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The Nijinsky of Dreams: The Legacy of Frank Stanford.

What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford, Ed. Michael Wiegers, Copper Canyon Press, 2015, 747 pages

Hidden Water: From the Frank Stanford Archives, Ed. Michael Wiegers and Chet Weise, Third Man Books, 2015, 120 pages


"[T]onight the gars on the trees are swords in the hands of knights," declares poet Frank Stanford's unique contribution to American letters: the swashbuckling, clairvoyant "little outlaw" Francis Gildart, unlikely knight and adolescent hero of Stanford's visionary mock-epic poem of roughly 15,000 lines, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. Stanford's alter ego (who pointedly shares the author's first and middle given names) narrates his quest through a stream-of-consciousness mode in which anecdotal lists of action mix with lyrical dream interludes, both of which aim to characterize Francis's multitudinous self (a picaresque Southern Whitman), devoted friends, dastardly enemies, and extraordinary deeds. Fittingly, Stanford began writing Battlefield as a knight-obsessed prep-school prodigy in a Benedictine monastery and academy in Subiaco, Arkansas. Or, as Francis puts it: "When the rest of you/Were being children /1 became a monk / To my own listing / Imagination." Despite Francis's braggadocio, an elegiac impulse often drives Stanford's "listing imagination," particularly in the poet's positioning of his white speaker among friends, a rural community of mostly black characters with eccentric nicknames like Born In The Camp With Six Toes, Ray Baby, O.Z., and Baby Gauge. Born in 1948, in Richton, Mississippi, at a home for unwed mothers, Stanford was adopted by Dorothy Gilbert Alter, who later married a friend of her father's, an elderly Memphis engineer and levee contractor, Albert Franklin Stanford. As a child, the poet spent a number of summers in the rugged delta terrain of his father's levee camps along the Mississippi River. When Stanford was twelve years old, his father retired and the family moved from Memphis to north central Arkansas. As Leon Stokesbury writes in his introduction to The Light the Dead See: Selected Poems of Frank Stanford:
    Leaving a world often filled with the black workers his father
employed in
   the levee camps, and with their children who were Stanford's
   friends, and resettling in an area of Arkansas where blacks were
   unofficially forbidden to live was a shock for Stanford, and one that
   would later have a major effect on his poetry. (ix) 

The death of A. F. Stanford, when the poet was fifteen, and the revelation, when he was nearly twenty, that he was adopted, also radically impacted Stanford's life and work. More specifically, these grave personal losses and cultural displacements helped shape Stanford's intricate mythology comprised of fiercely loyal interracial blood brothers, metamorphic rivers and swamps, and his wily young hero who identifies with marginalized figures and misfits. In Battlefield, Stanford's black characters often emerge as composites based on the author's friends and family acquaintances, and many of their vivid nicknames remain unaltered; they are neither Rousseau's Noble Savages nor "magical negroes" dropped into the narrative without a past, like Mark Twain's Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, existing simply to help the white protagonist. Battlefield is many things, but perhaps above all it is one of the most ambitious political poems of our time: an unequivocal quest for racial justice that rises up from the blood-and-mud grotesquerie of the Deep South as well as the humane depths of its roots music, superstitions, and storytelling. In the preface to the second edition of Battlefield (2000, Lost Roads Publishers), edited by C. D. Wright and Forrest Gander, Wright describes the poem as "a journey which translates into a Freedom Ride to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and perhaps quasi-consciously, the hero is on a quest to find his biological parents." In Stanford's "cross-cultural vision," Wright adds, "Blackness empowers."

Called an "uncontrollable white boy" by Wright in her preface, Stanford's wild and willful Francis Gildart charges through the eerie swamps and lost roads of the American South in the wake of the civil-rights movement. This is a restless landscape populated with mythic boys, drunken boats, hoodoo talismans, trotlines, swamps with cypress knees that resemble tombstones, glinting switchblades, and rivers teeming with slithery gars, catfish, and crawdads. Readers encounter a dazzling menagerie of pop cultural and literary figures floridly bent through a lens of local color: Eskimo pies, Arkansas hillbillies, and icehouses exist alongside enchanted swords, ships of death, and the Round Table; heroes like Beowulf, Zorro, and Odysseus thrive in proximity to knife throwers, gamblers, and a ninety-year-old queer mustachioed alcoholic. Elsewhere, a delirious muttering Chaucer rides by on a mule wearing "little pointed shoes" as if imported from a Bob Dylan song. We meet Francis's friend Jimmy who is (at twenty-two inches tall) "the world's smallest man," Sylvester the Black Angel, a shit-kicker Jesus and his ragtag disciples, as well as a host of other peculiar figures who traipse through Stanford's macabre vistas of dreamlike spectacle.

With an inexhaustible knack for the proliferating simile informed by surrealism ("You get down on your hands and knees / Like a sick dog / That's been eating the grasses of graveyards / For twenty centuries"), a cast of marauding Southern Gothic grotesques (a guitarist who plays slide guitar with a hambone, a knife-wielding midget, an acolyte who rides a hog named Holy Ghost to church), a ribald sense of humor ("she draws a dildo on the window of the stagecoach with frogspit"), a visionary Romantic mode akin to William Blake's prophetic works, and a sensibility rooted in the narrative ballads of the Delta blues, Stanford's poetry can confound attempts at concise description. Lorenzo Thomas hails Stanford "a swamprat Rimbaud"; Benjamin Kimpel describes Battlefield "as if Huckleberry Finn had been written by Andre Breton"; Steve Stern locates Francis's boasts "somewhere between Beowulf's and Davy Crockett's"; and Dean Young recommends imagining "Vallejo growing up in a tent on the Mississippi." Although drumming up colorful epithets for Stanford's unique mode of delta surrealism becomes addictive, the task can tempt a critic toward caricature: "Beowulf meets 'The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest!"' "Whitman wields a switchblade in Eggleston's Stranded in Canton!" "Make way for the Don Juan Robert Johnson!" Is Frank Stanford a poetry critic's catnip or kryptonite?

