Traveling for No Good Reason
Reviewer: Richard Allen Taylor
Most of the traveling in George Franklin’s new poetry collection is done not by train or plane but by memory. This has several advantages. Traveling by memory is inexpensive, instantaneous, and allows the traveler to go backwards and forwards in time. For Franklin, who practices law in Miami and teaches poetry in the Florida prison system, poetry based on personal experiences and recollections is a good place to start when teaching students who may not have real-time access to common sources of literary inspiration, such as beach vacations or art museums. But all students, in or out of prison, can be encouraged to write autobiographical poems based on remembered experiences. Most of the poems in the first part of the book are that sort of poem.
The opening poem, “Miami,” begins,
Men in t-shirts drinking Cuban coffee
Outside a restaurant by the airport, the smell of
Roast pork and plantains, white rice and black
Beans, voices that have all known each
Other for years or sound like it, and the sun
That grows a little hotter each day of April—
Sometimes I wonder how I ended up here.
This beginning passage anchors the reader in Miami, present day. The author hasn’t traveled anywhere yet, but we have (unless we’re also in Miami). In describing the author’s style, we can start with the fact that each line begins with a capital letter: a conceit that Shakespeare and Whitman used, but a practice that is less common today. Typical of the poems in this collection, the language is accessible, literal, conversational, personal, and deceptively close to prose. But it’s poetry, very good poetry, and it’s never dull.
The sense of this poem is to reflect on getting old in a place where the speaker (author) suspects that he “doesn’t quite fit.” He’s a gringo among Spanish speakers. He thinks about “all the places I think of moving if life doesn’t / Work out for me here.” His bond with Miami is weaker than say, one who was born and raised there. He’s thinking about the issue of “place” in an existential way. He considers moving to Italy or Greece, but declares, “I’m hopelessly American and awful at speaking anything but English. I don’t even know what I’m trying to leave.” Then he thinks of a Cavafy poem that warns “if you’ve wasted your life here, / You’ve wasted it everywhere else as well.”
Back to the book title: Traveling for No Good Reason ranges from Florida, to New Hampshire, Chicago, New York, Boston, Paris, London, Texas, Los Angeles, Barcelona, Dunkin Donuts and the “Takee-Outee,” a Chinese food establishment in a city unnamed – probably Miami. Belying the title, the reasons for traveling to those places seem good enough.
Near the end of the collection, the poem title “Reading Cesare Pavese in Takee-Outee” sounds frivolous, but it’s actually a very serious poem and happens to be my favorite in this book. In the poem, Franklin waits for his order in a take-out restaurant while reading “The Country Whore,” a poem by the Italian poet Cesare Pavese. He describes what’s going on in the restaurant, but he’s really thinking more about the poem he’s reading, and its author, than the chicken and rice he will soon be having for dinner. Past the mid-point of the poem (meaning Franklin’s poem, not Pavese’s), Franklin asks:
What is it I want from Pavese?
Probably the same thing he wanted
From Whitman or Masters, to collapse
Geography and time into words,
To take Brooklyn Ferry across the
Po, to stare at Spoon River from a
Hilltop overlooking Rome. I want
Pavese to take me from table
To table, introducing me to
His friends, party members who defy
Mussolini, exhausted teachers,
Farmworkers who read Dante …
What do I want from Pavese? I
Want him not to be dead, not to have
Taken those sleeping pills, gone silent.
Not a big fan of poems about poetry, I was captivated with this one. My curiosity about Pavese and “The Country Whore” led me to look them up. I found that Pavese was an Italian poet who committed suicide in 1950 after prolonged bouts of depression and a failed love affair. The poem about the country whore (found on the Poetry Foundation website) is (surprisingly) not at all profane or erotic but tender, bittersweet, and tragic. It’s a poem with more questions than answers. Thus, Franklin’s “What do I want from Pavese?” may be an even more profound question than it appears, as he wishes Pavese were here to tell us more.
“Caravaggio at the Execution of Beatrice Cenci” tells a tale in which the artist Caravaggio attends the 1599 beheading of Beatrice Cenci, ostensibly to sketch her face (before its separation from the body) and prepare himself to paint her portrait. Driven again to learn more, I went to the internet and found that Beatrice was executed for the murder of her father, Count Francesco Cenci, who had repeatedly raped Beatrice and abused her mother and brother. George Franklin’s poem describes the execution in graphic detail: “… the axe dropped hard across the curve of spine and skin, / And arteries streamed blood onto the face and hair / Hanging by a muscle in her neck. The executioner swung again.”
Franklin leaves it to the reader to look up the rest of the story. Beatrice had reported her father to the authorities in Rome, but nothing was done. The Count’s standing as a nobleman insulated him from prosecution. Beatrice conspired with her mother and brother to kill her father in self-defense. Despite public outcry demanding her release, and to discourage a rising tide of violence against the aristocracy, the pope insisted that the state proceed with the executions of all three. Beatrice eventually became a symbol of resistance of the common people against the aristocracy.
Traveling for No Good Reason is well worth reading for its gritty and realistic personal poems as well as its interesting and entertaining insights into events outside the author’s personal experience. Franklin has a knack for making the reader thirst for more.