Finders, Losers: Frank Stanford's Song of the South
One afternoon last Spring, coming back from a so-so lunch in Little Rock, poet C.D. Wright handed me this bulky paperback volume, all of it in tiny type. On the cover it says The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You, a poem by Frank Stanford (1) Yeah? She says it is a contemporary epic, and I nod yeah. Later that afternoon, Jim Whitehead also expressed appreciation of the tome, adding: "It's all just one sentence!" I nodded yeah and, secretly, dreaded reading the thing especially for the sake of politeness.
A day or two later,
back in Pine Bluff, I politely cracked the book.
This Frank Stanford is amazing: a Deep South student of Apollinaire, an ethnographer of cornpone/rockabilly types, a swamprat Rimbaud, a Pound of the Mississippi mud, a dadgum redneck surrealist!
By the next day, I would read his lines aloud at breakfast.
Stanford, it seems, writes black and white Southern conversation so as one can hear it; and his five-hundred-odd-page poem structures itself around the question of the reality (relative, of course) of reality and dreams. Like Ezra Pound of The Cantos or any overzealous student, he trots out the entire cast of characters of second-year Contemporary Civilization, to the extent of making Vico and a reluctant castrato bear the weight of personae. Of course like it or not these characters must mix with good ole boy backroom joke negroes (one of whom manages, in the Stanford version, to retain a great deal of dignity and trickster strength) and wild boys with their CAMELS wrapped up in their T-shirt sleeves. The poem flags and lags, has corny jokes and steamy sex scenes and, somehow through all five hundred-odd pages, seems to work
It's almost ridiculous to quote excerpted lines from a poem of this length (or any length), but here's a random sample:
she wanted to balance
the moon on her toes to keep
Or, yet more randomly:
he had those black
dice made in Spain
Frank Stanford's writing is about feeling, and he never seems to have seen a need to make it formal. The only formalism in his work is the need to distance pain, the deliberate fictionalization of true fact and feeling, and the necessary meditation upon the guilt one must own for such habits. Such concerns affect the structure of this poem and dictate its approach to to narrative and time. While Koch and Snow contain their verbal and conceptual pyrotechnics within chronology (like a safe but not-quite-sane 4th of July), Stanford determined to be an outlaw of omnivalent time. Read as a meditation upon actual and factual human death (as opposed to the poetic conventional "life is but a dream" derived from Moorish influence on Romance literature), one sees that the temporal discontinuities of Stanford's poem draw upon the same emotional sources that Ron Arias found for his touching and insightful novel The Road To Tamazunchale (reprinted by Pajarito Publications, 1978). In the imminence of death, time and real space have neither sequence nor consequential limits. As Arias' dying old man can have the Andes in the barrio of Los Angeles, so does Stanford's "clairvoyant" memory of childhood place Memphis, the Ozarks, and Mississippi delta towns in the same conceptual space.
There are yet more diverse ingredients in Stanford's stew Some of his poetic juxtapositions and much of his thematic content share an affinity with Tom Veitch's novel The Luis Armed Story (Full Court Press, 1978). While it is known that Stanford enjoyed both the outraged tone and structural dislocations of narrative in Ishmael Reed's writings, the similarity between his work here and Tom Veitch's is of another order.
Growing up as an orphan in Arkansas' Subiaco Academy for Boys, Stanford was familiar with the lifestyle of the Benedictine brothers. "Although Stanford was not a Catholic," says B.C. Hall in a recent issue of Arkansas Times, "he was influenced by the priests. To those who knew him, he demonstrated a true catholicity in all aspects of his life." (2) The Subiaco experience certainly also informs the structure of The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You. Tom Veitch, who was himself a Benedictine monk, and Frank Stanford share in these books a narrative and lyrical structure loosely (or, perhaps, rigorously) composed of shifting visions, meditations, omnivalent time and space, and dreams of holiness and innocence. All of these elements are thrown into violent contrast with delicious recountings of sin and hilariously comic diatribes against Holy Mother Church that are allowed to be uttered only by insiders.