Various "-isms" suit Stanford's associative abandon and violations of verisimilitude (surrealism, magical realism, symbolism) as well as a number of "-esques," namely of the macabre or swashbuckling sort (carnivalesque, picaresque, grotesque). Additionally, Stanford embraces an eclectic mix of literary modes and genres (narrative, folk myth, tall tale, political poem, prayer, ballad, elegy, aphorism, epic) as well as musical genres (blues, folk, gospel, Jimmie Rodgers's "Blue Yodel" country songs). His tones veer from deadpan to bawdy to tender to snarling to ecstatic. Stanford's syntax varies, though he favors parataxis and cataloguing techniques propelled by bluesy or biblical anaphora. He generally eschews punctuation and often employs barrages of declarative sentences, many of which contain single independent clauses. At other times, his sentences expand into baroque Faulknerian sprawls. His regionalist diction (occasionally gleaned from an older generation's parlance) is by turns homely, obscure, luminous, and steely. His idioms encompass a number of Southern dialects (Memphis, Mississippi Delta, Ozark Mountain Country) as well as approximations of deliberately archaic African American vernacular (Ts good on Big Leaguer Pin Ball"). His imagery is predominately visual ("The sky was the color of a working man's shirt"), nightmarish ("a kit fox with cataracts / paws out her eyes"), and synesthetic ("And the only thing you let between your legs / Was the melancholy blood of the cello"). His similes and metaphors are often gothic and phantasmagoric ("When Death's bread rises / out of its grave"). And like Flannery O'Connor's governing Catholic ontology, Stanford's religious upbringing permeates his work. Whereas O'Connor's distortions of Christian tropes often lead her freaks and misfits to experiences in which divine grace is possible, affirming her devout belief that Christ may be found in the most unlikely people or incongruous circumstances, Stanford's crooked Catholic dogma seeks to fabricate subversive or rebellious apocrypha--new salty dog legends that violently displace or dismantle the dominant tales.

Stanford's oeuvre contains some of the most strikingly original poetry of the latter half of the twentieth century and has influenced a number of his peers, most significantly C. D. Wright. His impact is especially notable throughout Wright's first five collections and in Deepstep Come Shining (1998), her acclaimed book-length elliptical poem tracing a road trip through the American South. Regrettably, however, Stanford's work was barred from book contests and rejected by publishers because of length, neglected by critics, remained out of print or difficult to purchase for nearly twenty years (during the nineteen-eighties and most of the nineties), and-like the poems of other writers who died young and dramatically--reduced or sentimentalized by readers who harbor a cultish fascination with his suicide. (Stanford died, of multiple self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the chest, in 1978, at age twenty-nine.) At the time, of his death, the prolific Stanford had published six poetry collections with Irv Broughton's Mill Mountain Press: The Singing Knives (1971), Ladies from Hell (1974), Shade (1975), Field Talk (1975), Arkansas Bench Stone (1975), and Constant Stranger (1976). Since then, Michael Cuddihy, of Ironwood Press, posthumously released Stanford's Crib Death (1978) and C. D. Wright--who lived with Stanford toward the end of his life in Fayetteville and who co-founded with him Lost Roads Published--has helped bring out another volume of his poems (You, 1979), a collection of short stories (Conditions Uncertain and Likely to Pass Away, 1991), and a number of reissued titles (including Battlefield). Additionally, Stanford's selected poems, The Light the Dead See, was edited by Leon Stokesbury and published, in 1991, by the University of Arkansas Press. (Although Stanford never earned a college degree, he had taken--as an undergraduate student in civil engineering--at least one graduate-level poetry workshop at the University of Arkansas, taught by the poet and novelist James Whitehead.)


With the welcome publication of What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford and Hidden Water: From the Frank Stanford Archives, now is the time to revisit Stanford's legacy and reposition him as an acknowledged major poet of the late twentieth century. Copper Canyon Press's editor Michael Wiegers arranges Stanford's magisterial collected volume, totaling over 730 pages, into the following four sections: published work; unpublished manuscripts; uncollected poems, drafts, and fragments; and uncollected prose. He also includes facsimiles (dense cursive drafts, scribbledon typescripts, a spooky doodle of a crucifixion) and a colorful porchside interview with Stanford conducted by Broughton after a night of wine and Cocteau films.

It's helpful to recall, however, that a book of collected poems is not necessarily a complete one. In Stanford's case, as an epic poet, how could it be? Wiegers aims to give "a small taste" of Stanford's masterwork in What About This by representing approximately twenty excerpts from Battlefield, scattering them throughout the book. Excerpting from Battlefield rather than foregrounding a hundred-page chronological chunk of the nearly 400-page poem helpfully steers readers new to Stanford's work through his extravagant mythology and fulsome body of work. Moreover, Wiegers's editorial approach aims to chart the compositional arc of Battlefield--the poet worked devotedly on the epic for over a decade. (As it happens, Battlefield is itself Stanford's chosen excerpt from a reputedly much longer mock-epic poem, Saint Francis and the Wolf, the complete manuscript of which may no longer exist.)

In one excerpt from Battlefield, featured in What About This, Francis navigates the surreality of a psychosexual dreamscape that recalls Blake's apocalyptic vision in The Four Zoas. Francis appears by turns grimly prophetic and suggestive:
    even after the maggots have entered the quick
   I call out madam
   shall I undress you for a fight the wars are naked that you wage
   in a bed as broad as a battlefield
   as a sword I mock the fallen with
   and the angel says what is dead is dead
   I dream what I dream 

In another excerpt, Stanford's Francis could pass for a resourcefully perverse Beowulf who's traversed history in time to read Lord Byron and Ginsberg and possibly attend a Dylan concert. Francis brandishes his psychedelic hubris like a luminous hoodoo talisman:
    I undo my pants looking for trouble
   I interpret dreams like Daniel I focus the bee
   I tarnish
   the mirror with slang and redeal the cards
   like a sonneteer of chalk and sapphires
   I glow with the venom of the lover
   moving forever and ever shall be without antidote
   I am the fair lead of the air's noose
   I invade the gutter and Louvre 

