gamut (2007-46)

Terror, Kudzu, and Redemption

With a new book of poetry, Edward Francisco is looking towards the future

by Kevin Crowe

Itâ’s not terribly overpowering, but when local poet and novelist Edward Francisco speaks, his words are inflected with a sense of something spiritual, something bigger than ourselves. Heâ’s sort of like a Pentecostal preacher, because thereâ’s a certain cocksure swagger in his voice, but heâ’s not spitting absolutes, thank goodness. Heâ’s more interested in the gray areas, the shadowlands that exist somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness. Francisco reaches for that which is accidentally Zen, the still unmapped middle-ground between scientific fact and religious fanaticism.

And when he answers a question, his thoughts never follow a straight path. Heâ’s most comfortable following tangents, but wherever his mind wanders, Francisco speaks in an elegant style, his slightly nasal voice sounding like a true Southern gentleman no matter what comes out of his mouth.

â“I was born and reared for the most part in Chattanooga,â” he says. â“Of course we never considered ourselves to be East Tennesseans. We were always from the mid-South. I didnâ’t hear the term â‘East Tennesseeâ’ until I came to Knoxville. Of course, I think itâ’s a generic term now. Everybody says â‘East Tennessean.â’

â“There was a movement in 1961 for Chattanooga to secede from the rest of Tennessee, because the city felt more kinship with Georgia. So, yes, I guess you could say that Iâ’m a native East Tennessean.â”

With a half-dozen books under his belt, and a recently released collection of his poetry, heâ’s still finding new territories to explore. At his desk in room 335 of Pellissippi Stateâ’s McWherter Technology Building, where he has headed the creative writing program since 1990, he pulls out a series of essays that he has tentatively entitled â“Semiotics, Numerology and Proportion,â” which is a complicated name for a complicated process of rhetorical acrobatics. In short, heâ’s exploring how we construct meaning with our words and, if heâ’s lucky, gain insight into how weâ’re able to understand one another.

â“Itâ’s a theory of science, of the ways we use and manipulate science,â” he explains. â“I have had an interest in semiotics for a number of years.... Itâ’ll drive you crazy, because what youâ’re doing is picking the mind of God.â”

He moves on, but the direction doesnâ’t matter so long as heâ’s reaching for those subtle connections that unite everything in existence. His nascent theories of semiotics are, in effect, the closest rhetoric will ever come to string theory, as Francisco goes as far out as he can, searching for the next best way to explain his art. Itâ’s a terribly difficult task, because heâ’s trying to define what is usually considered to be ineffable.

In 2005, he was invited to join a roundtable discussion at Oxford University in England, where he delivered a paper on â“Semiotic Theory and Consciousness.â”

â“What I do here is base a number of my observations on the writings of a semiotician,â” he goes on, â“a philosopher named Charles Sanders Peirce. He hung around the fringes of Harvard in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His work was largely ignored.

â“What I have done is try to suggest that there are mathematical theories that account for our use of language.â”

He talks about mind structures and archetypes, hoping to discover a mathematical precision to the fundamental theories of rhetoric. Itâ’s all terribly complicated, but at the same time, itâ’s mind-blowingly beautiful.

â“Itâ’s about to drive me crazy,â” Francisco jokes. â“You can see that Iâ’m trying to suggest that there is a shape in discourse.... I got into this as a kind of alchemical orientation to language, and itâ’s certainly spilled over into my recent work.â”

His ideas are bold in their inventiveness, if not tinged with a bit of insanity, but Francisco insists that there is a method to his philosophical madness. â“Most scientific theories are proven wrong,â” he continues, â“but we expand and hone those theories. And they can take us us in another direction that is meaningful and helpful.â”

That, at the very least, is the hope. â“I think that the poet, the writer, the artist is trying to discoverâ"or recoverâ"the hidden relationships among things, the authentic web of connections that enliven us,â” he explains, remembering his Baudrillard, â“that resurrect us from the simulacrum of the all-too-familiar and routine....

â“So much of our imagination is mediated for us, you know?â”

His latest book of poetry, The Alchemy of Words, was written in just under a year. The collection was originally titled The Terror of Kudzu, which is also the name of the bookâ’s opening poem. But the name ultimately didnâ’t embody the collection as a whole, because this entire book of poetry deals with language, and the ways in which our wordsâ’ meaning can slowly change over time.

â“For me, Kudzu is a metaphor for verbal entanglement,â” Francisco says. During a reading at Gordon College in Georgia last week, he told the small group that â“alchemy is, of course, the ancient process of transmuting base metals into gold. I wrote The Alchemy of Words in response to the toxic verbal pollution spewed by the government and corporate-owned media that blind us to the fact that there are other ways to live other than to worship the trinity of consumption, hype and needless war-making.â” In the poem â“Alchemy,â” he writes:

â“The worst of it is not that they turn people into things. The worst is the insatiable joy they derive from being things themselvesâ"to identify with their own thingness so much theyâ’re willing to defend it to the exclusion of any- thing remotely human.â”

He says â“Alchemyâ” was written as an outrage against â“the verbal pollution that undermines our genuine dialogue.â” As a poet, he foresees a technological dark age, where people lose the most elementary ability to critique themselves and their culture. Itâ’s the culture of laziness and apathy that he fears the most.

â“It seems to me that a number of us do recognize the body politick is comatose right now,â” he says, â“and we need to wake it up.â” Thankfully his words arenâ’t totally apocalyptic in tone. There is still hope, as is the case in â“Monastic Remnantsâ”:

â“Take heart! All is not lost. A small priestly class of unpriestly souls, we offer a secret therapeutic love to a dying planet. Disguised, we penetrate the disguises of those not remembering who they are or that it was ever any other way.â”

Here the hope is that humanity will survive, and that the final vestiges of the human soul, or whatever we choose to call it, will find spiritual redemption, even when it appears to have atrophied beyond recognition. Itâ’s a faint glimmer of hope, sure, far out on the edges of time, where nothing seems certain, not yet at least.

Francisco sums up the entire book rather simply: â“These poems were written in response to a culture of schlock. The way in which I envision these poems is as little parables. Robert Frost said he wrote parables, too, in the hope that the wrong people wouldnâ’t read them and be saved.â”

In spite of his fondness for semiotics and the relation between mathematics and rhetoric, he is very much steeped in a Southern literary tradition; but for Francisco, itâ’s not the traditional, magnolia South that we should cherish. Itâ’s not about surrendering to cultural norms, as pleasant as that surrender can be. â“After all,â” he goes on, â“we have great food, we have good music, we have family to sustain us.â”

He adds, his voice growing stronger: â“We have to look at the world and find the extraordinary in the ordinary.â”

As co-editor of The South in Perspective, an anthology of Southern literature that chronicles our literary tradition from as far back as the 16th century, Francisco finds yet another nugget of hope.

â“The South can be a disappointing place,â” Francisco says. â“It has certainly disappointed me in recent years. At the same time, I was trying to suggest that there are things that have endured and will endure, but that remains to be seen, too.â”

He pauses, collecting himself before entertaining another tangential line of thought. â“I think the most important thing we should preserve [in this literary tradition] is the cultural protagonist who is both a part of culture but also stands apart from it. Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird is an excellent example. Here is an attorney in depression-era Alabama who is asked to defend a black man for assaulting a white woman. Finch is the best of the South, because he does not submit to the communityâ’s prejudices.

â“It is the people who have stood their ground who represent the best about us.â”

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