Reviewer: Shawn Pavey
George Franklin’s exquisite Remote Cities is, as John Burt expertly points out on his back-cover blurb, a collection of “poems for grown-ups.” These mature, honed, expertly crafted poems display for the reader Franklin’s current existence in Miami and his memories of travel. His unflinching imagery and poet’s love for the world vibrate off the page as he explores life at the end of a career, deep in a long and nourishing love. Franklin explores classical themes, alluding to figures from history and the Western canon, yet the poems immediately engage the reader. One does not need a legend to navigate this work; Franklin shows a clear path throughout.
These poems explore the beauty of being, the beauty of loving, the aching beauty of fading/faded/ended love, the beauty of a Saturday morning, the ache for a cup of coffee, enjoyed leisurely at a café, but impossible at the height of a quarantine. These poems are often political in nature without being political poems. Many of these poems are pandemic poems without being pandemic poems. And, though these poems do dance to Latin rhythms, Franklin’s skill with the long line and the prose poem are not to be underestimated.
In the pantoum “Preparations,” Franklin starts:
Bags of the good red onions are hard to find
When shelves are empty before a hurricane.
The bread’s run out, and only meat is left,
Defrosting quickly now the power’s off.
When shelves are empty before a hurricane,
You take what others left behind.
Defrosting quickly now the power’s off,
A naked chicken drips into a pan.
You take whatever others left behind –
This is what comes from having ignored the signs.
A naked chicken drips into a pan.
You’re lucky to have charcoal and a grill.
Franklin doesn’t waste a reader’s time with obscurity nor with enigma. We don’t have to read and reread to solve the puzzle of what he means. He relates the common experience of waiting too long to prepare for an impending crisis, but with tightly crafted lines that allow room for the words to breathe. This book teems with perfect poems devoid of rough lines, mismatched diction, overused phrases, weak verbs, or clichés. Franklin concludes the poem:
Confirm the course, the thickness of the wall,
And pull a mattress above your head.
Hurricanes wobble as they near dry land,
But not enough to turn back to sea.
You squeeze your extra batteries in the dark,
Say, “Something, something, onions were hard to find.”
No one can hear you over the sound of wind.
“The bread ran out, only meat was left.”
The last quatrain is the hinge of the poem where the event Franklin describes becomes the story told later. We see that transition from a captured moment to a practiced narrative, a real time transformation from history to myth.
Franklin’s narrative voice is the chief strength of every poem in this collection. Looking at one of his shorter pieces, notice the simple story he tells in “Panela”:
We shave panela
From a brown lump
Once the size and
Shape of a baseball.
The kitchen knife
With the black handle
Scrapes along a
Precipice, a cliff’s
Edge, tough, slippery.
The coffee is
Waiting. You have to
Work for sweetness.
While longer than Hemingway’s famous six-word story (“For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn.”), the poem holds, in the same spirit, a complete narrative. We know nothing other than the hazardous task of cutting through a hard, unwieldy lump of raw sugar to sweeten the waiting coffee. This simple act becomes a complete story to reveal a simple truth.
Franklin’s mastery of form is on display in this collection. In addition to the aforementioned pantoum, there are ghazals, long blank verse pieces disguised by masterful syncopation, and highly successful prose poems. In “On a Blue Tarp,” Franklin confronts the challenge we all face carving out a living in relative comfort while also interacting with the wild world:
The hive was behind the fascia, just below the roof on the west side of the house. Bees kept finding their way inside, flying toward the kitchen lights or the sliding-glass door behind the living room. For months, I tried to help them get out, thirty or more a day. I listened for their bucking, bumping against the glass and would move quickly with an envelope to scoop them up and outside when I opened the door. The concept of glass was beyond them, but the bees could see sun and foliage. Later, I realized this wasn’t going to stop anytime soon, and I started calling around. If the hive had been attached to a tree or under the overhang of the roof, they could have been moved somewhere else, sent to a bee farm, somewhere with acres of crops to pollinate. The man who came out cut a rectangle in the fascia, then poisoned them and brought the honeycomb out in pieces. He showed it to me, all broken up on a blue tarp. I have a picture on my phone.
The precision of the language, the use of sound, the expert application of a lifetime’s practical knowledge of poetics are disguised by this frank, sparse, almost casual language. Franklin is telling a story, full of the mundane, yet it is elevated to an exploration of mortality, of the brutality resulting from seemingly insignificant decisions. Franklin is not a sentimental writer, but the reader cannot help but be affected by the death of these bees. And that last line! I have a picture of it on my phone. Yes, it’s tragic. Yes, the speaker of this poem feels this loss. This last line could be callous or glib. Some may perceive it that way. But this terrible thing is an image the narrator keeps, in its digital amber, as a reminder.
George Franklin is an architect of small worlds and each poem is a master construct. Each line is a vivid image, and each word carries its own weight. Take this collection of perfect poems with you to a sidewalk café or read it in the backyard under a shade tree but ingest them in fresh air, on a sunny day.