What About This: The Collected Poems of Frank Stanford

Frank Stanford has long been a kind of enigma in the poetry world: an underground legend, with a cult following, whose work has always been notoriously difficult to find. Though he died in 1978, at only 29 years old, this is the first time that his collected works have been available for purchase. What About This will hopefully usher in an era when Stanford’s work is rightfully regarded as seminal American poetry for generations to come.

Stanford is a writer unlike any other American poet of his time. His work is reminiscent in its scope and dialect of Whitman, but he was also heavily influenced by French and Latin American Surrealism. This collection includes not only all of Stanford’s published work (except for the epic The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, which is excerpted throughout the collection), but also his many unpublished manuscripts, one of which, titled Automatic Copilot, is composed entirely of poems written after the work of other artists. This manuscript is one of the great gifts of this book, as Stanford shows us the work that was most important to the creation of his own art. His poem “Cave of the Heart,” after Lorca, exemplifies that surreal, almost Romantic influence:

            Drenched in the lost blood of the moon, yawning

           In the furrows turned after dark, your thick legs long as feathers,

            Stout as brooms, the earth you sleep on

            Too young to call a grave.

Stanford was constantly in conversation with the work of other poets, while at the same time forging his own unique place in American poetics. He used local diction from his ancestral homes of Mississippi and Arkansas, illuminating a world often unseen by the majority of America. Throughout his collections Stanford writes “Blue Yodel” poems; for example, “Blue Yodel of Her Feet” in the collection You:

            Your chest gives ground

            Like an island on a river

            And as they yodel in the song of songs

            Your nipples taut as raisins

            Killdeers try to fly from your eyes

            I wish I could nail your shoes to the floor

            And lose your socks

Stanford combines, in poems like this, the surreal, the local, the beautiful, and the mundane, building it all up to create a narrative of love that seems something out of a dream. The poem is a “yodel,” a mountain song echoing, yet it is about a woman’s feet, literally her lowliest part. Stanford does not differentiate between the high and the low; rather, he sees the poetry in everything, and reveals it to the reader through inventive language and free-flowing form.

In Constant Stranger, perhaps the strongest of his published manuscripts, Stanford writes of love and death as equally strange and familiar, the two most inevitable aspects of life, which haunt his poetics in equal measure. This collection begins with “Death and the Arkansas River,” a long poem in which death is portrayed as a sort of local legend, who is simultaneously powerful and quotidian:

            Some say you can keep an eye

            Out for Death,

            But Death is one for fooling around.

            He might turn up working odd jobs

            At your favorite diner.

            He might be peeling spuds.

These poems are truly, in the words of the New York Times’ Dwight Garner, “death-haunted.” It is impossible to wholly separate the work from the life of the artist, whose death at 29 of three self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the heart, as well as his precocity and style, make him comparable to a sort of American Rimbaud. In the poem “Time Forks Perpetually toward Innumerable Futures in One of Them I Am Your Enemy,” Stanford begins with the line, “I am going to die.” He goes on,

            Death is an isthmus, you can get there on foot.

            But love had made its island.

            …

            Tell it:

 

            There is a fear without age or Christ

            That goes through us

            Like moonshine in a coil.

Stanford consistently takes those two most ancient poetic themes–love and death, that which is most feared and most desired–and infuses them with the freshness of his language and imagery. These poems are suffused with images of the Ozarks: the moon shining on water, boats, catfish and alligator gar, trucks and small-town bars. To read his figuration regarding the moon, in particular, is an almost transcendent experience. For example, in “Women Singing When Their Husbands Are Gone,” from Ladies From Hell:

            Flies wanting a warm place to stay

            And the threequarter moon

            Quieter than a child slicing a melon

            Like dirt smeared over with seeds

And in the titular “What About This,”

            Things are dying down, the moon spills its water.

            Dewhurst says he smells rain.

In these poems, the moon, like love and death, becomes more than a symbol; it is almost a character in itself. The poet constantly doubles back over and around the same themes and images, creating a kind of dreamscape of Southern mountain surreality. There is something undeniably sublime about the best of Stanford’s work. This is the kind of book to read before bed, so that his images may permeate your dreams.

-Jade Hurter, Faulkner House Books

Tom Cooper’s The Marauders

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The Marauders. Tom Cooper. Crown, 2015. 26.00. Call us or visit us to buy a copy!