Elsewhere, in an excerpt featuring a barroom brawler Southern Jesus who "would have kicked your teeth in you couldn't pull that shit on him," Francis unlooses a bluesy prayer of supplication:
    have mercy Jesus deliver me from the lawyers and the teachers and
   and the politicking flies can't you hear them buzz can't
you hear them
      bite another
   chunk out of me oh brother I am death and you are sleep 1 am white
      you are
   black brother tell me I am that which l am I am sleep and you are
      we are
   one person getting up and going outside naked as a blue jay rolling
   at the moon oh brother tell me you love me and I'll tell you too
   [...] whoa lord help me and my brother help us get through this
      tookover land
   we are poor wayfaring strangers bumping into each other in the dark 

Stanford's evocation of interracial brotherhood in the above passage--and elsewhere in his work--recalls early postmodern critic Leslie Fiedler's groundbreaking explorations of race and sexuality in "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" (1948). In the essay, Fiedler argues that recurring tropes of implied, unspoken homoerotic longing between men pervade American literature, specifically idealizations of interracial homoeroticism within the context of the nostalgic myth of American boyhood and the wilderness adventure. Fiedler gives as examples Huck's feelings for Jim in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Ishmael's love for Queequeg in Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Amid the rugged dreamy flux of rivers, seas, and virgin forests, Fiedler argues, white characters who've been cut off from society turn to the "dark skinned beloved" who folds them "in his arms saying 'Honey' or 'Aikane,'" challenging the "conventionally abhorrent doctrine of ideal love" (52). These sexually charged yet chaste fraternal relationships between white outcast and black companion, Fiedler suggests, are fraught with an "immense gulf of guilt" (52). "There would be something insufferable, I think," Fielder writes:
    in that final vision of remission if it were not for the apparent
   of a motivating anxiety, the sense that someday, no longer tourist,
   inheritor, or liberator, he will be rejected, refused--he dreams of
   acceptance at the breast he has most utterly offended. It is a dream
   sentimental, so outrageous, so desperate that it redeems our concept
   boyhood from nostalgia to tragedy. (52-53) 

Stanford, writing in the wake of the civil-rights movement and the counterculture's interest in folk revival and songs of political protest, complicates Fiedler's notion of "unspoken" or naive sentimentalization of interracial bonding, in his self-conscious conflation of Francis's white body with that of his black beloved: "we are / one person getting up and going outside naked as a blue jay rolling our bellies / at the moon." Here, Francis's assertion sounds less like Catherine's fraught declaration of absolute identification with her dark-skinned adopted brother of Roma decent, Heathcliff, in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights ("I am Heathcliff!") and more like William Carlos Williams's ecstatic speaker in "Danse Russe" who dances "naked, grotesquely," declaring, "I am best so!" In his subversively sensual prayer of supplication and idealized vision of racial equality, Stanford draws upon the bluesy existential depths of American roots music, as he conjures the folk and gospel song "The Wayfaring Stranger," writing: "whoa lord help me and my brother help us get through this tookover land / we are poor wayfaring strangers bumping into each other in the dark." Arising in the early 1800s, and as sung variously by Burl Ives, Bill Monroe, and Joan Baez, "The Wayfaring Stranger" begins:
    I'm just a poor wayfaring stranger
   I'm traveling through this world of woe
   Yet there's no sickness, toil nor danger
   In that bright land to which I go 

Although Stanford's "bright land" is a land of gleaming, blood-slick darkness, his cross-cultural mythology of brothers-by-choice journeying together through "this tookover land" is a vision that honors the diversity of American culture (its gospel and folk ballads, its sustaining friendships that resemble his own) even as he indicts its insidious regions of economic and racial disparity as well as the pontificating "lawyers and the teachers and the preachers" and "the politicking flies" who reinforce the dominant culture's status quo.

In one of the better-known passages from Battlefield, included in both the poet's selected and collected volumes, Stanford moves from the rhythms and language of gospel and folk toward the deliberately archaic African American vernacular of his father's generation. "I'd been walking for thirteen miles I bet," Francis says as he wanders a rural highway, planning to have a cup of coffee at his friend Snatch's roadside convenience store. "I's heading to Snatch's for chicory coffee," Francis declares. At times Francis's old-time minstrel blackface recalls that of Berryman's Henry: a similarly mercurial character who speaks from a range of disjointed hallucinatory narratives--part wounded enfant terrible, part sly Shakespearean fool. After disregarding a warning from some fellow travelers ("you won't believe your eyes when you get there they said"), Francis encounters at the store two enigmatic black stoics: Snatch, who crouches outside, silently fiddling with his car, and the defeated boxer, Sonny Liston, who has, we gather, recently lost his World Heavyweight title to Muhammad Ali. Francis smiles at Sonny Liston, who ignores him, gripping a quart of Stag, and sitting as if "maybe a artist was / drawing his picture he was so still." Francis soon realizes that the famous boxer is bloody and "crying in a short order cafe," a pitiable figure reeking of death ("there was the smell of dressed game soaking in water"). Francis tries to comfort Liston by wrapping his shoulders in a towel (as a cornerman might do between rounds) and fetching him a honeycomb from Snatch's hive, which the boxer gums after removing his dentures. Finally, Sonny Liston gains enough energy from the apple blossom honey-and perhaps from Francis's kindness--to adequately grieve for his lost title, transforming from a weeping toothless figure of diminishment to an enraged shrieking Lear, whose awesome despair shakes the firmament:
    Sonny Liston stood up and yelled
   at the top of his lungs
   a four pound shell cracker hanging on the wall
   fell off in back of the counter
   the chandelier rattled over his head
   he looked like a king
   who'd just lost his kingdom 

At the end of the excerpt, Stanford once again echoes Fiedler's notion of interracial homoeroticism as Francis gives the boxer a massage:
    ... I was applying a gentle pressure
   I know Snatch wasn't looking and he was asleep
   so I kissed Sonny Liston on his black neck
   I let him sleep 

Here, rather than through outrageousness or sentimentality, it's Francis's empathy and desire to comfort that drives his interracial camaraderie, which comes not from a place of guilt but from his unaffected identification with his black friends from the delta levee camps. The array of excerpts from Battlefield in What About This allows readers glimpses into Francis's continuing trek through the fraught vistas of the American South on his quest for justice.


