Frank Stanford. What About This: The Collected Poems of Frank Stanford. Ed. Michael Wiegers. Copper Canyon Press, 2015. 764 pages. $40.00.
The most interesting book of poetry—actually in any genre—from 2015 is the phenomenally engrossing collection of poems, drafts, fragments, unpublished work, manuscript facsimiles, drawings, and hand written notes that comprise What About This, the first full anthology of the work of Frank Stanford. When Stanford died in 1978 of three self-inflicted gunshots to his chest, he was only twenty-nine and virtually unknown outside of two tiny communities—those who knew him in Arkansas and a few poets. Not much has changed in this regard, but the recent death of C.D. Wright—a former lover and eventual publishing partner of Stanford’s—makes revisiting his work not just timely but vital.
Stanford’s poems come from some sort of region only a few souls have visited. They are gloamy, wild, rural, violent, and completely laced with what Federico García Lorca called “duende”—the sense of the presence of death. For example, “Plowboy” begins: I came upon death and love / hung up like dogs in my garden,” and here are is the opening stanza of “Lighted Room”:
I’m going to cut me some ham
And wait for death to lace her boots.
That has to be one of the great couplets of the twentieth century, but lines like that appear on nearly every page, and in each one death stalks the margins. Two poems side-by-side from the 1974 collection, Ladies from Hell, bear the titles “Death in the Cool Evening” and “Places on a Grave.” Two more unpublished poems are titled “Flour the Dead Man Brings to the Wedding” and “The Double Suicide of the Mirror and the Rose.” Amazingly, though, Stanford’s lyrics never stoop to self-pity, and they avoid the self-absorption of goth. Imagine the lyricism of Neruda, the death instinct and rhythmic gifts of Plath, the mystical otherworldliness of Dickinson, and the Southern darkness of Faulkner and O’Connor, and you may get close to a Stanford poem.
Editor Michael Wiegers has accomplished something truly remarkable with this project which assembles work from all eleven of Stanford’s (now nearly impossible-to-find) books and chapbooks as well as generous samplings from his 542-line epic, The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You. For the first time, we see beyond the cult, the suffering, the myth. We see the poet in the man and the man in the poet. What about that. —DR
Mahtem Shiferraw. Fuchsia. University of Nebraska Press, 2016. 108 pages. $15.95.
A frequent subject in literature of the African Diaspora is that of displacement, the leaving of home, land, and culture to travel to a place that is strange. Mahtem Shiferraw’s lush Fuchsia is difficult to pin down, though—but in a very good way. For example, simply because a poet’s bio describes that she is of Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage but now lives in Los Angeles doesn’t necessarily mean that the book will be about leaving there to come here. That would be too easy, even for a first book. (This collection won the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry.) Then, too, the eclectic arrangement of this collection resists the expected arc found in some contemporary volumes. As I made my way through, I discovered it was less about displacement and more a creation myth the poet imagines through the use of vibrancy: colors, smells, sights—anything that rollicks the senses and takes us back to the beginning. The first poem, “Fuchsia”—the title poem—obviously establishes color as the touchstone, and is followed by the fast-paced “Origins & Intersections,” a tumbled beauty about ancient East Africa: “Where do we come from? / Does it really matter? / Braided numbers, hairs, alphabets.” And then—just as I suspected—I came to the piece that sets the tone for the entire book: “E is for Eden.” But of course, I had to continue to the final poem, “Plot Line,” which tells the reader that “this”—the poem, the author’s vision—is “about how Adam fell in love / with himself, and part of himself / in the shape of a woman.” Thus, the issue of origins is paramount, and not just biblical origins, but also geographical, emotional, and metaphysical. Last words: There are a few poems that crop up to soothe us with familiar topics that guide us through unknown metaphors, as with “Talks about Race.” But the strongest of these poems don’t sacrifice complex lyricism. Instead, Shiferraw uses music—slant rhymes and assonance—to aid the reader in navigation. —HFJ
Landon Godfrey. Spaceship. Somnambulist Tango Press, 2014. 20 pages. $20.00.
