Museum of Absences by Luis H. Francia
(Meritage Press, St. Helena & San Francisco and University of the Philippines Press, Manila, 2003)
Luis H. Francia's Museum of Absences is about unveiling silence. In three sections, “Dis/appearances,” “Zero Ground,” and “Meditations,” Francia discusses everything that we don't, in a way that makes us wish we did. His poems are conventionally structured; however, the structure of the collection is not, forcing us to rethink the way we read. A metaphorical museum, the collection spirals: a labyrinthian structure in which the stakes of each poem increase, one room to the next.
The first section, "Dis/appearances," contains an assortment of poems that invoke feelings of angst, as if Francia is vehemently trying to break the silence forced on him by Catholicism and his brownness. Francia draws on the significance of simple things, telling the stories of subjects like snails, seven train passengers, and his dog. Entrenched in all of their stories are narratives of exile, resistance, and survival, and in his telling, they are immortalized and celebrated.
Most poems in the second section, "Zero Ground," are set in post-9/11 Manhattan. Francia intersperses images from the disaster of 9/11 with religious language throughout poems that discuss loss, with feelings of nostalgia and silence seeping through the surfaces. In “New York Mythologies,” which is “for the undocumented victims of the Twin Towers collapse,” Francia writes:
Manahatta, you whom no one can own
In the days that whisper of the past
in nights without history
Our bodies are your capital
Our lives and deaths your new mythologies.
In this as well as many other pieces in the collection, Francia plays with perspective, illuminating the experiences of people whose existences are often pushed to the background, relegated to supporting roles of “black livery driver, brown Bodega man, Muslim mother and householder.
It is also in this section that the centerpiece poem of the collection, "September 11, 2001", appears, approximately two-thirds of the way through the book:
In this poem that serves as my
Flag, my memorial, chalice and
Crescent of my religion, are the
Faces of which each loved and was loved,
Are the voices of the unutterable,
Are the alphabets we mourn and from which we
Form the language and lesson for the living.
Muslim and Jew, Christian and Hindu,
Buddhist, agnostic, atheist--
All have gone but are not lost.
In each of their deaths we live.
In every one of our lives, they are born.
This poem epitomizes the intent behind the rest of the collection: to commemorate the dead and the silent, through living and writing self-consciously. As a result of this piece, we must--as Francia does--resituate the poems that appear prior to it. It is with the same distance with which we are able to read with greater clarity the earlier poems in the collection that we are also able to understand the events of 9/11, as he demonstrates. Each piece is a moment in space and time.
In the last section, “Meditations,” there is a distinct shift in tone. While the poems in “Dis/appearances” ooze anger and resentment, and the ones in “Zero Ground” are mournful, the poems in “Meditations” are draped in a somber hopefulness. Francia's tone resembles that of a slow-healing broken heart. The penultimate poem, “#13: Regrets” speaks plainly:
Have I done what the
No, I have buried it
Have I ever rode
Love at full gallop?
No, I have traded a horse
For a mule.
“Meditations” is Francia's way of re-examining himself and re-imagining the world. The collection ends with "Password for a Hybrid Century," his final gesture at celebrating "the world...full of speech unheralded."
Francia breathes life into death and absence in "Museum." He creates spaces for the barely-existant and, thankfully, the intangible. Using language as a way to honor these things, Francia writes—and loves—fervently. As we read, it feels like shedding layers of skin, each softer and more supple than the last. And, by the last poem, we reach with Francia a rich, delicate, center. We are visitors on a moonlit tour.
Monna Wong is a student at Macalester College.