(Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press, 2018)
Reach out your arms. Cup your hands together in a bowl. What do you see in your palms? Of course nothing. Now ask this: What is unseen? If the unseen were a place, what might be found upon arrival? This seems to be the line of inquiry in Quarry, Tanis Franco’s 2018 book of poems. The imagery, line breaks, and metaphor are trails in these poems — a body, stones skipping across water. I follow these trails to their end, to nothing, or rather, to the nothing. This push towards the metaphysical (what might be exhausting or frustrating for a reader) is balanced by language that is pine-tree-on-a-trail sturdy: “Touching is the act of atoms / resisting each other / touching / is resistance.”
In one of six poems with Quarry in the title, Franco writes (or rather, re-writes, with words from the Montreal Gazette) words that fall down the page:
We don’t really know
until we pump
To my mind comes this: know what? By placing these words in their own lines, the poet seems to expose the absurdity of claiming final knowledge…. See how I had trouble writing past the word “knowledge?” I was going to write “of pain, of loss, of excavation,” but all these seem reductive. That’s the unseen in Franco’s writing: Whatever lies beyond the word “knows” is somehow bigger than any word, but it’s also somehow hyper-specific. These poems conjure a feeling of whatever that thing is. However, what grabs attention here are the line breaks — they emphasize “it” and “is” — two of the most inscrutable words in the language: What is it? What is it?
Later, in the poem “stone4stone,” the poet appears (if I may be permitted junior high juvenilia) to be in like, though not with someone, but rather with “a body.” Franco writes:
like me, you are not from
i hardly knew the moment
i developed a boundedness…
It appears that this time, the poet requires only one word to investigate (this time the subject is intimacy). To be bounded is, of course, to be restricted in some way. But the sound of the word itself, the breath-sounds one makes while saying “boundedness,” carry this reader’s thinking mind past the definition (past bounds) and make me think of liberation. Of course, this is what one feels when one is in like with a body. You tie yourself to them, and somehow heavy things are swept away, and you become a helium balloon. Lines later, the poem leaves like this:
but i sensed a curiosity —
a feeling that though we could not quite meet
at some point, we would skip
at the same pace
The line breaks and indentations work to intensify the words here, as the timing mirrors how rocks bip across the surface in a way that is completely satisfying. But (but), implicit in the image is what ultimately happens when one skips rocks, when one is in love or like: at some point, momentum is lost. The stones slow down, each skip covering less distance and less, until they sink. Oh, that feeling from the word “boundedness?” The one that had you lifting off? Don’t get too high: the sink is coming. One word that straddles two things: seen/un/seen.
The final poem of the book, “autumnal equinox,” gives these lines:
one stop before you skipped town,
we dropped off at the quarry
for one last late-summer heat wave dip.
It feels as if the third line doesn’t want to end, delaying the most important action until the last moment. The word love is not in this poem, but this is what I feel when reading. Or rather, a love — this pushes me from the poem, and I think of the bodies I have loved, the bodies I have left, as well as the ones that have left me. I crave bodies, and I crave the emotion that comes from interacting with them. Maybe more than this, I crave what they show me, or what they try to show me. Intimate relations (not sex, but all the finger-lacing, slow-looking-into eyes and such) carry me to the edge of seen/un/seen in much the same way these poems do. In doing so, these poems practice and provoke a vulnerability seldom encountered. The poem continues, as clouds build on both sides of the speaker, then meet overhead:
we were alone together;
i did not want to be the lightning rod.
coming up i hit my ankle on a rock.
you helped me climb to the surface
when i could not
see what was
Yes, Franco here writes beautifully, with imagery of the can’t-go-back sort, line breaks that magnify scenes, and a tone that feels plain-true (yet far from plain). However, the poems are worth reading not for what they do on the page-vacuum, but for where they guide the reader, by way of things concrete (stones, rocks, a quarry), to a place of only being, to the seen/un/seen’s edge.
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Hayden Bergman lives in Abilene, Texas. He is an MFA candidate at Fairleigh Dickinson University.