Book Reviews, Features

John Duvernoy: “all of this is magic / against death”

stanfordWhat About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford
Frank Stanford
Copper Canyon, 2015

I haven’t the space here or quite the foolishness to fully recount the legend of a poet who could out self-mythologize Bob Dylan, who tucked Lorca’s penknife in his bootleg and Breton’s throwing starfish in his belt of hemp. Suffice to say that Frank Stanford was no abject nihilist but an utterly unreconstructed romantic. A serious young man who would die before he ever grew old, he was prodigiously gifted and impossibly prolific. Beyond the sanction of any literary establishment Stanford wrote without surcease, leaving behind a vastly original body of work that is sepulchral, erotic, unabashedly violent, doomed, in love, and in a perpetual dance with death. His poetry is so drenched in mud that squeamish readers may do best to avoid it altogether. Indeed, the poet CD Wright once wrote about Stanford’s work that “if you’re not young and crazy, it may be too late.” I would ask who among us, sometime, somewhere, or hidden within, is not still young and crazy?

What About This, the long longed-for gathering of Stanford’s ragged oeuvre released by Copper Canyon in April, allows brave readers to answer this question. Edited by Michael Wiegers, the collection is a 750-page doorstopper—that is, it holds the door open for readers to pass through and come back changed.

The Stanford poem that set the hook in my heart is the epic quasi-narrative The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You, which opens like an American fever-dream modernization of Don Quixote: “tonight the gars in the trees are swords in the hands of knights…” and ends some 15,000 unpunctuated lines later having declared that “all of this is magic / against death / all of this ends / with to be continued”. Though Battlefield is sampled throughout What About This, it needs to be experienced in its entirety to witness its cumulative power. It combines many of Stanford’s formidable talents: his pitch-perfect ear for field hand vernacular, his unparalleled feel for “that strange country of childhood, like a dragonfly on a long dog chain”, his unequivocal sense of loyalty and justice, as well as his ultimate allegiance to dreams (“if you cannot dream die” he states bluntly, talking to himself). Narrated by a preternaturally streetwise 12-year-old orphan who hops a Freedom Bus travelling to a civil rights rally in the segregated South, the book teems with madcap adventure and repeatedly flares up into surreal incantatory passages of declarative lyricism:

I am unlimited and protoplasmic and you

I contain the logic of the blood-sea the cosmos the full beauty of the loin

I who was to come have come dark and in love.

Although Battlefield establishes Stanford as a poet of uncommon freedom, his writing is not all unhinged wailing. Throughout the two dozen previously published and unpublished manuscripts collected in What About This, there are hundreds of short poems of sure-handed control: “You may take the wet animal / back to die where you found it / because you touched it.” I believe we can call Stanford a country poet, of a kind rarely seen. He doesn’t write serene pastorals, or linear portraits—he writes patchwork surrealist quilts flung across bucket seats. His work takes identifiable particulars (rural nouns and working-class, domestic scenarios) and weaves them into subtly strange shapes, familiar as a shawl but impossible to put on or completely unravel. His transitions, often abrupt or un-signaled, account for some of this strangeness: “Black jelly the lonely steal to lick with the deaf, / Light bread my father put in his shoes”. Operating with-in a dream logic, the poems remain fluid and shape-shifting while retaining a funky harmony. As if the scattered bones of a wild animal were reassembled while wearing a blindfold, the parts seem instinctually related but combine to animate an unknown species.

Recycled phrases and motifs contribute to the “all-one-song” feel of the work, while casual colloquial speech is used as a ballast to the wilder, ambidextrous similes. By frequently eschewing punctuation and employing counterintuitive line breaks, he sets deceptively complex rhythms in motion:

like an archer shooting a flaming arrow into watery space I vaunt the natural
earth blood with my black spoon I dig up bait I find it everywhere
I was asked to give the plot for the discovery of America I said
the men entered the forest.

As above, Stanford’s images often collide and cascade, expanding and contracting simultaneously, preventing the poems from cohering into a fixed pattern. You can see them but only with the whites of your eyes.

Death and dream are predominant obsessions throughout his work, like flip-sides of a tossed coin. “When no one is looking / We touch the thin underthings / Of our death to our lips.” Yet this obsession with death is no hopelessly maudlin pose, for as the poet Peter Gizzi reminds us: “Death and the imagination equals life itself.” The poems may traffic in darkness but they are never self-pitying; violent and uncompromising, they are capable of exceptional tenderness and deliciously slapstick humor. In contrast to so much contemporary verse, relentlessly work-shopped until an unassailable veneer conceals a hollow core, Stanford’s poems are decidedly unimproved.

There is a willingness to let the flaws show in the grain of the work. “I don’t believe in a tame poetry,” Stanford writes in an essay from 1977, and despite the occasional juvenilia or stray bum note, his work retains a mysterious and raw vitality. Often an apparent sleeper line only sets you up to be clobbered, lulling your attention before slipping in the solid right. “I’d rather be Muhammad Ali than T.S. Eliot,” he says in an interview with his original publisher Irving Broughton. Stanford was an utterly committed artist but never tight—he had an innate freewheeling musicality that presages his profound influence on songwriters such as Tom Waits and Jason Molina.

Regardless of anything else one can suggest about Frank Stanford, he used his brief time alive (just 29 years!?) in active service to his imagination. He completed nearly a dozen published poetry volumes (as well as numerous unpublished manuscripts of poetry and prose), he founded Lost Roads (a still extant literary press), he filmed an autobiographical documentary (entitled It Wasn’t a Dream It Was a Flood), all while making a living as a land surveyor in rural Arkansas. The publication of What About This (as well as the tandem publication of Hidden Water, a special edition of facsimiles, rare photographs and other ephemera from the Frank Stanford Archives, also edited by Wiegers with Chet Weise, published by Third Man Books in July) should finally garner Stanford the wider readership he deserves. While it is impossible not to wonder how his poetry may have evolved had he lived into old age, Stanford himself seems to have had an early grasp of his rightful domain limning the backstreets:

I who came a stranger will leave a stranger
but I will leave knowing
I have done what it is I was sent and found to do.

John Duvernoy is the author of Something in the way // Obstruction Blues (Horse Less Press) and the chapbook Razor Love. John has received fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center and the Millay Colony for the Arts. In 2012 he was awarded a Writer’s Grant from the Boomerang Fund for Artists. New work can be found in the debut issue of Stedt: Poetry, Prose, Inquiry.