Though Tom Veitch may be, as Richard Kostelanetz thinks, a dadaist, Frank Stanford is not; and while there are these really striking similarities in the two men's work, Stanford's differences are notable. His long poem also approaches discriminations energized by social dislocations (because of his origin in the South) that most of the other writers mentioned here have never had to deal with. And, though he was a nonprofessional in the sense that he maintained a day job as a surveyor in the Arkansas timberlands, Stanford also exerted a very powerful influence on some of the young poets in his circle and correspondence.
In June after enjoying his book for several weeks I received a letter from La Verne Manners telling me that, one evening while Stanford's wife and Wright were chatting in the kitchen of their Fayetteville home, Frank went into another room and shot himself.*
I didn't ever have a chance to meet Frank Stanford and I don't know why that happened. Or why he did that. I do know that his long poem had amazed and intrigued me, and that it is worth anyone's reading and puzzling over. Whether it is ultimately a work of obsession or a treasure because it is what Stanford permitted us to have, it is a book that will reward our interest with much enjoyment and insight.
Past high water marks, past wildest conjecture
Sterling A. Brown
Stanford's largest debt seems to be owed to Guillaume Apollinaire, and his own greatest contribution seems to be his handling of the vernacular speech patterns of the people of the Mississippi delta in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi. He's no blues singer (in fact, he's more like an intellectual in disguise), but the phrasings and nuances are close enough for authenticity.
"I am not content in just suggesting things by the use of words," he once wrote, "I want to show the origins, the metaphors of reality, the free movement of the spirit." (3) The result of this desire, in this long poem, is that there is little attention to the line itself, or the syllable but a great deal of concern for the affective segue of situation and image, and an insistence on the veracity of the vernacular word in context.
Stanford's use of delta and "Ark-La-Miss" white dialect expression is honest and freely metaphoric, almost naif. It does not sound like the tongue-in-cheek entendre of Randy Newman's lyrics; it sounds like Stanford's natural for real. At times, Stanford sounds as if he is transcribing taped conversations . . . but the matter of the utterances is so often troubling, intimate, and of painful intensity that the presence of a Sony would have denied such witness air. It seems, then, that much of Stanford's writing moves between conversations with an "imaginary friend" in delta lingo and a prodigiously modernist reconstruction of memory; and some of his own comments on his method of composition will support this idea. Of the poem "Death And The Arkansas River," he wrote:
I had a year with
this poem; everyday in the woods at
Men sing when they
work, or at least they used to. I'm
Even if you couldn't
Some may look at "Like a truck on a bridge, like a flower" as a pat Surrealist line, but the fact that the flower is "Given at a ball..." will remind those who know anything about the South that this is reliable reportage. Such balls are still given in Memphis and Greenville, incisively discussed, described, and criticized in Florence King's Southern Ladies And Gentlemen (Stein & Day, 1975). The mythology of the pickup truck, the 18-wheeler, and the CB radio is unreeled each evening in countless drive-in movie epics; and, no matter where in the South, the niggers still live (conveniently) across some set of tracks. All of this is truth and immediate, And simple, even if the poem is not.
This poem is, in fact, a portrait and appraisal of the mystery named Death, which is seen here as both an absent center and a missing other. In the presence of such a mystery, one need not go to the creative extremes of Surrealist imagery to describe ordinary life as it is. Just say it as it is is enough. And Stanford does just say it.
Just so, "Death And The Arkansas River" also provides a tintype of the character who, as Jimmy, shares the focus of The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You with its dreamy unnamed narrator:
Death, for instance,
Frank Stanford's answer in "Death And The Arkansas River" and his longer poem is a distraught No; yet all of his poetry seems to be a meditation upon the imagined life and death of this "brother," this "Jimmy" (who might, in fact, be the idealization of Stanford's "other self" or the twin that died early).
Whoever he might actually be, the particulars of this character's "fast one" with Death are deeply explored in the dream narratives, lists, and man-to-man (or man-to-boy) conversations recorded in the longer poem. Stanford's problem is, of course, the logical confrontation of guilt, innocence, and experience. The dreamer dreams and pains himself for mindful lusts; another man (or boy) leaves care to the devil himself.
