My friend Camille has a fantastic ability to discover places that are untouched and seemingly invisible. Off the beaten track, winding through remote valleys and over passes, she’s discovered pictures drawn on caves and pieces of ancient pottery.
She takes these relics home (on the back of a Harley she shares with her husband) or leaves them alone, depending. She and her husband discover these hidden places on their “coffee breaks”—coffee served from an ancient thermos—as they traverse the dusty, open landscape of southwest Montana. For many miles there is no cell phone reception. She describes these trips casually when she comes to work Monday morning, tanned from the sun and bright eyed, her grey hair framing her face.
Always the writer, I insist that she could write a great travel guide and wouldn’t the tourists who come here for the great fly fishing die to travel to some of these spots (I actually imagine us writing the book together).
“Why would I ever do that?” she asks. “Then everyone would know where to go. You have to discover these places on your own.”
She’s got a point. There’s something to finding a treasure and keeping it to yourself. But as a reviewer, my job is to share, so I’ll share a new find: What About This: The Collected Works of Frank Stanford, a thick collection—over 700 pages, published by the renowned poetry press, Copper Canyon Press—of the work of a little known southern poet. In his introduction to the book, Dean Young writes,” When I was in college in the 1970s and ‘80s, the poems of Frank Stanford were passed hand to hand like contraband: small editions coming from small presses, hard to get, guarded with secrecy, coming from outside any known curriculum and profoundly intoxicating.”
I wondered why. As a person with an MFA in poetry, I’d never heard of this poet before. Stanford died young—he took his own life—and somehow his work has not been anthologized.
With the thought that he had killed himself, I looked for darkness or cynicism in the collection of poems I had before me—an uneasy groping or (as in the case of Sylvia Plath) a knife-edged shrillness. Instead I found song. Many of these poems evoke a night scene (the moon is a recurring motif, as is the river). But the night is not burdensome; the night is mysterious, beautiful, full.
Slices of cold butter the lovers are spreading
Over their toast.
And he writes:
When We Are Young the Moon Is like a Pond We All Drown In
when I sleep a wind blows
over the strange grasses
of a prairie I don’t know
and I feel like a lamp
someone is holding up
looking for a way
through a dark field
I will go out
A couple of his poems address the phoniness of the literary world. These poems, though sharp, don’t have a “reverse pretentiousness” that compromises some poets, such as Charles Bukowski. Bukowski, the “everyman’s poet” can be too confrontational, daring the reader to attempt to be more “real” than him. (But really, who can be more “real” than Bukowski writing about a shit in his poem “shit time”?) When he writes about women, for example, Bukowski dares the reader to be “politically correct.” (Or maybe he doesn’t dare; maybe I am only getting older and I no longer see the romance in his poems?)
Stanford also writes about women, but in a different way:
You walk across the room in your panties
with a glass of orange juice
and turn off the air conditioner.
I love the simplicity of this poem, the minimalist, moment-in-time aspect of it. And although Stanford has many longer poems, I’m drawn to these short ones I have recounted here and the simple eloquence of them. (Other critics have commented on the long lines of Stanford and the Whitman-esque sweep of his work).
But before I give the impression that Stanford writes in a gritty-realistic way, I should note that his poems also veer into the surreal, the strange, and peculiar.
Take, for instance, the poem “Pasture Dream” and the lines:
My daughter put black
Lady Fingers between my toes…
What is the poet trying to do here? It is the reverse confessional, in which dreams and imagination are more real than the “reality” of life?
The way Stanford bridges realism (and a southern style—he lived in Arkansas for most of his life) with surrealism makes his poems appealing. And readable. They are so unpretentious. It’s a joy to read modern poetry that is not pretentious. Rather, his poems are quirky and imperfect and real—swampy and original and naked.
An interview with Stanford is included in the collection. In the interview, the interviewer, Irving Broughton, asks Stanford about finding “strange” material. Stanford replies, “Yeah, I hardly ever use a direct experience. For one, I don’t like to do that. For another thing, a lot of people probably think that what a person writes he has done. Such things are too strange, and it would require too much time.”
Mostly, if you like poetry, I would urge you to seek out this book. You will find yourself trying to recite the small treasures and you might be drawn to the mysterious places these poems can lead. As I explored the work of Frank Stanford, I got intrigued by his life and spent a couple of weeks researching. He burned bright, for sure, and sought the love of many women. He was a curly-haired wonder, a satyr, a drunken god of song.
I won’t get into who these women are, but, yes, some are famous artists, writers, and it was this that was his downfall. One famous singer even wrote a song about him. But this would be giving too much away, if I went into detail. This is for you to discover.
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