Thanks once again go to Christopher Kennedy for introducing me to the work of Frank Stanford back in 2010. Stanford’s short poems have always had a strange allure that seems to contradicts their straightforward delivery, but it wasn’t until I read the entirety of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You that I discovered the true genius of Stanford’s work.
The short poems are powerful and arresting, and after flipping through Copper Canyon’s recent release of Stanford’s published and unpublished work, What About This, I found myself surprised to see how almost every poem–even the ones that ultimately don’t hold together–offer some kind of magic, some burst of wildness like a horse pulling against the reigns…something to delight in and learn from.
It’s difficult to talk about the magic of Stanford’s epic poem that clocks in at over 15,000 lines (most of which run to the end of the page) because it dips from lyric fugue into straightforward narrative and in and out of dream and waking worlds. It’s a very confusing book, and while there’s plenty to ignore (I’m not fan of the Beowulf references), the depths of this well are new and refreshing, and to quote Christopher Kennedy: “Stanford’s got some phrases in here that would make Shakespeare blush.”
Stanford’s work has been receiving more attention recently, which is promising. His vision and voice, his intensity and relentlessness are palpable on the page. You can feel the heartbeat of each poem. I want to take a quick look at one of Stanford’s shortest poems to discuss, quickly, how he’s able to twist and warp and disturb a reader in a matter of just a few lines:
by Frank Stanford
a body comes apart in the bayou
in the lid of a jar
some kind of oyster
you take out with a knife
dogs tell it
the whole night sky
is an appaloosa
The opening line arrests the reader, but the verb doesn’t help us visualize (much) the way in which the body is coming apart. The second/third lines answer that with startling specificity. To compare human flesh to soggy cardboard works to devastating effect. The comparison highlights the value of each, and the way they both come apart in water underscores how little a human life means…it’s just “a body.” The tone the speaker establishes in the beginning is casual, which suggests this kind of scene is a regular occurrence.
Then we see Stanford compare the body to an oyster, and the image of the knife–though casual in the context of eating an oyster–takes on sinister resonance when you consider the occasion of this tiny little poem. And, at least in my reading, we have a howling/barking sound enter the poem with the line “dogs tell it.” Not only does the oyster link us back to the title of the poem, but it tells us about our speaker’s references. Our speaker’s someone familiar with bayous and life around water. But the phrase “dogs tell it,” helps us pinpoint the southern colloquial dialect perhaps a little more easily.
The strange phrasing here also avoids the normal and usual images of dogs howling/barking while describing the impulse of those images. Their howling and barking is telling. Just like Stanford’s poem is a telling, it’s own kind of howl into the night. And our speaker directs the camera skyward in that final gesture (like a dog howling at the moon, perhaps?), only to find the night sky an appaloosa. The image is startling, and not only does it animate and characterize the sky, but the language proves unexpected and brilliantly lyric. It’s the burst we’ve been waiting for, the little lyric moment that the flat language has been building towards.
Stanford’s a poet of incredible imagination. Spend a few hours with his work, and if you’re imaginative capacities are open enough, I promise you won’t regret it.