The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You stands, unequivocally, as Stanford's most significant published book. Readers new to his work, however, will find section one of What About This an absorbing compilation of his nine other published collections of poems. Stanford's first book, The Singing Knives (1971), features his decadent mythology of young outlaws, supernatural swamps, monstrous villains, loyal friends, and*wild adventures in the backwoods. Here, readers encounter a number of characters from Stanford's mock-epic, such as a picaresque speaker and his tough band of interracial pals in "The Blood Brothers," including Born In The Camp With Six Toes and Baby Gauge. In "The Albino," Stanford's speaker undergoes a hallucinatory initiation into a tribe as he travels to a magical fishing hole, with a clairvoyant albino levee worker as his guide. In "The Snake Doctors," Stanford alludes to a Southern superstition (in some parts of Mississippi, dragonflies are called "snake doctors" because the insects are said to follow snakes around and stitch them back together should the reptiles get injured) that becomes a hypnotic, eroticized refrain evoking dragonflies mating mid-air ("I saw the snake doctors riding each other") and recounts a tall tale in five sections in which a pig-riding acolyte exacts revenge upon a malevolent guitar player and a knife-wielding midget by employing the guitarist's own chainsaw-severed hand as a hoodoo curse.

Toward the end of section one in What About This, readers will find Stanford's last two single volumes of poetry: Crib Death (1978) and Yon (1979). In these collections, Stanford's portrayals of violence differ from the fevered, densely mythic architectures of his early books, evolving into a sparer, distilled narrative approach that often focuses on domestic crises between lovers rather than boyhood pals on wilderness adventures. Stokesbury notes, too, Stanford's increasingly urgent poetic engagement with mortality: "the denial of time and mutability had given way to an obsessive debate with death" (xii). In "Between Love and Death," from Crib Death, for instance, a voyeur spies on a woman through a peephole in the shared wall dividing their apartments. The woman seems hardy and self-reliant, a kind of working-class temptress: "She would look my way, sometimes, / With an apple core in her mouth. / Working late, overhauling her truck. ..." The gnawed apple, however, implies the woman's own vulnerable "core"--the source of her biblical sin to come. Sometimes the man whistles, "Wanting her to hear me," and notices how "She moved in her misery / Like a pine in the wind." Alas, he never works up the courage to speak to the woman, and, after learning of her suicide, he goes outside to lie "Damp and quiet on the earth." At the end of the poem, Stanford writes:
    She bled through the walls
   Into my side of the house,
   And they came with their lights
   Asking did I know the woman,
   And I said no, not I. 

Oscillating between perception and reality, voyeurism and empathy, Stanford creates a tragic narrative of missed opportunity that ends in the man's self-recrimination and acknowledgment that although he spent a good deal of time watching his neighbor, he never truly knew her. In "Between Love and Death" Stanford suggests that the barriers that lie "between" these abstractions can be physical (walls, holes, blood) as well as psychological (shyness, obsession, depression). Stanford implies that through lying on top of her gravesite (or perhaps a similarly funerary mound of earth), the voyeur sees a prescient version of his own.

Like the poems in Crib Death, those in You feature spare yet muscular domestic narratives in which death's inevitability is foregrounded with gruesome precision. Stanford's chilling tour de force, "Freedom, Revolt, and Love," begins in an atmosphere of ambiguity and peril:
    They caught them.
   They were sitting at a table in the kitchen.
   It was early.
   They had on bathrobes.
   They were drinking coffee and smiling. 

The initially mysterious "theys" in the poem soon become disambiguated, as we discover a man and woman drinking their morning coffee at the breakfast table ("She had one of his cigarillos in her fingers") and a pair of male intruders prowling through the couple's backyard ("Then they came in through the back"). The tension mounts with Stanford's terse lines and declarative sentences, suggesting an encroaching mortal danger: "Her cat ran out. / The house was near the road. / She didn't like the cat going out." The intruders help themselves to the coffee ("Burning their tongues") before unleashing a sudden onslaught of barbaric violence:
    She started to get up.
   One of them shot her.
   She leaned over the table like a schoolgirl doing her lessons.
   She thought about being beside him, being asleep. 

Stanford's penchant for the startling, macabre simile in which incongruities clash in a grotesque spectacle--this one comparing the shot woman slumping from her wound to a diligent schoolgirl bending over her books--amplifies the men's senseless brutality. Additionally, his description of the men's execution of the woman's companion is similarly shocking: "They took her long gray socks / Put them over the barrel of a rifle/And shot him." Since a pair of socks would likely make for a poor silencer, the men's actions don't seem utilitarian in purpose. Instead, the gesture resonates with a cruel perversity--they want to integrate a vestige of the man's own lover into the very weapon that will kill him. As the couple hunches at the table, dying together, Stanford vividly evokes their last moments. The woman attempts to normalize the horror of her wound in order to comfort her partner, conjuring the harmless static electricity of an ordinary autumn day: "She told him hers didn't hurt much, / Like in the fall when everything you touch / Makes a spark." Even as one of the murderers lights the dying man a cigarette--a mocking gesture--the man experiences empathy, or perhaps shock, rather than rage: "He thought what it would be like / Being children together." Because of Stanford's sly use of ambiguity, we don't know if the man imagines being a child with his partner or with his murderers, which opens up an indeterminate space that allows for parallel interpretations. The woman's final actions are to take the cigarette out of her dead partner's lips and to caress his hair: "She thought about him walking through the dark singing. / She died on the table like that, / Smoke coming out of his mouth." Again, Stanford's employment of ambiguity suggests parallel readings: a consoling vision of resurrection as the woman imagines breath smoking from her dead partner's lips, or a desolate recognition of irrevocable loss as the corpse of the man finally vacates the last of its oxygen. Either way, the dead man's cinematic final breath hangs in the air, mercurial and transient, made visible.


