A Sinking Ship is Still a Ship/Un barco hundiéndose sigue siendo un barco, Ariel Francisco
translated by José Nicolás Cabrera-Schneider
Burrow Press, 2020
Looking outside, it’s -10 here in Winnipeg, late December, with lots of fresh snow on the ground. Despite the apparent normality of this, there’s an uneasiness in the air – having lived most of my life in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, having had the pleasure of dozens of bitter prairie winters, the past few years it feels like I regularly say, at the end of it, you know, that wasn’t so bad. It’s easy to dismiss memories of childhood winters being colder, where week after week the mercury sat, unmoving, somewhere below -20, but the data’s there: winters are warmer, on average, and more unpredictable in general. Worldwide, seventeen of the last eighteen warmest years on record have occurred since 2000. So just as decades of climate warnings have failed to provoke meaningful, large-scale action, the baseline for normal changes.
As we stare down a reckoning in the mid- to late-century, the physical and human landscape will be altered forever. And it’s against this realization that Ariel Francisco writes about Miami and south Florida, in A Sinking Ship is Still a Ship (Burrow Press, 2020). As in his debut collection, All My Heroes are Broke (C&R Press, 2017), Francisco vividly conjures his chosen settings. But whereas the poems of Heroes move in and out of New York City’s boroughs, the poems in A Sinking Ship start standing on the beach in Miami, and move inward before stopping to stare at the sea one last time.
“Ask the sea,” begins the epigraph by Li-Young Lee, and from the opening poem, “Vacaciones de primavera para siempre/Spring Break Forever”, Francisco argues that just as people built Miami into what it is, our actions will be responsible for breaking it apart:
the beaches more crowded
this year? Soon there will only be room
enough for people to stand side by side
facing the ocean’s onslaught like those
blindfolded before a firing squad…
Miami stretches out along the south coast of Florida in a precarious position: its average elevation is 2 metres above sea level, and as climate change melts polar ice and adds millimetres, then centimetres to the oceans, it will become harder to save the city from total submersion. Francisco was raised in Miami, completing his MFA at Florida International University. The child of Dominican and Guatemalan parents, he grew up speaking Spanish, and given the importance of the language and its speakers to Miami and south Florida, Cabrera-Schneider’s parallel translation of the poems is a welcome addition.
Francisco’s familiarity with the city is clear, the years of day to day life evident in the settings of the poems: in the parking lot of a tattoo parlour, the speaker waiting to get inked; reading Basho while gridlocked on the I-95; or eating a sad supper of “mismatched island food” at the 163rd St. mall after class, the speaker telling us that he never imagined this growing up, that he wanted to be the first man on Mars; and then, finding an empty table among the kiddie rides, he spies a rocket ship,
and for a moment I smile,
consider cramming my adult body
into that tiny command center,
knees to chest, elbows tucked,
let the rocking seize my imagination|
(from “Cenando solo en el centro comercial de la calle 163rd/Eating Dinner Alone at the 163rd Street Mall)
Throughout his published work,
Francisco has shown a love of classical Chinese and Japanese poetry – “Reading
Po Chu-I on My Balcony on a Cloudy Night” or “Reading Tu Fu in the Morning”
from All My Heroes are Broke, for example – and A Sinking Ship is
Still a Ship continues this tradition. Francisco’s speaker reads Basho and Li
Po, Francisco himself offering a number of haiku and haiku sequences, both the
originals and translations adhering strictly to the usual North American line
and syllable counts, though the subject matter is distinctly Floridian:
compré lo más que pude
de ron añejo.
bought the biggest bottle of
black rum I could find.
(from “Tres haikus antes del huracán Matthew/Three Haiku Before Hurricane Matthew”)
Francisco is at his strongest describing the human ecosystem of large cities: the way we make lives for ourselves while surrounded by millions of others, how we cope with our own expectations, with the humdrum, with outside pressures and catastrophes. His earlier poems feature New York City, but A Sinking Ship is Still a Ship is something different. Not just in setting, but tone; these are not just city-poems but love poems and elegies and farewells, and a sense of impermanence runs throughout the collection. The speaker’s mother asks him to buy her a house; when he says the city will be underwater in forty year’s time, she shoots back with, “that’s fine, I’ll be dead by then” (“Mi mama me trata de convencer que le compre un casa/My Mom Tries to Convince Me to Buy Her a House”); a hurricane barrels down and the speaker stares at a heartfelt text from his ex (“En la víspera del huracán más grande de la historia mi ex novia me dice que espera que yo no me muera, y, o sea, a mí qué me importa/On the Eve of the Largest Hurricane Ever Recorded My Ex Tells Me She Hopes I Don’t Die, and Like, Whatever”); and, after helping clear out some possessions and smoking a cigarette a dead friend had used as a bookmark, the speaker lets the feeling of the cigarette sit and burn,
smoldering an epitaph, coughing
up a eulogy against my will. How
far does someone’s light travel?
At what distance is this glowing
in my hand no longer visible?
(from “Fumando el cigarrillo de mi amigo muerto/Smoking a Dead Friend’s Cigarette”)
In this collection, Francisco, like Miami, starts with the sea and ends with it. “The sea holds its own / darkness”, he writes in the final poem (“El mar puede tolerar cualquier cosa – yo no/The Sea Can Stand Anything – I Can’t”), “I don’t need that sting to tell me / how easily I will be consumed”. But although the Miami of these poems is rarely glamorous, and its future all but certain, a doomed ecosystem is still an ecosystem. The people and places of these poems – the hustlers and everyday folk, the streets and beaches, malls and diners – come alive in Francisco’s hands. As he captures the living heart of the city, A Sinking Ship is Still a Ship becomes many things – an alarm about climate change, a record of the beautiful and everyday and weird in south Florida – but most of all, a farewell to the place he knew, the city he grew up in, aware that one day, the sea will rise to take it all away.
Julian Day lives in Winnipeg, where he works as a software developer. His debut chapbook, Late Summer Flowers, will be published by Anstruther Press in early 2021.