Silhouette with Her Arm Raised: A Conversation Between Ariel Francisco & Christopher Kondrich

Photo by Gesi Schilling

Photo by Gesi Schilling

Ariel Francisco is a Miami poet currently completing his MFA at Florida International University where he is also assistant editor of Gulf Stream Literary Magazine. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Boiler Journal, Duende, Jai-Alai Magazine, Portland Review, Print-Oriented Bastards, Washington Square, and elsewhere. We conversed and looked closely at “A View of the Statue of Liberty from the Brooklyn Bridge,” his striking new poem:
A View of the Statue of Liberty from the Brooklyn Bridge

Locks cling to the bridges facade like piercings,
inscribed with names in marker or lipstick.
Their keys sunken to the bottom of the East River,
combinations lost in the brackish waters of memory.
A man in a black trench coat sells the locks
to passing couples, encourages them to latch
their hearts onto the bridge that’s already heavy
with rust. Way out on the jilted water:
the silhouette of a dream-sized woman standing
on a distant corner looks so familiar from this far away–
arm raised to hail a cab that will never come.

CK: So, Ariel, I think a good place to start would be to tell you what resonates with me about your poem and how I see it as compelling in light of the theme of this issue’s portfolio, Pilgrimage, Voyage & Return. The locks on the bridge, which you so vividly compare to piercings, are emblematic of the key component to any voyage — the object/image that not only indicates the motivation for voyage, but also embodies such motivation and sustains it after the voyage is complete. This object/image is the souvenir, the postcard, the sunken treasure, the imagined visage of destination, the long sought-for transcendence. I see couples on vacation intending to construct a memory, an experience, and “the man in a black trench coat” selling them to the couples because of the known desire to have such a memory or experience. This is just a perfectly encapsulated scenario that makes me, as a reader, feel the comings and goings that are always transpiring whether we notice them or not. Another element of the poem that resonates with me is the “dream-sized woman,” the Statue of Liberty. This is brilliant. It’s the kind of description that makes me excited about poetry because it, simultaneously, is so surprising and fits so perfectly. I don’t know where I’m going with this, but I wanted to start with what resonates with me in the hopes that it will conjure some interesting directions for this conversation/exploration of your poem to go.

AF: Oh wow! Where to start? It’s exciting to see how much of the poem can resonate with the reader. I think you’re dead on about the locks representing a desire to create an artifact of memory for a voyage. We always take something or leave something in any pilgrimage or voyage, even if it’s clearly impermanent. Why is that? There’s a little bit of cynicism in noting that the bridge is “already heavy with rust,” trying to demonstrate the futility of these locks as souvenir’s. But perhaps the couples don’t care? Perhaps this is just a small snippet of their journey that the speaker is privy to? Perhaps simply the act or desire to create an artifact for memory is enough for them? I’m not sure if I know the answer to any of these questions.

I’m really humbled by your comments on the final image of the Statue of Liberty. I was visiting New York and doing a lot of walking around, taking in the city, and doing some low-key touristy stuff like walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. The Statue of Liberty looks quite small from that vantage point but you can’t mistake it for anything else. It’s a bit surreal to see something look so drastically different from what you expect and yet be able to recognize it immediately. It didn’t strike me as a powerful symbol or iconic from that distance. She looked quite human to me. Just a silhouette with her arm raised. I think the image of her trying to hail a cab came naturally from being in New York. It’s a place full of transients. Everyone is always coming or going.

CK: Right, so, in a place of transients or transience, what remains is, perhaps, only what is kept as experience by memory, though memory is also (a) transient. But we want to go through the motion of affixing that lock to the bridge anyway. It’s almost like you have to forget the inevitable in order to remember.

I really love that human moment you described with the Statue of Liberty. Her “dream-sized” qualities* come from us; they’re a projection. When she hails a cab in your poem, she does so without the “dream-sized” stature. It’s a great ending because it seems to belie the dreams we make her wear. It engenders a kind of tension. Also, I can’t help but think about the immigrant narrative. I haven’t immigrated to any country so this might be completely ridiculous, but I believe the actual experience that an immigrant has of America is much different from what was narrated to them through images such as the Statue of Liberty and what they apparently stand for.

(* These qualities tend, also, toward irony. “Dream” implies something wished for, but it also implies a limited duration. We have to wake up, of course. Thus, the transience/memory artifice of the locks are recalled, reinforced.)

AF: “It’s almost like you have to forget the inevitable in order to remember.” That’s a really fantastic way of phrasing that. And I think you’re right about the Statue of Liberty and the projections that are imposed on her. It’s impossible to bring her into a poem, especially as the ending image, and not have those projections and implications come with her. But they can vary, and that’s something that I struggled with when I was writing this poem. I didn’t want her presence to narrow the poem into a definitive statement but rather have it open up to multiple possibilities. The immigrant narrative is unavoidable for sure, but I tried to convey it as the idea of being dis-enamored with a dream by juxtaposing the small, isolated image of the Statue of Liberty with the lovers and their locks. I think I tried to contextualize our projections in a way that allows for multiple interpretations. Despite the title, we don’t see the Statue of Liberty until the idea of love is made clear, and the fact that the speaker is presumably alone (since he remains unsolicited by the man selling locks). Only then do we see her and from such a great distance that she seems diminished. The distance between the speaker and the dream or idea (or what’s left of it), I think is crucial for the metaphor and can definitely speak to the immigration narrative (and the realities of it), among other things.

CK: But she’s diminished only insofar as she has turned human. She is no longer just a receptacle for our projections, and that’s what I find really moving about this image. Was it our projected dreams that catalyzed this transformation? Does it matter?

You know, this poem does allow for multiple interpretations and that’s one reason why I like thinking about it as an introduction of sorts to this issue. The poem is a manifestation, an artifact of the multiple entry-points to what a pilgrimage is, what a voyage is, what it might mean to return. A lot of this exists, I think, between the locks and the “dream-sized woman” in the line “with rust. Way out on the jilted water.” This line only partially concludes the first section of the poem because, in that moment, it’s the bridge that we see “way out.” We don’t know that our vision is going to meet up with the Statue. So the poem enacts the liminal state akin to any pilgrimage, voyage or return. It’s like air hovering in a keyhole.

AF: I really like your interpretation here, especially the comment about the multiple entry-points to what a pilgrimage is. The poem tries to play with ideas of perception and perspective I think, so the question becomes what entry-point will manifest for the reader? The onset? The ending? The return? The point of no return (if there is one)? The Statue, diminished and stripped of projections, becomes (I think) a symbol of realization rather than just recognition. So I suppose the real question in the end, in terms of the voyage, is where do we go from there?