While Stanford's published poetry collections comprise the first section of What About This, the latter three consist of previously unpublished and uncollected material: approximately 400 pages of "new stuff." This generous inclusivity is a boon for Stanford fans, although newcomers will likely find the massive bulk of the collected volume intimidating; these latter readers may wish to begin with The Light the Dead See: Selected Poems of Frank Stanford. In its vast scope, What About This can seem less of a conventional collected volume and more of an archival adventure: Stanford's version of Dylan's The Basement Tapes Complete! In any case, readers could use a guide to the new Stanford material: one that celebrates the poet's strongest manuscripts, recognizes uneven works, and highlights particularly accomplished poems in the selection of juvenilia.

Of Stanford's fifteen newly published poetry manuscripts in What About This, three undated ones stand out as the strongest: Automatic Co-Pilot (~thirty pages), Mad Dogs (-fifteen pages), and The Last Panther in the Ozarks (-twenty pages). Each poem in Automatic Co-Pilot is an homage dedicated to a particular artist, author, or filmmaker. Thus, the poems' various "co-pilots" include a melange of continental virtuosos (heavy on the French surrealists): Comte de Lautreamont, Rene Daumal, Man Ray, Yukio Mishima, Oskar Kokoschka, Raymond Roussel, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Federico Garcia Lorca, Antonin Artaud, Raymond Radiguet, Luis Bunuel, Bernardo Bertolucci, and others. The poems are often elegant, dreamy, compact, and cinematic. They also repeat a number of Stanford's favorite gothic tropes (blood, mirrors, moons) and subjects (fugitives, violence, death). In Automatic Co-Pilot Stanford explores his filmic consciousness in response to the continental writers and artists prominently coming into view in the United States during his maturation as a poet. In "Dreamers," for example, one of two poems in the collection dedicated to the French filmmaker Rene Clair, Stanford writes:
    Death, sleep, and the lovers. The clock and the coffin,
   The crawdads, the stars. The great satisfaction of night.
   The outworn clothes, the currants sunk in the earth, the invaded
   Butterfly weary of flowers, weary of forests, like a footprint
   Full of blood. The calm umbrellas, territories of sound
   And no sound. A gown, anything that will survive. A knife
   Drawn in the desert, someone in the streets, someone in love,
   In the empty river, someone vertical; putting out a fire,
   Putting out in a boat that has no silence, no death, no solitude,
   Another traveler sleeping beneath the horse, beneath my own journey,
   Like a mirror warm as pudding, the thirty tombs of Judas. 

In this fantastical poem, Stanford employs parataxis to create a decentered, psychological matrix of potent images, recalling the manipulations of time as well as the "dreamers" in Clair's first film, Paris Qui Dort (made in 1924 and released the following year), who fall under the sleeping spell, of a mad scientist's magic ray. Stanford's rapid associational shifts, also honor the style of Clair's early avant-garde films inflected with surrealism and Dadaism, such as Entr'acte (1924). (In the short film, viewers witness a shot egg release a bird and watch, from a worm's-eye view, a ballet dancer pirouette.) In response to Clair's fluid juxtapositions, Stanford's imagery in "Dreamers" is predominantly visual and his language becomes more elegantly lyrical than that of his characteristic verse. His diction is high-textured and musical, woven with assonance, internal rhyme, and repetition. Additionally, Stanford's opposing "territories of sound / And no sound" allude to Clair's initial resistance to the introduction of sound into motion pictures, in the late 1920s. (The silent filmmaker predicted that sound would kill the art of the film, though he learned to employ it as a counterpoint to visual images.) In the dark musical comedy Under the Roofs of Paris (1930), for instance, Clair conjures "territories of sound/And no sound," using scenes featuring spoken dialogue or song as well as those dependent on the visual narrative techniques of silent film (as when a pair of lovers quarrels behind the glass of a window, scowling and waving their hands).

In the penultimate line of "Dreamers" Stanford introduces the surprising presence of a first-person speaker ("Another traveler sleeping beneath the horse, beneath my own journey"), finally uniting the sweeping list of objects and figures within a particular consciousness. In the poem's cryptic closure, Stanford offers several readings of the arresting simile, "Like a mirror warm as pudding, the thirty tombs of Judas." Grammatically, Stanford's simile compares the "knife / Drawn in the desert" to the "mirror warm as pudding," though his cascade of subordinated clauses obfuscates the link. Simultaneously, however, Stanford compares the mirror to "the thirty tombs of Judas," through a coupling facilitated by the comma between the two final clauses (or an inverted simile, with "Like" preceding the tenor). At first, the mirror/tombs simile appears to be a surrealist's confection, though its connotation quickly reveals a sinister logic. The mirror reflects not the visual image but the tactile body heat of two travelers: the one who carelessly sleeps under a horse and the speaker, both of whom seem kindred spirits with the biblical rogue Judas. In Matthew 27:5, the remorseful Judas attempts to return the thirty silver coins he received for betraying the murdered Jesus. The chief priests of the temple refuse to add this "blood money" to the treasury, however, using it instead to buy a potters field known as the Field of Blood. Judas then hangs himself.

The knife in Stanford's poem becomes a "mirror warm as pudding," presumably as the cold blade enters a hot body, transforming in texture (hard to soft), temperature (cool to warm), and dimension (second to third) to become a phantasmagoric "Field of Blood" in which sin heats and ripples the metal into a ghoulish composite tomb. This mirrored catacomb draws in the poem's swirling paratactic list of objects and figures, including "Death, sleep, and the lovers," the "Butterfly weary of flowers," and the "footprint / Full of blood." "Dreamers" is Stanford's dark filmic vision of a Judas-like sinner's self-reckoning journey toward death.

