South of Heaven, North of Hell

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A Sinking Ship Is Still A Sinking Ship
By Ariel Francisco
Burrow Press, 2020
80 Pages, $16.00
Review by J. B. Stone

Behind the mask of amusement tourism and beach getaways, Florida is also a stocking-shaped land mass encroached by ever-rising sea levels, absurd headlines, deep-south evangelicalism and a dwindling relationship between humanity and the land itself. Ariel Francisco’s A Sinking Ship Is Still A Ship (Burrow Press, 2020) captures the cringeworthy imagery of being a NY transplant in the “Sunshine State.”

In the first poem, “Spring Break Forever,” Ariel already conveys the billboarding of Florida’s draw, even in the presence of a vanishing shoreline. In the first half of the poem Ariel’s writes:

“ Perhaps lounging on the long
corner of the Bermuda Triangle
is why people don’t see the swell,
a magic shroud vanishing the obvious.
Maybe the famous sun is too
bright and blinding, maybe
a little sand in their eyes
blurring their vision, a little salt.”

Environmental issues aren’t the only grievances emanating throughout this tortured atlas. Themes concerning social justice, or the crumbling mediocrity of capitalism make their presence felt. In “Ruins of Earliest Church in America Discovered in Florida,” the poet recites his residence the same way an historian addresses the dark horrific truth within the walls of a distinguished monument:

“Hurricane Matthew missed us but
really fucked up St. Augustine, tore
out a shopping mall to reveal a five-
hundred year old skeleton, folded
arms pressed against his chest, head
facing east, staring down the storm
that let the air wash over him once
again. Is there anything more Florida
than being buried under a church that
will be buried under a shopping mall
that will be ripped open by a hurricane
named after one of the twelve apostles?
All I know is I don’t want to die here”

Beyond a context filled with #ThatsSoFlorida stereotypes is something deeper: a numbness to history from a failure to adhere to its mistakes. Threading a deeper twine into the socio-cultural thread, Ariel is able to connect the dots of European colonialism to the 21st century streets of Miami. “For the Man Being Arrested in the Alley of the Airport Diner” paints a brief portrait of social unrest pulsating through South Floridian communities:

“I’ve got my phone
in hand, recording as too
many cops tell this man

to put his hands against
the wall. I recognize him
as a usual nighthawk, often

cutting through the alley
at any hour towards
the gas station, coming

out with a bottle of something,
and maybe this is what
he’s trying to tell the cops

as he turns to explain,
before, again—
hands against the wall!—”

We aren’t given a notice of who this “usual nighthawk” is. We aren’t told of any age, any race, any economic class this person belongs too, but we do know he regularly carries a bottle, we know he is being held up by cops for mistaken possession of something more than just a bottle. Is it a bottle of rum? Whiskey? We aren’t told what it’s actually a bottle of, nor why he is carrying around this bottle so often. Depression? Addiction? It could imply a number of these things. The fact that the cops aren’t asking the same before they pack the man in the back of their patrol car before holding him up against the wall says enough, not only about Florida, but the America we have always paraded around as “great.”

However, not every poem in this collection is in a pessimistic school of thought. There are a couple of poems that reveal more positive notes. Ariel’s “And On The 7th Day God Said: You Made It Bro!” depicts a community brought together not as a mob, but as a cheer-squad for those seeking a better life:

“to applause and cheers in English and Spanish,
twelves sets of feet already drying in the sand
as they high five and hug one another
and the strangers that greet them, calling out
Bienvenidos! Bienvenidos! You made it, bro!
Beachgoers give them the cloths off their backs,
the cash in their pockets. South Beach hotels
bring food and towels.”

Ariel’s Florida isn’t a collection of odes, nor is it a setlist of diss poems; it’s a bittersweet postcard depicting a love-hate relationship between a young Latinx poet and his residency. A Sinking Ship Is Still A Ship cannot be summed up in a few words, and that’s part of its brilliance. Ariel’s Florida realizes it isn’t a simple beast of toxicity; it’s a complex monster that could take a lifetime to define, let alone interpret into a full collection of poetry. Yet it gives readers the best possible depiction of tackling the problematic aura surrounding the Sun Belt.

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About Author

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J.B. Stone is a neurodivergent/autistic slam poet, reviewer, and writer from Brooklyn, now residing in Buffalo, NY. He is the author of A Place Between Expired Dreams And Renewed Nightmares (Ghost City Press 2018). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gravel, Peach Mag, PANK, Wellington Street Review, Queen Mobs Teahouse and elsewhere. He is the Editor-in-Chief/Reviews Editor at Variety Pack and the Reviews Editor at Coffin Bell Journal. You can check out more of his work at jaredbenjaminstone.com and tweets @JB_StoneTruth.

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