All My Heroes Are Broke by Ariel Francisco C&R Press, 84 pages, September 15, 2017

All My Heroes Are Broke

by Ariel Francisco

C&R Press, 84 pages, September 15, 2017

 

by brian fanelli

Ariel Francisco’s second full-length collection, All My Heroes Are Broke, is a love letter to his family, his birth place of New York City, and the wide-ranging poets that have influenced him, including James Wright, Tu Fu, John Keats, Basho, among others. The collection gives tribute to the working-class and the immigrant, while incorporating the poet’s family history and combining an urban landscape with flashes of the natural world.

The book is split into two sections. The first primarily focuses on New York, and the second shifts to Miami. In an interview with Full Stop last year, Francisco expressed his fondness for New York, especially since it contains so much of his family history. He says, “It’s where my parents met and where they immigrated to, along with most of their family. So there’s a lot of family history there for me. Because of that, I have weird nostalgia for NYC. I think about it more as my homeland than hometown if that makes sense.” He adds that he often felt stuck after moving to Florida and didn’t have the chance to travel until he finished his undergraduate studies.

The first section illustrates Francisco’s ability to blend urban settings and the natural world. For the most part, the poems that do this are lyric poems that mimic James Wright, and, at times, Basho. “Tulips in Winter” reads:

 

Unblossomed on a windowsill,

white heads bowed in surrender:

ghosts that tremble in the wake

of wrecking balls, that haunt

men in hardhats until the walls

crumble into the dirty slush.

Where are the hands that placed

them on that ledge, waiting

for them to burst open? Soon,

it will all melt into spring—

that is, it will be forgotten.

 

Here, the attention is on the image, and Francisco juxtaposes the unblossomed tulips sitting on a windowsill with the image of wrecking balls and men in hardhats. In the tradition of most lyric poetry, “Winter Tulips” ends with an epiphany, in this case the fact that the buildings and flowers will be forgotten once the season turns to spring.

The idea of ghosts and a changing landscape occurs in another NYC-based poem, “Even in New York, I Long for New York.” Rooted in personal memory and set in the Bronx, the poem is primarily narrative in form and blends personal history with the sweeping changes that have occurred in the city over the last few decades. It begins with the speaker wandering “the night-streets” of the Bronx, searching for his first home, an apartment “three stories above the crooked pavement,/spitting distance of Yankee Stadium.” The speaker recounts how his family fled the neighborhood, due to coke dealers overtaking the block, before shifting to images of “arms of cranes and curved steels of beam” rising from the ground, looming over the cityscape.  The speaker wonders if his old childhood apartment even exists anymore, or if it’s been knocked down, like the buildings in the poem “Winter Tulips.” Baseball is prominent in the poem, something that made him feel part of the American fabric. He recalls sitting on the fire escape, listening to Yankee games and dreaming of home runs. The poem ends, however, with acknowledgement that Yankee Stadium, “this landmark, this birthmark,” has been torn down and shifted, “resurrected across the street.” The old stadium is a park, disconnected from his childhood.

The NYC-based poems also connect to the broader immigrant narrative that is part of the poet’s family history. Francisco is the son of Dominican and Guatemalan parents. In the context of the government shutdown over the fate of the DREAMers, the immigrant/family history poems are some of the most moving. “My Dad’s Gun” uses the image of a gun to tell a story about the speaker’s father and some of the racial profiling he endured. The poem opens with the speaker finding the gun as a kid, collecting dust behind his father’s framed diploma. The father explains he purchased the gun after two men jumped out of an alley, shoved one in his face, and demanded he empty his pockets. But when the men noticed the father’s “Caribbean curls” and “dark goosebumped skin,” they let him go and gave him a pat on the shoulder. It wasn’t the terror in his eyes that they recognized, but rather, his appearance, thus assuming that he was one of them. Before they let him go, one of them says, “oh, sorry papo.” Their profiling ultimately saves him and is a contrast to what occurs later. The poem then shifts to the father in a “full suit,” “blue pants and jacket, white shirt,” attending City College, “trying to reflect the success he knew was possible.” The end of the poem tells one more story, an incident when the father was on the train and witnessed five men rush into the car, one of them holding something under his jacket. The men were arrested, and the father faced a glance of suspicion from one of the officers:

 

…My dad

smiled back and bolted off the train,

thinking of deportation, or worse,

 

sprinting the few extra blocks home

in the cold, under streetlights casting

their long fingered shadows.

 

The poem’s form, unrhymed tercets that build to a two-page narrative, is impressive for the way that it handles time seamlessly. Perhaps more importantly, it humanizes the speaker’s father, especially his fears of deportation.

In “Transients Welcome,” the speaker imagines what it would have been like for his grandfather to first wander the foreign streets of NYC, seeking a better life and employment:

 

I walk down though Manhattan

from the Bronx, tracing the path

you must have taken in the hunt

for your first job in America,

some hotel on Park Avenue

you could never afford to stay in.



As the speaker moves from neighborhood to neighborhood, the reader is able to envision what it must have been like for the grandfather to first encounter the strange and unusual city, with its array of clothing shops, cafes, and donut shops.

Other poems are rooted in the class struggle. “O Christmas Tree” spins a narrative about the speaker working at a Home Depot in north Miami, unloading Fraser Firs and Douglass trees from flatbeds. The speaker recounts working in 20-degree temperatures that winter, feeling sap stick to his jeans, hoodies, and gloves, irked at customers who pointed to a tree all the way in the back of the truck. The poem ends with the speaker quitting the job one night, but not before imagining lighting all of the trees on fire:

 

I’d wish them all Merry fucking Christmas

as the fire jumps to the store front

and say this blaze is my gift

to myself—the only one I could afford.

 

All My Heroes Are Broke is a collection that sings of the working-class, the newly-American, and changing America. The figures and speakers in Francisco's poetry make this America rich and thriving.

 

Brian Fanelli’s most recent book is Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books), winner of the Devil’s Kitchen Poetry Prize. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles TimesWorld Literature TodayThe Paterson Literary Review, and elsewhere. Currently, he teaches at Lackawanna College and blogs at www.brianfanelli.com.