Elsewhere in What About This's section of previously unpublished manuscripts, readers encounter the short manuscript, Mad Dogs, which contains four dense, mythic, narrative poems reminiscent of those in The Singing Knives. In Broughton's interview with Stanford, the latter mentions spending time in a bus station and speaking with an elderly traveler. According to Stanford, the man tells him: '"Friend, if yeh put yeh saddlebags in the next seat, I'll sit down and tell you the story of my life.' That sounded like a pretty damn good proposition, since he was about seventy-something years old. So he sat down and started talkin'" (734). In the seven-page poem "Anchoress" in Mad Dogs, Stanford employs the following /expertly exaggerated) epigraph: "This being the true account of a printer who, having been released from prison on his 100th birthday, rides back to his homestead, and recalls what was and what never was" (479). The poem begins with a characteristically psychosexual image of a magical mirror, uncanny doubling, and atmospheric rural travel: "Deep in the hills there is a cold shack / Where nipples leave their rouge on the mirror // And you pass yourself on the road riding another way...." We also encounter several Stanfordian archetypes (an eroticized rustic, a quasi-biblical outlaw) and familiar visual tropes (blood, knives, nightmarish fauna):
    The barechested milkmaid
   Hauling hay for the outlaw's last supper
   She marks her books with leaves
   And scrapes hair
   From her legs with a butcher knife once in spring
   Once in fall
   The deer come down to drink her blood 

Toward the end of the poem, Stanford's aged printer declares, "The first loves are not spoken / They are not protected from the weather / They go mad to be spoken and die," whereas "The stories of the other loves / Are told right good." One of the man's "other loves" was:
    A debutante of solitudes and lowriding
   She twirled a narwhal baton
   She ate the bones with the fish
   She wore cockleburs for sequins
   My land under shadow like a majorette in the rain 

Here, Stanford figures the former lover as the titular anchoress with a Southern road tripper's twist: that "debutante of solitudes arid lowriding." (In Christianity, an anchoress is a woman who chooses to pursue an isolated life of prayer, withdrawing from the rest of the world.) She appears in a kind of bizarre double vision: she's a Southern debutante and an ethereal knight who wields a "narwhal baton" that seems magical (evocative of mermaids and unicorns), deadly (a medieval sword), erotic or Freudian (phallic), and even genteel (Millsaps College in Mississippi first introduced the sport of baton twirling to the United States). Like a "majorette in the rain," the agile dance of her memory shadows the printer's psyche with its dark and fluid choreography.

In the final stanza of the poem, Stanford returns to the mirror motif, much as the 100-year-old printer finally returns to his homestead, though neither site, we gather, has remained unchanged. Time and regret have, Stanford suggests, removed the erotic "rouge" of the two nipples reflected in the mirror, displacing them with a pair of crossed out eyes that paradoxically resembles death (the eyes of a cartoon corpse) or resurrection (the incisions made over a snakebite in order to better suck out the venom):
    It was a hell of a long time ago-it seems I wrote
   Two X's in her oval looking glass
   Just like I was cutting over fang marks
   Drawing poison 

In Stanford's previously unpublished manuscript The Last Panther in the Ozarks, the poems are comparatively shorter and more stylistically diverse than those in Mad Dogs. They include one-or two-lined aphorisms, such as the gnomic "To Find Directions" ("Go to the graveyard.") or the riddle-like "I see a woman wading in the river" ("I see a woman wading in the river / there is no river."); elegies, such as "Riverlight" ("My father and I lie down together. / He is dead. // We look up at the stars, the steady sound / Of the wind turning the night like a ceiling fan."); and a number of beast fables, such as "A man in a field saw a she-wolf' and "Friend of the Enemy," in which Stanford nods to the mythically disfigured villain from Beowulf and the mark of the beast in Revelation, as his Grendel-like lame panther with an injured paw "loped back to her lair" carrying the yolk of the egg the speaker had cracked. The egg white that slid down his leg like a damning ectoplasmic placenta, Stanford writes, "stayed with me, // Mark of the beast, birth, and trade." Elsewhere, in "Crossing the Fork on a One-Lane Bridge with No Lights," the manuscript's titular beast makes another appearance ("The panther is down from the cliffs / Crazy drunk on the young blood in the valley."), reflecting Grendel's descent from his cave to conduct murderous rampages on the Danes in Hrothgar's mead hall. We might reason that if Stanford's mock-heroic Francis Gildart in Battlefield is Beowulf, then his bloodthirsty panther in The Last Panther in the Ozarks is Grendel, wounded outlaw and descendent of Cain.

Curiously, the initial three manuscripts in section two of What About This (Plain Songs, Smoking Grapevine, and Wounds) aren't as strong as the following three (Automatic Co-Pilot, Mad Dogs, and The Last Panther in the Ozarks). Stanford's poems in Plain Songs, written after Jean Follain, can seem flat and too much under the spell of W. S. Merwin's translations of Follain ("the blind peel their apples/the young feel their nipples"). Although the manuscript contains poems to admire, such as "Fox You Are My Convict" and "Night of the Following Day," it's difficult to shake the notion that Stanford's working with an idiom twice removed. The dilemma of Plain Songs also concerns the way Stanford's love of the more classically surreal, often Lorcaesque, image or simile overtakes the plainspoken character of Follain's perception of the moment. In Smoking Grapevine, according to the epigraph, "after Nicanor Parra," Stanford presents his own "versions" of poems by the Chilean poet. Readers unfamiliar with Parra's concept of "antipoetry," however, may balk at Stanford's evocations of crude machismo ("Nixon looks like a foot / his mouth smells like an old lady's cunt"), scatological humor ("smelling your finger//in a word taking a dump on the piano"), pedophilic nostalgia ("Most of all in life /1 would like to fuck a thirteen-year-old again"), and acerbic sniping at fellow poets. Stanford's work in Smoking Grapevine can seem far more adolescent than his actual juvenilia. In "Flies-on Shit," he sneers at "the gentlemen from the south" (presumably the Southern poets known as the Fugitives, such as John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate), "the tourists from the north" (hello, Robert Lowell), and "the dumb-ass students," declaring to the parasitic swarm of establishment writers and their literary progeny, "I cut my eye teeth on flies / floating in shit." Stanford's two-page manuscript Wounds (previously subtitled, according to an editorial footnote, "Fifty Poems Vanquishing the House of Momus"), which contains twelve untitled poems composed in single tercets, sticks out as a perplexing aberration. These poems operate something like spoiled Old English riddles in which the bard gives away the answers in the first lines: "This poem is a chain saw. / Why don't you like it? It fells / trees you are afraid to climb." Largely devoid of Stanford's distinctive images and similes, the poems in Wounds feel like glib aphorisms or gimmicky experiments in ars poetica. In one of them, Stanford warns: "This poem is so far a-/head of you you will never / catch it. Don't wear yourself out."

