Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Frank Stanford


Frank Stanford is a poet I came to late in my life--like most of the poets I'm reading now--as I was casting around for something new to inspire me. I found first the collection of his work at the Alsop Review, then bought one of the two books I could find in print. Loved it, loved it all, irrationally and completely in the way I loved slide guitar, any slide guitar, when I first heard it.

Then I went berserk and paid a lot of money for a copy of the 2000 edition Battlefield in Which the Moon Says I Love You. I probably could have found it cheaper, but I get that way about my obsessions. It was a must-have book, in other words, and later on, last year I think it was, I picked up copies of the other books Lost Roads have kept in print. To say the least, his work has been revelatory for me, and I'll try to explain, briefly, why. First, here's an early poem, or at least a poem from his first book, Ladies from Hell. This will also prove I am neither critic nor poet, I fear, but that's my row to hoe, not yours. I just want you all to read Frank Stanford.

Hidden Water/Frank Stanford

A girl was in a wheelchair on her porch
And wasps were swarming in the cornice

She had just washed her hair
When she took it down she combed it

She could see
Just like I could

The one star under the rafter
Quivering like a knife in the creek

She was thin
And she made me think

Of music singing to itself
Like someone putting a dulcimer in a case

And walking off with a stranger
To lie down and drink in the dark

The first thing I noticed in a quick scan was a lack of punctuation. This drives me batty. I love this poem, don't get me wrong, but this really drives me batty, as it's one of the amateur tricks I've heard most. "I want people to get the rhythm on their own/I don't like punctuation/I'm a POET and I don't need no steenkin' rulez, bro." Does this lose anything at all by seeing the punctuation where it ought normally to fall? I think not.

The title--well, who knows what the title means? It's a poetic device meant to simulate depth. Another beginner trick. maybe. It's not just water, it's hidden water. So Stanford's got two strikes against him to begin with, in my admittedly impatient reading. I'm still willing to go on, though, into the poem itself, which is where the good shit is.

The first two lines are better than average: they present me with a somewhat unusual situation, girl in a wheelchair on a porch, ok-- and the lovely image of wasps swarming in the cornice. It's a detail that might get missed in another poet's observation--so many poems/poets seem to eschew or downplay natural detail in favor of philosophical abstraction or mere wordplay--and in this case the lines ground me fully in the world I'm about to inhabit for these fourteen lines.

The next stanza, the washing and combing of the girl's hair, is plain-languaged, completely without poetic flair, however you might choose to define that. Those are two complete sentences within those lines, esaily punctuated had Stanford chosen to, but the lack of punctuation begins to work for the poem here and against my initial prejudice. I read over it a couple times initially to be sure I hadn't missed something, and the non-rhythm, the adroit lack of breath-stop or other stop make me feel as if I'm in the hands of a poet with a rhythm all his/her own, and someone who's thought about why the words were placed in that way. It ought to be true of every poet, but I suspect it's not. I'm beginning to breathe with the poet now, trusting and hoping and waiting to see what will happen.

The next six words and two lines make the poem for me. Six simple words, unornate like the last stanza, but deftly placed in three-word lines, lead into the wonder and heart of the poem, those final stanzas. These six words can't prep you for what's to come and don't try, instead, they function more as an understated signpost, as if to say, you might think you know what's coming, but you don't. Language so simple as to be unpoetic, suddenly enlivened by expectation. That's how I characterize these lines, which bring us then to the meat of the poem.

The one star under the rafter
Quivering like a knife in the creek
Here is something new, an acutely observed image, the star spotted under the rafter (fine, but not revelatory or surprising, just good). But then, quivering like a knife in the creek. The movement of water over shiny metal, quivering. . .yes yes yes. Exactly. Beautiful, wonderful, great. I'm satisfied now. If I don't get anything else from this poem, I have an brainpain-cracking image that I can carry with me through the rest of my days. I have seen shiny metal in a crick, and this image looks right and more important feels right, the last bale in the corner of the mow. I am filled now for the duration of the poem and more, and if it gets better, as it does, I'll be fat and sassy and happy. I like fat, sassy, and happy.

I'll deal with the final three stanzas as a whole:

She was thin
And she made me think

Of music singing to itself
Like someone putting a dulcimer in a case

And walking off with a stranger
To lie down and drink in the dark
The first seven words/next stanza again unpoetic, simply an indicator, a bell for the striker of the next few lines to ring against for the remainder of the poem. "Music singing to itself" brings to mind other poems and works immediately, my whole history of reading and watching and seeing, for me, brought in by the next lines, and why I'll never be without a book in my hand. I think of Sexton's well-known poem Music Swims back to Me from ninth grade English, yes, and the sweltering summer of '92 when I read the first couple books of Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time in the room I shared with my future wife's brother in their mother's home, and of my mother-in-law's recent death, and the poems we found among her journals when she died a month or so ago. I see the image of John Hammond Jr. playing a Robert Johnson song while sitting in an old boxcar, from the film In Search of Robert Johnson, and then the next two lines, lying down and drinking in the dark, which bring up first drinking Southern Comfort and cheap wine in a graveyard in Kutztown PA, and the woman I was with then, and how someday soon my eleven-year-old daughter will be out there in the land of half-soused and grab-assy young men like I was then, and the list could just go on. All brought back to me by the reading of this poem, which is not Stanford's best or most illuminating or complex, just one that does the trick for me of separating myself from where I am in the world while reading and putting me elsewhere. I want nothing else and nothing less from a book or a poem.




2 comments:

Drumstick said...

I forgot to mention the Frank Stanford Literary Festival, which I'm thinking about attending.

maggie said...

you are such a thinker and you make me think. and you make that musing seem easy.