The Light the Dead See offers readers Arkansas poet Frank Stanford’s best work: those sometimes dreamlike, many times nightmarish excursions into a mythic Southland, a cruel and rapacious Southern United States where personae maim and kill out of an unnamed obsession in hopes of reclaiming their youth and their lost paradise.
This volume is not for the squeamish. There is madness here and terror: thievery, malice, and murder alongside a strange kind of redemption brought by the blacks who populate most of the poems, people with such names as Born in the Camp with Six Toes, Ray Baby, Baby Gauge, Chinaman, Rollie Pollie Man. This world is based in part on a real one—namely the Memphis, Tennessee, Stanford knew in childhood—but it is a place of fabulous things, where Baby Gauge rides a gar fish, Mose Jackson throws dice for snake-eyes, and the Midget flees the knife blade.
Frank Stanford was himself a mystery. He spent his formative years in Memphis, where he lived with his mother, Dorothy Gildart, and his father, A. E. Stanford. In later life, he was shocked to learn that Gildart had adopted him, and this revelation no doubt had a sizable impact upon his art. Another shock came when Stanford’s father moved him and his mother to a virtually all-white area in Arkansas, from his beloved black friends in Memphis.
The selections in this book of verse include not only some of Stanford’s best published poetry but also some unpublished work written between 1968 and 1974. The poems begin with those taken from The Singing Knives (1971) and include works from Ladies from Hell (1974), Field Talk (1975), Shade (1975), Arkansas Bench Stone (1975), Constant Stranger (1976), The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (1977), You (1979), and Crib Death (1979).
In his poems, Stanford allows readers into his inner world but does not tell them what they are apprehending. This realm is a dangerous place where visions of mutilation and death prevail. Here, then, is a journey into a surreal black South, violent and hate-filled:
Jimmy ran down the road
With the knife in his mouth
He was naked
And the moon
Was a dead man floating down the river.
It is, as editor Leon Stokesbury points out, the South of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn one hundred years after Huck lit out for the Territory. Here, mutilation comes in many forms: Arms are cut to cement a friendship, throats are slashed, people are blinded. Yet a reader encountering these causal mutilations finds it difficult to decipher their meaning; Stanford apparently intends it so, wanting to hold the keys to the coded messages himself. Yet, as in a surrealistic painting by Giorgio De Chirico or Salvador Dali, even if the meaning is not readily accessible, one senses things that the symbols mean. In these works, a steady stream of images assault the reader: birds, fish, boats, snakes, knives, hooks, coffins. Their meanings may be obscure, but their juxtapositions make them powerful in the way a shaman’s words are powerful.
Stanford’s poems, populated with references to cut-off hands and buckets of blood, take one into a torture chamber that he envisions to be life itself, sadistic and vital. The poet’s world is also a kind of closed system: No one escapes; all are caught in and contribute to this hell. There is a frenzied desire for meaning, but also a knowledge that meaningfulness is a fantasy, or that it exists but is unattainable, except perhaps in shards and fragments:
I am holding my hands together
like a gloveless hunter
drinking water in the morning
or calling up owls in the forest;
I am holding my hands together
like a hunter in winter
with his hands in the...
(The entire section is 1581 words.)