Despite the relative unevenness of the initial manuscripts in the second section of What About This, the latter half of the section contains eighty or so pages of Stanford's juvenilia and makes for a fascinating compilation of the poet's early work. After reading the adolescent manuscripts, each one approximately ten pages long, to call Stanford precocious seems sorely inadequate. In the filmic, sensual, and psychologically fraught poem "destiny of quicksand," from Poems Drunk from a Paper Sack Long before I Came of Age (1960), allegedly written when Stanford was twelve years old, (1) we encounter a child playing cards near the photograph of a mysteriously injured and solitary ballet dancer (a "Negro girl / a very dark prima donna") affixed to a mirror with masking tape:
    her tutu like a corona
   her arm needing a tourniquet
   and her father asleep in the desert
   with his cello the nomad of sound
   the lint in her belly
   is the bestiary of snores 

Was this poem really composed by a twelve-year-old? Stanford--that energetic teller of epic tall tales--never disguised his interest in contributing to his own flamboyant Rimbaudian legend. He was a committed self-mythologizer. (Take, for instance, Stanford's starring role in Broughton's 1974 Cocteau-inspired short film, It Wasn't a Dream, It Was a Flood, in which the filmmaker foregrounds arty black-and-white shots of the brooding, handsome, and often shirtless poet.) Willingly suspending our disbelief to imagine the child-poet writing a poem like "destiny of quicksand," then, becomes part of the elaborate fiction. In the poem, Stanford's intricate metaphor that figures the girl's lint-furred belly button as a medieval catalogue of fantastical animals and nocturnal sounds ("the bestiary of snores") recalls the vivid synesthesia of Blake and the painterly or filmic metamorphoses of twentieth century surrealism. Additionally, Stanford's abstract title, "destiny of quicksand," when juxtaposed with his poem's central figure (a black prima donna surrounded by her tutu's "corona"--like an icon's aureole--who "need[s] a tourniquet" and whose "nomadic" musician father sleeps in the desert) takes on pointed connotations regarding racial inequality: the "quicksand" surrounding the destinies of black artists in American culture.

In Stanford's harrowing ars poetica, "the molested child goes to the dark tower again 140 years to the day," from Some Poems Who Suffocated like Lightning Bugs in the Bootlegger's Jar (1958), the (purportedly) ten-year-old poet writes:
    you haven't heard a thing
   until you've heard
   an infant gurgle like a shoal
   in its own blood
   often a panther or an angel
   takes me by the throat
   and drags me into its garden of mystery
   and muskmelons
   where I have the run of the land
   as long as I bleed
   and sing while I work 

Here, Stanford's speaker returns to Eden via the jaws of a feral yet maternal muse, as when a panther carries her cub by its neck. He controls this terrain, unlike his violated body, as long as he's willing to suffer for the privilege, like one of Snow White's dwarves in a gothic version of the fairy tale who's willing to do a lot more than whistle while he works ("as long as I bleed / and sing while I work"). Stanford's use of oppositions (panther and angel, mystery and muskmelons, singing and bleeding, infant and king) reinforces the gulf between the vulnerability and youth of the molested child and the brutality and antiquity of the dark tower. There's no way, of course, that a ten-year-old boy wrote this poem. But if we take Stanford's exaggerated claims regarding the dates of his juvenilia with a sly wink--as metanarrative, as fabulation, as an ongoing performance of his own picaresque mythology--then we'll better understand the impulse and architecture behind all of his work.


As a complement to Stanford's collected poems, What About This, Michael Wiegers has edited (with the assistance of the poet and musician Chet Weise) the slimmer volume Hidden Water: From the Frank Stanford Archives, a selection of previously unpublished or uncollected poems, letters, photographs, and miscellany comprised largely of facsimiles. (Hidden Water was released by Third Man Books, the new publishing wing of Third Man Records, originally founded by the musician Jack White.) Wiegers's emphasis on facsimile in Hidden Water renders the "unfinished" quality ' of many of the archival materials, such as drafts of poems, as well as the intimate nature of Stanford's handwritten texts. In "Embark," a poem allegedly composed when Stanford was sixteen, we encounter a young troubadour whose string of hyperbolic boasts presages Francis's in Battlefield:
    I was like a legend no one had got around to
   hearing left my daddy like a mistress
   who had quite a brood to look after
   and I followed her with the moon on my thumb like a blister
   I was not a gypsy but pretty near
   like him 

Among the many absorbing archival finds in Hidden Water, "The Mind Reader" is perhaps the most significant in that it's an eleven-page excerpt from Stanford's poem Saint Francis and the Wolf (from which Battlefield is an excerpt), his colossal mock-epic reportedly several thousand pages in length and never published in its entirety. The first stanza of "The Mind Reader" begins:
    the song keeps running off
   it is like a wild pony
   now where did it go to this time
   my blood walks down the road like a drunk man
   I look for it in the clouds the fresh pillow cases
   I see the carriage
   carrying the dead ballerinas into the wilderness
   the passengers with wet slippers
   and the ship bearing the harpsichord of dead lovers
   is putting out like a smoldering pyre 

Like the beating blood of O'Connor's clairvoyant misfit Enoch Emery in Wise Blood, Francis's "blood walks down the road like a drunk man"; he's outpaced by his own visionary capacity. Francis sees a nightmarish carriage resembling both a Viking burial ship and Charon's ferry that moves the souls of dead ballerinas across the delta's River Styx. One of the anaphoric phrases in "The Mind Reader" is "I dream" or "my dreams" ("I dream so I can dream so I can pee in the Mississippi River"; "I dream about the midget who stole my boots off the bridge while I was swimming at night"; "my dreams are like ticks they suck that blood"; "I dream about beautiful wolves nobody sees but me").

