotting flower,” which makes Florida in its entirety seem like the equivalent of the corpse flower endemic to Sumatra. An allusion to Kerouac—“Kerouac vomiting blood up / in St. Petersburg after a pre-noon / malt liquor and whiskey”—reinforces the death imagery, the idea that Florida is a place where people venture to in order to die, a concept further solidified by the allusion to Hart Crane’s suicide: “…or Hart Crane / off the coast in the Gulf, leaning / on the rail of a boat before he jumped.” The narrator continues the criticism, ending the poem with the horrific image of Al Capone “his syphilized brain, pocked / with holes like the limestone skeleton / of this state slowly filling with water,” and here the collection grows into a unique critique of the consequences that climate change has not only on fragile environments, but every environment.

That unique critique then gives way to more personal observances about the harmful effects and influences that place can have on the self. For those insights, readers might turn to the poems “Stillwater/ Still Water” and “Thinking I See a UFO Over the Everglades.” “Stillwater/ Still Water” opens with a defiant declaration of survivalism: “I’ve outlasted more gray skies / in this life than I care to count / and I will survive many more—.” A quiet resolve develops, nonetheless, as the narrator observes “It’s the blue that / kills me, the emptiness left / behind after such rain.” In the subsequent lines, the repetition of the phrase “float on” twice in line 7 and the hard D-sounds emanated by the words “drops” and “desist” combined in a single phrase in line 8 fortify the narrator’s resolve, and the poem ends with two lines that convey surrender—”that familiar stillness surrounds / me and tells me its over.” In “Thinking I See a UFO Over the Everglades,” this surrender to circumstances and place that cannot be changed then continue. The poem’s opening image of the narrator “driving cross-state through Alligator Alley / heading home from a mistake—this late” bears a sense of doom created by associations made with the word “Alligator” and the word “mistake.” The poem continues, its middle lines bearing a hopefulness that most of the poems in the collection cannot claim: “a meteor wearing itself out into nothing/ in the heat of atmosphere, shooting star / come loose from Earth’s childhood ceiling.” However, the narrator’s cynical resolve returns in the poem’s final lines: “…I’m not saying / I believe, I’m just saying my urge to leave / this watered place has never been stronger.” Similarly to the final lines of “Don’t Ever Come to Florida,”  the poem ends with an acknowledgement, a warning, and most of all, a desire.

A Sinking Ship is Still a Ship eloquently ends with the poem “The Sea Can Stand Anything—I Can’t,” a poem that celebrates James Wright in its epigraph. With this poem, the collection completes its circle of uniting sentimental celebrations of poets with its keen and quick criticisms of place. In the “The Sea Can Stand Anything—I Can’t,” the collection’s dismal tones also come full circle, as does the narrator’s resolve. Lines like “I hold my own breath / when no one else will, dip my head / below the water, close my eyes” form the image of baptism and one of drowning. The narrator continues: “I don’t need that sting to tell me / how easily I will be consumed, how / little of the ocean I can hold in / my own body before it darkens.” These lines communicate dread and acknowledgement. Within this ending, too, exists a recognition that unless the narrator escapes Florida, they, like the “watered place” in “Thinking I See a UFO Over the Everglades” and the landscape portrayed in the final lines of “Don’t Ever Come to Florida,” will ultimately be consumed, drowned, made nonexistent.

For readers seeking a philosophical collection contemplating mortality of person and of place, A Sinking Ship is Still a Ship is a must-read. This book tears apart preconceived notions of person and place, and with its misanthropic tones and observances, it forces readers to reconsider the mainstream, consumerist images of a place glorified and exploited at the expense of its resources and its people. More importantly, Francisco’s writing proves that to be a poet, one must celebrate poet in all ways, but most importantly, by celebrating those who came before not for the legends surrounding their existences, but for the humanness involved in merely existing.

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