Frank Stanford, What About This: The Collected Poems of Frank Stanford, edited by Michael Wiegers, introduction by Dean Young, Copper Canyon Press, 2015, ISBN 978-1-55659-468-7, 747 pages, $25.99.
Frank Stanford died from three self-inflicted gunshots to the heart on June 3rd, 1978 after being confronted by his wife at the home of his lover, the poet C. D. Wright, in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He was just 29 years old. During his short life, Stanford authored an astonishing amount of poetry and other material, including the book-length poem The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, and a number of short stories. His reputation has continued to grow since his early death, first as poetry admirers passed his work back and forth like contraband in the form of individual poems or chapbooks issued in limited editions by small presses. And later as his reputation continued to grow, his works were repacked and reissued by larger presses, but still targeted for a relatively select audience whose tastes ran a bit outside the poetry mainstream. Now his collected poems, both published and unpublished, have been issued by Copper Canyon Press in a large 747-page volume which also includes some uncollected prose, interviews, and excerpts from his masterpiece, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You.
I’ll readily admit that Stanford’s poetry isn’t for everyone. Nicknames like the “redneck surrealist,” “swamp-rat Rimbaud,” “Huckleberry Rimbaud,” and “the voice of death” may give the reader a bit of a clue as to what type of adventures are contained within these pages. Stanford is unique in that his voice seems to exist in both the present and the past. Stanford had an unusual life. He was born in Mississippi on August 1, 1948, and on that day his birth mother gave him up for adoption to a single woman named Dorothy Gildart. In 1952, Dorothy married A. F. Stanford, a civil engineer who had worked for many years building and maintaining the levees along the Mississippi River. Stanford spent much of his youth in the levee camps playing with and befriending the children of the levee workers. The images and relationships built during these times are sprinkled throughout his poetry. When Stanford turned twelve, his step-father retired and moved the family from Memphis to Lake Norfolk in northern Arkansas, a well-to-do, largely all-white area, very different than the world he grew up in of levee camps filled with the workers and their families that his step-father employed. After the death of his adopted father in 1963, Stanford was sent to a Benedictine monastery and academy in Subiaco, Arkansas for his last three years of high school, graduating in 1966. Then he entered the University of Arkansas to study civil engineering, though he never obtained a degree. While at the University he was allowed to enroll in graduate-level poetry workshops where he was able to meet and mingle with other up-and-coming poets including Alan Dugan and Leon Stokesbury. Around 1969 Stanford found out that the mother he’d been led to believe was his birth mother was really his adopted mother, not his real mother. One can only imagine the inner turmoil, conflict, self-doubt this caused. After leaving college, he earned his living as a land surveyor while continuing to write poetry, reestablishing contacts with the poets he’d met while in college, and pursuing his publishing aspirations by creating an independent publishing operation named Lost Roads Publishers to publish the work of talented poets without ready access to publishers. Stanford’s life has been chronicled in two novels — Steve Stern’s The Moon & Ruben Shein and Forrest Gander’s (husband of C. D. Wright) As A Friend — and two folk songs — the Indigo Girls’ “Three Hits,” and family friend Lucinda Williams’ “Pineola.” Stanford lived the majority of his life in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas, and these locales deeply influence his works and worldview.
What About This is roughly evenly divided between published works and unpublished works. Stanford apparently wrote poetry from a very young age:
When the rest of you
Were being children
I became a monk
To my own listing
In fact, his entire existence seemed devoted to producing poetry — his kind of poetry, edgy, hard, bad-assed, but sprinkled with brilliant imagery:
My father and I lie down together.
He is dead.
We look up at the stars, the steady sound
Of the wind turning the night like a ceiling fan.
This is our home.
I remember the work in him
Like bitterness in persimmons before a frost.
And I imagine the way he had fear,
The ground turning dark in a rain.
Now he gets up.
And I dream he looks down in my eyes
And watches me die.