Francis's vision of "beautiful wolves" in the excerpt from Saint Francis and the Wolf hints at his name's (and the author's) hagiographie origins. Although Stanford's bawdy irreverent Francis would never be mistaken for the humble Francis of Assisi (who founded the Franciscan Order and advocated a life of poverty), he does share an affinity with the patron saint's love of animals and ecology. Fittingly, Francis declares: "I am the acolyte of the forest." In addition to Catholicism, the name of Stanford's Francis invokes a bit of local color: the Saint Francis River, a tributary of the muddy Mississippi that runs through northeastern Arkansas. Stanford's tributary in "The Mind Reader" becomes a visionary simile for interracial friendship: "I dream black hands and white hands like where two creeks meet."

In another passage from "The Mind Reader," Francis shifts from the earnest idealism of the "black hands and white hands" simile to a subversive burlesque of the Beatitudes delivered by Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount:
    blessed is Stonewall Jackson my daddy's daddy saw him fall off
his horse
   blessed is Abe Lincoln he was a good man I believe
   blessed is Baby Gauge we were going to school in the field
   blessed is the spotlighted deer taking two loads of double-ought
   blessed are the chunks of lung leaving a trail 

Stanford's toppling of the Confederate General Stonewall Jackson--sentimental icon of the vile Southern romance of the "Lost Cause"--resonates as a false "blessing" or slapstick curse. In the same passage as Jackson's inglorious fall, Stanford blesses President Lincoln, abolisher of slavery, and Baby Gauge, one of Francis's black blood brothers. Later in "The Mind Reader," Francis becomes estranged from his friend: "so long Baby Gauge / we'll never go to school together." Francis finds himself in a segregated educational environment (much as Stanford did in the Benedictine academy) run by corrupt overlords who have no use for heroic outlaws:
    ... the name of my school is Sherwood not the forest
   they hung Robin Hood a long time ago
   they burnt his bow up and the arrows turned into driftwood
   they stuffed their pillows with the feathers
   their bellies with poor folks' meat they turned the dogs
   loose on my dreams
   I can't be at peace anymore
   Maid Marian she's a whore
   and all the merry men shook hands and dropped dead
   the sheriff's boys got them
   so long Friar Tuck you pig pray for me
   cut a fart when you lay the Host in the hangman's mouth 

Outraged at those in power, like the sheriff and his posse, who would fill "their bellies with poor folks' meat" and destroy the righteous free spirits of English folklore (and with them a young boy's dreams), Francis becomes defiant, calling the fat and jovial Friar Tuck a "pig." Stanford gleefully blasphemes the sacrament as Francis suggests that the good Friar infuse the holy wafer placed inside the hangman's mouth with a well-timed fart. What better justice could one imagine for the villain who hanged Robin Hood, friend to the poor and hero of Francis's boyhood imagination? Toward the end of the poem, Francis's tone turns mournful as he bids farewell to the delta: "I say goodbye to the rivers / goodbye / to the fields...." Similarly to the anonymous Anglo-Saxon author of Beowulf, who arguably begins his poem as a heroic epic and ends it as an elegy, Stanford moves toward elegy in the final passage of "The Mind Reader":
                                           ... my friends you will be
   healed by the constellations I make up so I can follow them so I can
   black stallions wounded riders sleeping girls
   black as the moon black as a paw black as Baby Gauge
   I'll have such a crew in the gospel ship
   me and my dreams
   like Saint Francis and the wolf 

Just as Saint Francis famously tamed the man-eating wolf that terrorized the Italian villagers of Catholic legend, so too does Francis desire to heal his friends and keep them from harm. Stanford figures his protagonist's vanished blood brothers as dark guiding stars, employing stellification--that conventional elegiac gesture in which the poet evokes the souls of the departed as celestial bodies (as in Shelley's elegy for Keats, Adonais: "The soul of Adonais, like a star, / Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are."). Francis's visionary constellations will help steer "the gospel ship"--that blessedly blasphemous ship of fools or drunken boat bobbing along the gar-filled Mississippi and its dark mirror of visions. These constellations ("black as the moon black as a paw black as Baby Gauge"), however, won't show up against any ordinary night sky; this illuminating darkness derives its potency from the depths of belief: in justice, in fantasy, in story, and, finally, in heroes, even the swashbuckling, wild-tongued, adolescent type. Through his virtuosity and intensity, Francis proves that he's no ordinary boy. On the contrary, he declares in Battlefield, as if resurrecting the corpses of the dead ballerinas in "The Mind Reader" or restoring the wounded prima donna from "destiny of quicksand": "I am the Nijinsky of dreams."

The publication of What About This and Hidden Water not only offers readers an opportunity to immerse themselves in Stanford's rich and rewarding oeuvre, it also invites a call to action. Stanford deserves to be as widely read as any other poet of his generation, and yet many writers, especially younger ones, have never encountered his work in an anthology, library, magazine, or college course. Stanford's early death and the long span of time during which his work was out of print have kept from him the critical acclaim and broad readership his work so abundantly warrants. Frank Stanford is one of the most innovative and important poets of the latter half of the twentieth century. He deserves our celebration, our gratitude, and our critical attention. With these efforts, his legacy will grow and so, too, will our imaginative courage. To echo Francis's description of his dreams in "The Mind Reader," Stanford's poems "are like turtles they never let go."

ANNA JOURNEY is the author of the poetry collections Vulgar Remedies (Louisiana State University Press, 2013) and If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting (University of Georgia Press, 2009), which was selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series. She is an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern California.


(1.) In the bound galley of What About This, Wiegers provided dates for seven of Stanford's previously unpublished manuscripts.


Fiedler, Leslie. "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" The Devil Gets His Due: The Uncollected Essays of Leslie Fiedler. Ed. Samuele F.S. Pardini. Berkeley: Soft Skull Press, 2008.

Stanford, Frank. What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford. Ed. Michael Wiegers. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2015.

--. Hidden Water: Froth the Frank Stanford Archives. Ed. Michael Wiegers and Chet Weise. Nashville: Third Man Books, 2015.

Stokesbury, Leon. Introduction. The Light the Dead See: Selected Poems of Frank Stanford. By Frank Stanford. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991.

Wright, C. D. Preface. The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. By Frank Stanford. Rhode Island: Lost Roads Publishers, 2000.
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Author:Journey, Anna
Publication:The American Poetry Review
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Date:Jul 1, 2015
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