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 wor
ld while read­ing and putting me else­where. I want noth­ing else and noth­ing less from a book or a poem.

This entry was posted in anne sexton, anthony powell, frank stanford, john hammond jr., robert johnson. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Frank Stanford

  1. maggie says:

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

  2. Drumstick says:

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

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