Or the imagery in these famous lines from The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You:
I live on when I sleep
I tell you what I will and don’t ask me why
death means nothing to me
I think life is a dream
and what you dream I live
because none of you know what you want follow me
because I’m not going anywhere
I’ll just bleed so the stars can have something dark
to shine in
look at my legs I am the Nijinsky of dreams
The book What About This begins with Stanford first two published volumes: The Singing Knives (1971) and Shade (1973). Both of these volumes contain poems primarily about Stanford’s youth written in a stream of consciousness style. The poems in these volumes tend to be rather long and cover his experience growing up on the levees and his interactions with and impressions of the workers and their children in the camps. Death, dream-like sequences, and unexpected metaphors are recurrent themes throughout his poetry. In these poems he creates his own mythological world of childhood in the rural south, a fantasy land of decadent innocents before the onset of adulthood in places of violence and intense dreams along the Mississippi River. He was the master of this land of dreams, the narrator, the arbiter of truth in a place where time stands still and he placed himself at the center of every drama. While it is difficult to provide a meaningful quote from many of these lengthy poems, one of the shorter poems in these volumes can give the reader an idea of what these poems are like:
The Blood Brothers
There was Born In The Camp With Six Toes
He popped the cottonmouth’s head off
There was Baby Gage
He tied the line to his wrist
He tied the line to the alligator gar
He rode the fish
There was Ray Baby
He stole the white man’s gold tooth
He knocked it out with a two-by-four
He rode the moon blind horse
There was Charlie B. Lemon
He had four wives
And a pair of long-toed shoes
There was Mose Johnson
He threw snake-eyes in his sleep
There was BoBo Washington
A rat crawled in the bed
And sucked the blood
Out of his baby’s head
There was Jimmy
He had the knife like night
He was white
I had the hands like dragonflies
I killed one white man
He was a midget
I did it with a frog gig
It was the summer of the Chinese daughter
I danced on the levee
In his next volumes — Ladies from Hell (1974), Field Talk (1975), Arkansas Bench Stone (1975), Constant Stranger (1976), Crib Death (1978), and You (1979) — Stanford’s poetry begins to mature as he slowly transitions from his mythological childhood persona to his young adult persona. The central theme of his poetry also slowly evolves from the denial of the mutability of time to an obsessive exploration of and conversation with death in the present time. Death had always taken a prominent role in Stanford’s poetry, but now the confrontations and conversations with this sometimes adversary, sometime friend were taking place in modern situations, shaping his worldview and his visions. In these poems, his voice always seems to be in the present time, with its gift for vivid detail and unconventional imagery all present while staying true to his southern, rural voice:
Between Love and Death
I watched the woman in the room.
She moved in her misery
Like a pine in the wind.
I could hear the woman sweeping her floors,
Boiling roots, and drinking milk.
I could watch the woman
Turning the tap of her bath
Through the hole in the wall.
On the summer nights I whistled
Wanting her to hear me.
She would look my way, sometimes,
With an apple core in her mouth.
4With an apple core in her mouth.
Working late, overhauling her truck,
She would drink coffee and hum,
Go to sleep with grease on her fingers.
God I was crazy for not
Going to her door,
Tapping on her window,
Following her to the river
Where her dory grew wet like the moon.
A bird sick of its tree, I despair.
Leaves without wind, I lay
Damp and quiet on the earth.
She bled through the walls
Into my side of the house,
And they came with their lights
Asking did I know the woman,
And I said no, not I.
The unpublished section of What About This contains both poem fragments as well as completed poems, unpublished manuscripts assembled by Stanford, several unpublished short stories, and a short interview. The completed poems in this section are perhaps a notch below the work published during his lifetime, but as with all things related to poetry that is a very subjective opinion. Nonetheless, there are still gems buried in this section as well. The reader can get a glimpse of the poets who influenced Stanford throughout this section as many poems are loosely based on and modeled after the work of poets such as Jean Follain, Nicanor Parra, Cesar Vallejo, Jacques Prévert, Rene Clair, Yukio Mishima, Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Bernardo Bertolucci, Robert Desnos, Antonin Artaud and others along with unexpected poets like William Blake, Emily Dickinson, and the Rossettis. The poems in this section of the book vary from the very short to the very lengthy, and span Stanford’s career. An example of one of his shortest poems is:
To Find Directions
Go to the graveyard.
