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Swept away by 'What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford'

'What About This' is a monster collection (700-plus pages) of Frank Stanford's poetry

Poet Frank Stanford didn't live long. He shot himself three times in the heart with a pistol at age 29. But you come through a Frank Stanford poem, you know you've lived. Rabbit blood under your nails. The snake handler showing you the fang marks. The white backs of strange women.

Stanford was a teenage prodigy out of Arkansas bleeding beautiful streams of Faulkner-like fever dream that has survived mostly in out-of-print chapbooks passed hand-to-hand. Now a monster compilation, "What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford," has assembled more than 700 pages of poetry and a little prose like a moon-spattered Bible.

It's easy to attribute genius to a dead man, a legendary philanderer, liar and self-mythologizer who died beautiful and curly-haired. But "What About This" is an authentic outpouring like a warm river in full flood; you get swept off the bank and its languid physicality destroys you.

Editor Michael Wiegers carefully selected this work from 10 collections, including parts of "The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You," Stanford's best-known work — a swollen, ambitious 542-page epic poem in which even Jesus and Sonny Liston speak — as well as reams of unpublished work. It is savage and deeply American, a world in which wild creatures cannot match the terrible song of man, a Delta blues of the spirit, as in this excerpt from "The Blood Brothers":

I had the hands like dragonflies

I killed one white man

He was a midget

I did it with a frog gig

It was the summer of the Chinese daughter

I danced on the levee

Like Apollinaire, Stanford draws death close in a magical, surrealist embrace — "when the men chewed a match / and thought about their death / like yellow women strutting down the dust" — and even when he is clearly decrying poverty or race relations his recurring characters, such as Baby Gauge, Born-In-The-Camp-With-Six-Toes and Charlie B. Lemon, are desperately beautiful. The simplest gestures sound biblical, such as these lines from "The Unbelievable Nightgown":

How can it be a pony and a rider

Both can drown in a slew of wildflowers without a sound

I gave my dark heart to one stone

I drank all the water I could

Those days were black carriages

It cost so much to polish

Stanford was no tourist in this magical version of the Deep South. He had been adopted out of an orphanage in Hattiesburg, Miss., by Dorothy and Albert Stanford, an older gentleman who built levees and had Frank summering in river camps. One appreciation described his childhood as "some hybrid tale of E.T.A. Hoffmann upon Mark Twain," and his stories of camp life and voodoo held men and women spellbound while he was alive.

On June 3, 1978, Stanford walked into his home in Fayetteville, Ark., to be confronted by his wife, painter Ginny Stanford, and his mistress, poet C.D. Wright (both of whom helped with the new book) about his sexual liaisons. There were at least half a dozen other women at the time. He stepped into the bedroom and shot himself with a .22 pistol. One of the other women was the young songwriter Lucinda Williams, who later wrote for Frank the exquisite ballad, "Sweet Old World."

It is typical that death, which he had held so close, would paint him beautifully. It is all in these pages. As poet Dean Young writes in his foreword: "You are holding here in your hands lightning that comes up from the ground."

Kuipers is a writer in Los Angeles.

What About This
Collected Poems of Frank Stanford

Edited by Michael Wiegers
Copper Canyon: 747 pp., $40

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