The other writers that we've mentioned as comparable with Frank Stanford can be instructive here. While Ron Arias' protagonist in The Road To Tamazunchale confronts the aged and didactic delirium of Job, Stanford's characters and the protagonist of Tom Vietch's The Luis Armed Story are (like Kenneth Koch's epic Eskimo baseball player) all innocents whose ambitions and simperings to be John of Patmos are inexpicably (though not at all unexpectedly) destroyed by their hidebound neighbors' stupidity. Smack up against the people of the world's best selling book, the idea finally communicated is that mad senility, saintliness, and vice are all equal when compared to the total insensitivity that is the norm.
Then, in this noxious atmosphere, what about John? What about the trickster negroes, dreaming Francis, wild boy Jimmy, and the other characters of Stanford's effusive dreams?
When one has come down from the mountaintop. dream, or vision, unto whom (among these dull estupidos) must one speak? To passersby in front of the motel in Memphis? Unknown Sardis or Enon in the woodlands of southern Arkansas? Grannis? Philadelphia and its racist Rizzo?
Neither new nor unique, the moral and real dilemma Stanford confronts can be read in much of the literature of the Deep South. In a region where everyone has been taught that the wages of sin is death, how (given the officially historic sinfulness of its mixed-up racist heritage) does one deal with the solitary sinner whose aim seems to be to actually draw more wages than the reaper? In other words, can a loser ever win?
The racial, cultural, economic, and social conflicts that define the history of the South find their way into the region's letters in many forms. Shadow dancing a lightshow of faded dreams and dreams deferred, a magic cauldron glow not the Lake poet's glory, but the bayou writers', takes on the intermittent mists that rise from the ground at night and the parasitic Spanish moss that eerily festoons the trees around the big house on the old plantation.
And, then, there is the fog in human minds, which Frank Stanford's Surrealist jumble of words and views "clairvoyantly" attempts to clarify. Not a new effort, at all, The detoured sexuality in the works of Tennessee Williams and early Truman Capote depicts part of the problem . . . the spectrally exact precision of Albert Murray and Alex Haley deals with it . . . and the sardonic sophistication of the blues is the true depiction of an understated but histrionic madness that is identified with the South but is a true picture of this entire country.
Bill Zavatsky and I discussed this once (in a public workshop at St. Mark's Church) and couldn't make heads nor tails of it. But, now, it's not so hard to understand. These United States changed from plural to singular only after the Civil War and the establishment of a firm federalist government The romantic South (like Spain and Portugal) has never quite recovered; but, romantically, the South has borne the emotional burden of the entire country. Foreign car mechanics in Texas wear cowboy boots, as if to prove they are still involved in the grasp for this land, still involved in the American dream Similarly, the South's people after the experience of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period understood, the hard way, that freedom was a function of mythological interpretation. Indeed, they brought that realization upon themselves, when (like their mercantile counterparts in the North) they thought that crinolines could be endlessly fluffed up by slaves in tatters.
The history of the United States is, like Frank Stanford's poem, a vast and complicated attempt to abolish chance and find some reason for continuing existence. The land resists and our history (even the nightly revelations of the NEWS) increasingly suggests disaster and failure of nerve, Yet, like Porsche mechanics wearing cowboy boots, we persist in buying myths and building personalities that promise to seize the time for our dreams. When it doesn't work, we try again.
And again. And when that doesn't work, we are sometimes privileged to view the real barbarism inside of us. See it now the World War II decision to destroy the whole world before one bomb should drop on Nebraska; the Civil War resolve to end rebellion less'n everybody think they gots a turn; the reconstruction of the Klu Klux Klan in places like Boston; the idea of the revolution's plotters that a serpent must be whole to strike, that each piece won't writhe until sundown (at least) and, maybe, grow a head.
The truth, of course, is quite the opposite of our yearnings. This land beyond our ruining of it is cursed for us; and we are, all of us, a rotten people. Down South, because of guilt and circumstance, all of this is understood.
