Today I want to take a quick look at one of Frank Stanford’s shorter poems. Though Stanford’s language is pared down, the central argument of the poem presents some interesting complexities. It’s not easy (or useful in some situations) to pin down a specific meaning from this kind of poem, which is one of the points Stanford’s making with the poem, which uses the title, “Politicians,” as an integral part of the poem. (Imagine this poem with a different title–wouldn’t work quite the same):
by Frank Stanford
And so, we call on them again,
those that walk
the pale buildings that hold
an odor the color of bones.
They stroll the corridors
with the skins of seafood
in their pockets, whistling
Dixie, rolling balls of dung
by their sides, carrying
briefcases full of bats
The poem opens conspicuously with the “And so,” which points to a cause-and-effect relationship, but there’s a bit of a problem because we don’t know the cause, just the effect. The phrasing introduces the question: why must “we call on them again”? Oh, right, because that’s how our political system works.
But who are we calling on exactly? And to what end? Nevermind, as long as you know they walk the bone-white government buildings. But Stanford introduces, in that opening sentence, a bit of unease with his description of the buildings, which “hold / an odor the color of bones.” This little bit of synesthesia (mixing the senses, smell/color) seems confusing at first, but the more you think about it, the more sense it starts to make. Why would those buildings smell like bones? Whose bones made these buildings? Bingo. But matching the image of a human bone and associating it with both color and smell forces me to link that sun-bleached, mineral smell of bone with the color in a way I hadn’t before–in association with the buildings in the capital.
In the second sentence, Stanford elevates the diction, they “stroll the corridors,” which basically repeats the same sentiment expressed with “walk / the pale buildings.” Just a more elevated way of saying the same thing. Remind you of anyone? Hint: look @ the title!
But these people we must depend on, these politicians we are obliged to call on, what do they do other than walk through big buildings? And what do they do when they walk through those corridors? Stanford claims they carry “skins of seafood / in their pockets,” a pretty disgusting image. But when you look at it closer, it suggests both something sinister (why would you carry the skins of anything around with you, and in your pocket?), and something exorbitant, excessive (did they just finish eating a bunch of food and decided to slide the skins in their pockets? and WHY?).
The image of whistling Dixie, shows how non-nonchalant, and outdated, these people really are. But just in case you were unclear about how the poet feels about these people, the “rolling balls of dung,” should make it pretty clear that Stanford thinks politicians aren’t just full of shit but trying to snowball it all around them, using a briefcase of bats (like a vampire magician?) to create an illusion for everyone watching.
Again, the images are suggestive and not exactly ones you can (or maybe even should) pinpoint with certainty, but the tone of the poem expresses Stanford’s sentiment, and in a round-about-way presents a pretty deliberate attack that’s difficult to parry because its attack simultaneously presents and avoids direct meaning. Let me ask: how would you respond? Or maybe a better question: say you’re a politician who enjoys poetry (I know, kind of a stretch), and you read this…how do you feel? If the answer’s any variation of “bad” (including “angry”), then the reaction proves the poem’s truth. And there ain’t no hiding that.
P.S. You may be cool, but you’ll never be Frank-Stanford-wrapped-in-a-quilt-sitting-next-to-a-panther-with-the-moon-in-the-distance cool: