Noise of the World
Reviewer: Brian Fanelli
After a year of lockdowns, face masks, and death counts still too great to process, George Franklin’s latest collection of poems, Noise of the World, feels incredibly relevant right now, as the world still reels from the global pandemic and its long-term implications. His book offers meditations on death but also celebrations of life, including those everyday moments that we may take for granted, like cooking with a loved one or talking about art with friends over dinner. As we slowly emerge from isolation and hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, Franklin’s poems remind us to take pleasure in those familiar moments.
The first section, “Agua,” is a rumination on loss. Several of its poems feature the speaker and his partner witnessing and processing the gradual decay and eventual death of the partner’s father. In the opening poem, the speaker describes the physical changes that the father undergoes, his face shrunken to “bones and cartilage” and his eyes “large” and “searching.” Yet, this is also juxtaposed with references to life, with neighborhoods in Cali where the speaker’s partner used to walk, filled with birds and “the impenetrable green / Of the future.” The poem explores the ravages of death, yes, but by nodding to the partner’s childhood, filled with youthful memories, like “dancing salsa” with her friends, the poem offers an important counterweight to an otherwise grim and heavy subject matter. Further, this experience of watching a loved one die brings the speaker and his partner closer, finding strength in their relationship, despite the reality that the father won’t make it. It’s a powerful opening poem, and the balance of life and death sets the tone for the rest of the book.
In “Ghosts,” Franklin ponders what becomes of us once we leave this plane and whether we can ever truly shake our daily routines. “They are the same as they’ve ever been,” Franklin writes in the opening line, continuing, “Getting up in the morning, going // To the closet for a shirt and pants, / Making coffee in the dark kitchen.” It does make the reader stop and wonder if our lives are nothing more than routines, waking up, making coffee, dressing, and then going to work. The eight-line poem is punctuated with a note of sadness, as Franklin muses, “They are the same / As ever, but no one notices.” Yet, in the following poem, “Glamor,” Franklin again memorializes the dead by celebrating their life. Though the poem is about his grandfather’s waning days, most of it is rooted in vivid memory, including the grandfather’s white suits that he wore to work in the summer and ties “handmade form Chinese silk.” The speaker recounts the twilight that “rolled downhill like something lost,” while he listened to his grandfather recite stories or reprise Shakespeare or Ibsen. Franklin ends the poem with an image of the grandfather’s walking stick and taking it before it could be sold at an estate sale following the grandfather’s death. While the poem may recount the grandfather’s passing, the family member is very much alive in the poem, which celebrates his connection to the speaker.
The collection’s later poems were written in response to COVID, especially at the start of the lockdowns. Though there has already been debate on whether such quarantine poems will hold meaning years from now, or if they’re too timely, Franklin’s response to the pandemic is haunting. Further, how can anyone be an artist and not address a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic? In what feels like a coda to the book’s title poem, Franklin added a few italicized stanzas to the piece, recalling New York burying its dead in mass and losing count of how many times we’ve washed our hands. He concludes with the chilling image, “The lights of the empty YMCA / Seemed possessed of a terrible sadness.” His added lines powerfully recount what those earliest days of the pandemic felt like, specifically the uncertainty, the quiet streets, the fear of going to the supermarket. These are images that need to be documented, too timely or not.
In another poem, “Quarantine Days,” Franklin again resurrects the character of the grandfather, while recounting what he endured during the Spanish Flu and how he persevered. After the grandfather caught the flu, Franklin tells us, he barricaded himself on the sleeping porch, before collapsing and eventually allowing a doctor in. Despite sweating, fighting a fever, and drifting in and out of sleep, the grandfather endured, as the poem concludes, “But, fate dislikes / That kind of drama, and one day he / Got out of bed, moved the furniture, // And quietly unlocked the porch door.” After the year that we’ve all had and the constant headlines about mass death, “Quarantine Days” serves as a gut-punch, a powerful testament to human life. Franklin also has a way of personalizing large historical events, such as COVID or the Spanish Flu, by binding them to family history and memory.
Perhaps most importantly, Noise of the World reminds us not to take for granted those everyday activities that remind us that we’re alive. This is especially true post-COVID. In “Breaking Curfew,” written in April 2020, Franklin accurately captures the eerie silence of those first weeks in lockdown. He writes:
These nights when we walk together, the streets
Are empty, the way they are in your poem,
The lights of the shopping mall seem pointless.
I don’t know if the department store at the
Corner will ever reopen. From the other side of
The park, it looks like a white church (your phrase)
That no one visits. We stop for a minute to
Look down at the canal. Even the ducks have gone.
I haven’t read anything yet that accurately captured those frightening early days of lockdown as well as Franklin’s poem. Yet, he concludes the piece with the couple still living and going about their routine, determined to make dinner and go for a walk. Life goes on, as they say, and perhaps that’s the most important takeaway from Noise of the World. Despite death at the personal level or a larger level, as with a global pandemic, life continues, much like the grandfather in “Quarantine Days” or the couple in “Breaking Curfew.”
Noise of the World addresses personal loss frequently, but it’s also a praise song to those daily acts of living, those everyday moments that feel more important post-COVID. Even a neighborhood stroll around the block or a couple cooking dinner holds significant weight in Franklin’s poems. He has a knack for giving the familiar substance and meaning. This is no easy feat. His work is engaging, rooted in personal narrative and memory. Noise of the World is a potent, moving read, particularly given the context of the previous year.