Most good Southern writing comes from such a dismally correct and directly empirical perception of our land and its people. The mythic naturalism of Faulkner and Carson McCullers, the matter-of-factness of Eudora Welty, the embattled and despairing classicism of Walker Percy and the New Critics, the maroon subtlety of Jean Toomer and his spiritual disciples, and the semiotic realism (that is, surrealism) of Ralph Ellison and Frank Stanford speak for the South. These writers share the same sources and (for different reasons) similar frustrations; and, in fact, their messages often seem like pigeonhole interchanges; cloverleafs made crimson by some madness and frustration in the hideous spiritual history of the South that results in what Georgia poet David Bottoms has called "recreational violence."
Frank Stanford's poetry is deep into that, for good reason. But there is also sweetness, and, in his desire to see black and white recognized as equal in both folkways and human fragility, a yearning for enlightenment.
Frank Stanford's poetry is a song of the South, a place where there is abundant time and spaces that sometime drive people to desperation, a place where folks have time to think (in some cases, perhaps also mine, too much time), and a tradition of language in which the slowness of utterance represents a convention of choosing words carefully. That, surely, is a legacy of slave tricksterism and pioneer ideas of privacy: but it is a valuable and viable approach to language. Time to think and think before you speak, as much as the weird sociopolitical heritage of the South, has made the region's literature remarkable.
Our dread and torment
in this life we lead
William Alexander Percy
Michael Cuddihy, editor of Ironwood, wrote an eloquent obituary for Frank Stanford. "His poems," Cuddihy wrote, "enriched by an abiding sense of the cosmos, remain down to earth, written in the vernacular of his own region. His gift for metaphor . . . was spontaneous, exhilarating, often miraculous. (5)
This is true. One of Stanford's poems contains the marvelous lines "Swallowing cold weather/A fish hook at a time." This is not the result of a simple Creative Writing exercise in imagery, yet it seems a bit too artful to be a genuine vernacular parole trouve. Like Cuddihy, I read such lines as evidence of the author's technical skill given dimension by his fluency in the vernacular. He knows the weather and the atmosphere, and it was Stanford's gift to constantly express his knowledge more vividly and accurately than most Perhaps what he achieved is what the vernacular seeks. I once asked Texas folklorist Bill Brett if he thought that the laconic and colorful expressions of oilfield "roughnecks" was a conscious exercise in metaphor. "Naw," he replied, choosing his words carefully, "that was just the result of some illiterate men trying to describe things as best they could," I'm sure, however, that such men valued miracles of wit highly enough to repeat them into formulas; besides that, everyone in the South shares a tradition of verbal improvisation.
Stanford's closeness to the South's traditions (remember Bottoms "recreational violence") goes beyond the language of conversations filled with hyperbolic metaphor. The poem which provided the lines I've just quoted is a piece about a sniper who shoots down people's weathervanes out of desperation and boredom. The poem is as much about adolescent restlessness as it is about the stresses that produce violent misfits like Texas' Charles Whitman and Louisiana's Mark Essex, or New York's David ("Son of Sam") Berkowitz.
The United States is, with its dynamic and ambitious optimism, also a nation of desperation and apple pie violence; a place where businessmen are conspirators, trade unionists are characterized as thugs, and public officials are often convicted or pardoned felons by the time they leave office; a nation whose morbidity produces distraught artists, the detective story as an art form, and scholars who produce books like Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip documenting a history of aberration.
Stanford fits (as who among us does not) as heir to this confusion. While concentrating upon the reality of the place in which he lived, his poem "The Boy Who Shot Weathercocks" tells us a great deal about the spiritual exhaustion this country merchandises. Stanford wrote: (6)
I don't kill them,
I just knock them off
* * *
Then they swoop over
That's what he wrote; and maybe it is language that powerful that can tell us what Whitman, Essex, and Berkowitz were all about.
Perhaps the very anonymity of Stanford's speaker explains the notorious ones among us whose actions strain belief, We live in a dangerous place, a country where finders are losers. Another of Stanford's poems, "A Milk Truck Running Into A Crazy Maid At The Corner Of Getwell And Park." speaks of an accidental traffic fatality which is haunting because it is brought about by madness, and therefore, is not ultimately as accidental as it is dementedly premeditated. The poem is addressed to similar questions of personal dementia, racism, and a social madness that is peculiar to our lifestyle. It must be quoted in its entirety: (7)
They pull a coat over
an old woman's eyes.
Stanford's consideration of the rule of senselessness might bear comparison to Michael McClure's recent poem "The Death Of Kin Chuen Louie" which describes a small-time gangland slaying. The description gives the author ground for a Buddhist lecture on human insensitivity and helpless faith before inexorable questions. (8) Stanford's poem is a witness, not a sermon. The incident he reports is even more irrational than McClure's and his understated conclusions are, like the Rolling Stones' blunt answer to "who killed the Kennedys." chilling. Here, the enforced yet matter-of-fact anonymity in Stanford's landscapes (actually vignettes that, for whatever space of time, fade in and out of focus even in the poet's attention) places each of us at the center of the scene and the experience. There, we are ourselves with no further need of a poet's framing, as if Stanford would provide further assistance must take account of the unfolding dimensions surrounding and within.
Finding ourselves at this point, it is possible to fault Stanford for lacking a creed: but recent philosophers have taught us that choice is perspective (if not salvation) . . . and ancient ones professed perspective to be argument. All authorities, creeds, and assumptions of knowledge fall at their peril into the mad dance between these alternatingly affirmative and negative poles.
Frank Stanford wrote about a certain sensibility that is American and universal. ln many ways, his life and works are shocking. Troubling and truthful, his longest book stands almost as a challenge to our current ideas of literature and reality. Because he chose to utilize a Surrealist tone and form, some of what he says is both alarming and instructive. When we have time enough to study deeply and discuss this huge and marvelous poem called The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You and new collections recently published by Lost Roads Publishers and Ironwood Press), we may focus on new images of all our selves armed with Stanford's unique vision
If there is any such thing as delight in this sort of poetry, it is the delight of recognition at the crossroads, hopefully, before we have to suffer all the rest. There are many images and turns of phrase in his 23,000 line poem that will enhance Frank Stanford's reputation as a poet and testify to his insight. Again from his long, beautiful poem at random, I chose these lines:
I thought about where
I come from murder
These lines are quoted here, randomly and out of context, simply for their striking incompleteness, like the open-ended suspense of country conversation which has been elevated to the premeditated and poetic tentativity of the Blues. I presume no improvement upon the eulogies of his friends (who chose to quote his poems during his obsequies at Subiaco), I only want to indicate that I heard that; that I recognized his accent; and I have been trying to understand some of the things he said about himself and you and me.
1 Frank Stanford,
The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You (Fayetteville, Arkansas;
Mill Mountain Books/Lost Roads Publishers, 1977). A 542 page paperback,
the volume currently is priced at $15.00. >
2 B.C. Hall, "Death
Of A Major Voice In Arkansas," Arkansas Times, V:4 (December 1978),
29-30. A history of the monastery (where Stanford is now buried) and its
schools can be found in Hugh Assenmacher, A Place Galled Subiaco (Little
Rock: Rose Publishing Company, 1977).>
3 Frank Stanford,
"With The Approach Of The Oak The Axeman Quakes," Fifty Contemporary
Poets: The Creative Process, ed. Alberta T. Hunter (New York: McKay, 1977),
4 Frank Stanford,
"Death And The Arkansas River," ibid., p.298.>
5 MichaeI Cuddihy,
"Frank Stanford (1949~1978)," Ironwood 12 (1978), 1.>
6 Frank Stanford,
"The Boy Who Shot Weathercocks." Ironwood 12(1978), 7.>
7 Frank Stanford,
"A Milk Truck Running Into A Crazy Maid At The Corner of Getwell
And Park," Ironwood 12(1978), 6.>
8 See Michael McClure, "The Death Of Kin Chuen Louie" Co-Evolution Quarterly 19 (September 21, 1978), 53 55. This issue, published in conjunction with City Lights Books, constitutes the third volume of Journal For The Protection Of All Beings (1961- ). >
*Note: According to
Ginny Stanford, she and Carolyn were in separate rooms when Frank shot