This is another poem where it is left up to the reader to supply their own meaning based on their life experiences. While an example of one of his so-called “bad-assed” poems written in very plain, sometimes vulgar language is:
Homage to Jacques Prévert
The truth is we both attended
The same boy’s school.
Reformatory, whatever you want to call it.
You were a big dick– I know you don’t remember me,
Always stealing coins
From the collection for a Sunday matinee.
You used to confess you fucked the young maid
So much, she really had to lay you,
So you wouldn’t lie to the priest anymore.
Then you spent your nights playing with your meat,
Weeping, drinking mass wine,
Listening to the queer monk’s records of the blues.
You ate chicken legs in the alley
With orphans and criminals.
You, dressed fit to kill, your cape,
Your beret, your shorts, all one dark color.
And the ragged copy of Villon in your hip pocket
Like a handkerchief to cough in.
You weren’t like the other boys,
You were like me, but I was too young and ugly for you.
You could play the cello well,
But no one ever heard you.
Not even the whores in the dives
You stole off to on free weekends.
Oh, I can read to numbskulls in the Southwest,
Make a few bucks at a cockfight with a bald-headed poet,
Watch some hillbilly cornhole a mule,
Then go back to Chile, with plenty, on a boat running guns,
But you, you can dream forever,
And still not remember who I was.
As I said at the beginning, these poems are not for everyone. They can be graphic and crude at times and are deeply centered around life in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas, while being filled with unexpectedly beautiful, surprising, and insightful imagery that adds greatly to each poem’s mystery and meaning. Many thanks to Copper Canyon Press for taking the time and expense to edit and assemble this book. Many Stanford fans, like myself, have been trying for years to piece together his complete works from any source we could find in a very piecemeal fashion — internet archives, out of print books, the odd blogger who might post the odd Stanford poem here and there. Now anyone who wants to have the complete works of Stanford only needs to purchase three books — What About This by Copper Canyon Press, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You by Lost Roads Publishers, and Conditions Uncertain & Likely to Pass Away, The Tales of Frank Stanford by Lost Roads Publishers. Stanford is like no other writer writing today. He is an anomaly, in some ways a throw-back to a different era, and in some ways still relevant today with his occasional flashes of southernized American surrealism. I’ll close by quoting another poem that defines a common Stanford challenge — reconciling the title with the context and imagery of the poem where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts:
Place on a Grave
It’s not hard to forget what they ate
Every winter when the father
And oldest brother went back to do time,
Cow peas and smoked goat, all winter
The same muddy supper, their voices
Thick as pan bread, the hollering
At dawn when the mother went out
To the pen in cowboy boots
With a bucket of feed and a roll
Of toilet paper, finding a swatch
Of her daughter’s nightgown
Fluttering on the barbed-wire,
The hollering and calling
The rest of them did when they
Raised up from their cold beds
And went out searching at first light
For their crippled sister, who dreamed
Walking over the mountains
In the dead of winter, the smell
Of cooking in her hair, believing
She was gone from there, dignified
Like the wooden figure on the prow
Of a ship with no horizon.
Of course, I can’t just end this book review here. I need to conclude with Sanford’s fitting incantation against death as his poetry continues to live on from The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You:
all of this
is magic against death
all of this ends
with to be continued
I wave so long with a handkerchief
to the horses on the range of my dreams
every scene is sculptured from wood with splintered fingers
© Frank Stanford and Jim Doss
Frank Stanford (born Francis Gildart Smith; August 1, 1948 – June 3, 1978) was an American poet known for his epic, The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You – a labyrinthine, novel-length poem without stanzas or punctuation. He was a prolific poet throughout his short life, publishing six limited edition books, and founding Lost Roads Publishers with poet C. D. Wright.
Jim Doss is a founding editor of the Loch Raven Review. He earns his living as a software engineer and lives with his wife and three children in Sykesville, Maryland. He has previously published two books of poetry, Learning to Talk Again and What Remains, and, in partnership with Werner Schmitt, translated Georg Trakl’s complete poetical works into a volume entitled The Last Gold of Expired Stars.