Book Review: ‘Helium’ by Rudy Francisco


U.S. Poet Laureat (1993-95) Rita Dove said, “Poetry is language at it’s most distilled and most powerful.”

I don’t know a lot about poetry, but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s this “distilling” that often makes it quite polarising. A poem is as much about what it doesn’t say, as what it does. It’s as much about the words the poet has left out, as those he or she has chosen to leave in. When reading a poem it’s not uncommon for the reader to find themselves wanting more. More words. More detail. More colour. A poem requires us to search within sentences, to zoom in, to consider the alternative, the tone, the editing process, how this thing in front of us has been distilled and what made it through the metaphorical sieve of editing. I’m also aware that it is this desire to want more that is a direct reflection of the poet’s skill.

But sometimes minimalist poets (an unofficial term I’ve just coined this second), like Rupi Kaur or Cleo Wade, both who I actively consume and enjoy, don’t write enough. Which is why I prefer maximalist poets, like Rudy Francisco and his debut poetry collection, “Helium”. Francisco is one of the most recognisable names in the world of spoken-word poetry – a medium that I first fell in love with three years ago when I watched Sarah Kay’s Ted Talk, “If I Should Have A Daughter” (If you’re a young mother and have never seen this: BYO tissues). And when I found out he was publishing a book I immediately thought about that saying, “Vote with your dollar”. When you purchase something, you are casting a vote for the kind of world you want to live in and I want to live in a world where a young African American man can make a living off his world-class poetry. The work in “Helium” spans the personal and the political: diving head first into love, self-reflection and Francisco’s cultural critique on class, race and gender.

Francisco’s best quality as a writer is his self-awareness. And it’s through this self-awareness that he is able to explore some really big issues but through an incredibly personal and vulnerable lens. In his poem “Museum”, Francisco reveals the true cost of his writing,“….when you choose to spill like this, bleed like this, cry like this, your pain becomes an exhibit. You hang your trauma on the wall, ask patrons not to touch….”. He tackles the problem of masculinity in one of his longest poems, “Chameleon” and does so with such humility, “…they say you have to peel a woman like a tangerine, and your job as a man is to chameleon yourself into her trees, bite a piece of her fruit and leave the rest hanging…”.  And he winded me with his various poems about racial injustice, “…because I know that this much melanin and that uniform is a plot line to a film that can easily end with a chalk outline baptism…”.

But I think Francisco’s at his best when he’s constructing sentences about love. To read poetry about love written by a straight, modern-era man is jarring. And not just maybe love like in “12am”, “…she makes everything feel like midnight. The streets are empty and her car is the only one on the road.”, but the all in, open heart surgery, everything plus the kitchen sink kinda love, like in “If I Was A Love Poet”, “…I pray that God somehow turns you back into one of my ribs just so I would never have to spend an entire day without you.” That one made me cry. Yes, metaphors can be overused in poetry, but Francisco’s are so thoughtfully considered and crafted, you’ll believe for just a moment that he was the first to ever do it.

I think poetry is the best kind of literature for our time-poor generation. I love that we can read it in tiny increments, that we can begin and finish a poem in the time it takes for a barista to make a takeaway coffee, to move three spots in the queue for lunch, for the closest Uber to find you. And I think “Helium” is the perfect filler. Bravo Rudy.

Header image by Holly Burgess for The Twenties Club