Frank Stanford's What About This is a monumental achievement. So much of Stanford's work was unpublished, scattered about in limited-edition, hard-to-find volumes, but now it has been collected and readers will rejoice to discover (or rediscover) a distinct poetic voice. As poet Dean Young describes it in his succinct, insightful introduction: this book is "lightning that comes up from the ground."
Stanford was born in Mississippi in 1948, and 29 years later, in Fayetteville, Ark., he shot himself three times in the heart. One of the last poems he wrote was "Memory Is Like a Shotgun Kicking You Near the Heart," with these lines:
I think of the hair growing on the dead,
Any motion without sound,
The stars, the seed ticks
Already past my knees,
The moon beating its dark bush.
He wrote hundreds of poems. In 1969, he started his epic, book-length poem, "The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You," which begins: "tonight the gars on the trees are swords in the hands of knights/ the stars are like twenty-seven dancing russians." Then follow 15,283 more lines.
He was a voracious reader and was heavily influenced by Thomas Merton and French writers. He loved the Surrealists and Rimbaud, Mallarme, Follain and the French filmmakers Cocteau and Buñuel. His poetry is wildly imagistic, imbued with Southern folklore and culture, and it's--to use Stanford's own word--"strange." "If a person is quiet enough inside he might be able to catch on to what I'm trying to do in my poetry." Certain words recur throughout: river, knife, stream, blood, moon, gar, fish, dark, dream, singing. As Young writes in his introduction, these poems "seem as if they were written with a burned stick. With blood, in river mud."
In "Belladonna," from Stanford's first published collection, The Singing Knives (1971), he writes about "A song that comes apart/ Like a rosary/ In the back of a church." Here is "Orphans":
We lived in the big house, we lived
In the ditch like a hubcap. We stole
Eggs, we stole flour. In town they accused us:
Dreaming without sleeping, of wearing our hands.
We swam with our hair, we sold black wind
To soldiers who went by in summer,
We held our breath, passed on the road.
This collection, more than 700 pages, is filled with amazing, forceful, words-on-fire poems that will have readers shaking their heads in amazement. Here indeed is lightning in one's hands. In an unpublished fragment Stanford tells us: "This poem is asleep. I/ don't want you yelling at it,/ waking it up. Let it dream." --Tom Lavoie, former publisher
Shelf Talker: The collected poems of the Ozarks Surrealist Frank Stanford is a seminal work that will be read and talked about for years to come.