As a young poet in my late twenties, I first heard the term “chapbook.” I had no previous idea of the term’s meaning, though the contemporary definition—i.e. fewer than forty pages, focused on one theme or topic, and (usually) directly produced and/or funded by the author—describes many of the poetry volumes that I had read by American poets of the 1960s. At present, there are several chapbook contests by presses that underwrite the cost of chapbook publication, producing perfect-bound books that resemble full-length collections. Still, there is an unmatched joy in the delectably handmade variety, such as Landon Godfrey’s limited edition chapbook Spaceship. Elegantly constructed of a “flax paper” cover hand-sewn around pages of “French Paper’s Mod-Tone ‘Blush,’” this slender objet d’art contains nine poems that testify to the seemingly innocuous: a drinking glass, a kettle, a teacup, glue. It was incredibly pleasing to touch the cover and pages, to read the poems, to touch the cover and pages again, to read the poems again—and to know that my satisfaction was twofold. (I had a very difficult time resisting a swoon.) But the spaceship of the title refers to that vehicle in which the author travels, witnessing the needful universe comprised of our daily existences. As with the joy of the book-as-art, nothing can compare to the words of an author who, like Godfrey, has journeyed and arrived at the port of sagacity. A poet with an eye turned to minutiae: “The moment before the glass hits the tile floor, it / remembers with pleasure how well it carried water.” One other purpose of a chapbook is to remind the reader that the poet is between books, but nonetheless, continues to write and publish. Thus, we shouldn’t give up on her; our patience shall be rewarded. Last words: Godfrey has an earlier full-length book, entitled Second-Skin Rhinestone-Spangled Nude Soufflé Chiffon Gown. This first collection appeared in 2011, and like Spaceship, the volume contains vast yet intricately sweet knowledge. —HFJ
Gary Soto. You Kiss by th’ Book: New Poems from Shakespeare’s Line. Chronicle Books, 2016. 108 pages. $14.95.
Age cannot wither Shakespeare. So the recent celebratory extravaganzas of 2014 (Shakespeare 450, the anniversary of his birth) and 2016 (Shakespeare 400, the anniversary of his death) witness in an outpouring of commissions and commemorative performances across the arts, including poetry. But can age, or poetry, stale Shakespeare’s infinite variety? Sadly, it can. Or so we learn from the celebrated Gary Soto’s latest collection of poems developed from Shakespearean lines, You Kiss By th’ Book. Somehow the celebrated Soto manages to mar some of the greatest, most-enduring and sometimes-shockingly modern sounds of Shakespeare. The poems fall rather quickly in uninspired mannerisms resulting in (sort of) love songs. Out of a line from Shakespeare (the starting point for each poem) Soto spins almost Stratfordian pastoral fantasies of falling in love with country maidens. You can practically hear sheep bleating and cows lowing in the background: “Yet, my dear lamb, / Let me be your admirer. / I am a stable boy, / You are a rich farmer’s daughter.” Too many galloping “knaves,” bouncing apples, and flaring equine nostrils makes the collection feel more like a Disney theme park. So many poets have built exquisite edifices—modern and baroque, reverent and rakish—from Shakespeare’s language and imagery (from W.H. Auden and Louis Zukofsky to Martha Ronk and Aaron Shurin among so many others) that it is puzzling, perhaps alarming, to be so underwhelmed. You Kiss By th’ Book seems, to quote the bard, “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” —JC
Rajiv Mohabir. The Taxidermist’s Cut. Four Way Books, 2016. 112 pages. $15.95.
In Rajiv Mohabir’s merciless first collection, he conjures a landscape fraught with liminal animals, with trails that run between the bedroom and all our figured forests of dreams and nightmares. “Let’s pretend you are going hunting,” the book begins, but the hunt is not even half the story. In this collection, prey is not merely hunted down, but gutted, stitched, remade. Along the way, a narrative of continual displacement emerges, from “great grandparents [who] traveled kalapani from India to South America and whose descendent is therefore out of place among the “first wave doctors and lawyers.” Taxidermy is a capacious metaphor here, in its precision and brutality, one that accommodates an array of ravages and epistemologies. But taxidermy is also the process by which one delves into, reckons with the self’s various histories, to cut and uncover regardless of the pain. “‘The learner is apt to come to grief,’” he writes in the thirteen-page title poem, perhaps the most formally complex poem in the book with its erasures, prose, and passages from taxidermy manuals and field guides.
The displacement mapped is equally a sexual one, an erotics of longing and loss, of straightforward homophobic rejection (via such poems as “To a Father Who Can’t Accept His Son” ) but also of pleasure and tenderness as in the long poem, “[Last Night] in Jackson Heights [This Morning] With Him, Not You.” There are instances where the erotic seems the most displacing of all, as in the erasure poem “Homosexual Interracial Dating in the South in Two Voices,” which begins, “Do not mix your order of birds.” Or in the title poem when the speaker, after “kneeling before the white man with the plastic scrotum hanging from his pickup” instructs himself, “Take off your skin right here. Dress yourself for the field. Pull out your entrails and stuff your yellow belly with coals.”
This is the sort of turn that speaks to how deft a poet Mohabir is, how skillfully he works the taut space between figure and figured, between tenor and vehicle. He is a technician of elaborate metaphor but deployed here not to mask or soften the complexities of power between lovers, between dominant and subaltern bodies and cultures. Thus, when the book takes its final turn, its ecstatic moment seems to come not in spite of, but in full awareness of the histories it has sought to document:
Never mind. Do not feed the father-
god obsessed with sin. Instead, holding the moths
raise your hands, open them to the sky and watch
wing-eyes dance toward the moon one by one.