In his debut novel, local author Tom Cooper delves into the heart of the Bayou in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. This story follows Lindquist, a one-armed oxycontin-addicted shrimper searching for Jean LaFitte’s treasure in the thick and swampy backwoods of Louisiana’s Barataria region. Along the way, he becomes involved with a cast of characters converging on the Bayou from New Orleans to New York in a time of national emergency, when Louisianans are left to fend for themselves in the wake of an environmental crisis.

Cooper is quick to paint a realistic portrait of the cruelties that humans are capable of inflicting on one another for money. The characters in this book are all deeply flawed, forced to make bad decisions out of poverty and physical suffering. Desperation, Cooper shows, can drive a man to do just about anything. Cosgrove, for example, finds himself involved in a drug stealing operation with a man he meets while doing community service in New Orleans–community service that consists of sprucing up a dying woman’s home so it will be worth money when the city reclaims it, and stealing her valuables from the attic while they’re at it. The novel begins with two murderous twins, the Toup brothers, debating whether or not to murder Lindquist for his innocent forays into the swamp, where the Toups grow hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of marijuana. The teenage Wes Trench meets Lindquist after he leaves his father’s shrimping boat, in a fight brought on by the tensions of the oil spill, which has left the residents of the Barataria destitute, depending for their livelihoods on a shrimp trade that has dried up. Wes’s mother drowned during Katrina, when his father insisted against her will that they stay in the Bayou to weather the storm. Grimes grew up in the Barataria and hated every minute of it, leaving for New York as soon as he could. He is back in his hometome representing BP, getting desperate fisherman to sign gag orders in exchange for $10,000.00. And Lindquist is broke, divorced, with an estranged daughter who works as a stripper and visits him only for money, depending on pain medicine to get him through the physical agony of a lifetime of backbreaking work on shrimp boats, for hardly any money.

Cooper manages to take this cast of characters and weave them into a complex and vivid portrayal of life in the modern Barataria. The setting is one of the most compelling parts of the book: for many readers, the swamps are a distant dream. In the city it is easy to forget that there are wild places just a half an hour away, where alligators grow larger than men and poisonous snakes slip through the brackish tides. But after the oil spill, none of this is left untouched: this book is suffused with the scent of crude oil rising from the bayou, fish belly-up in the water, pelicans soaked in petroleum. The characters are quirky, often funny, lovable in their own messed-up ways, but reading about the state of the swamp is truly heartbreaking, and gives this story its weight.

Although this is in many ways a book about the Barataria after the oil spill, Cooper never lets us forget that we are in Louisiana, where a kind of magic, at least in the fictional world, might always have its small victories over the grating of reality. All the seemingly fantastical elements of Louisiana lore come to life in this story, from killer alligators to voodoo curses to Jean LaFitte’s long-lost treasure. And this is the crux of the tale: Louisiana is a place that cannot be defeated, even in the face of years of tragedy. The swamps hold something magical, something terrifying and intangible that refuses to break, even under the weight of crude oil, poverty, and flood waters.

 

Lesson for a Bookstore

Some years ago Oxford University Press released an edition of James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson with Boswell’s Tour of the Hebrides chronologically inserted. The Tour, published several years before The Life, is a journal of Johnson and Boswell’s travels in the Scottish islands. Since I had been reading and collecting books by and about both men for a long time, and since The Tour was not readily available, I ordered the Oxford edition from a local bookstore. Later, while paying for my copy, the store owner said to me, “Samuel Johnson… I bet you don’t know his cat’s name.” I paused, smiled, and answered, “Hodge. Dr. Johnson’s cat was named Hodge.”

The bookstore owner’s deflated pride has been a lesson I’ve not forgotten in the 25 years at Faulkner House: Don’t flaunt knowledge; share it. Customers, I always assume, know as much as I do, and if they are avid collectors, they likely know more. So I listen and learn.

More will come on Johnson and Boswell and other of my favorite writers, as well as some of my most memorable bookstore moments and encounters. Happy reading to you.

-Joe DeSalvo, owner, Faulkner House Books

Literary Events this Weekend!

This Saturday from 2-3pm at Faulkner House Books, we will be hosting the author Kevin Sessums, who will be signing his new book I Left it on the Mountain, which is the followup to his best-selling memoir Mississippi Sissy. Publisher’s Weekly writes of the book:

Sessums chronicles his career as a prominent celebrity writer for Vanity Fair, Interview, and Parade, rubbing elbows with Andy Warhol and interviewing Madonna and Courtney Love before falling into methamphetamine addiction. Interludes throughout the primary narrative detail Sessums’s love of extreme travel: he’s climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and walked the famed El Camino Santiago across Spain. However, his love of other extremes—in sex and drugs—seeps into his sparkling career.

Read the rest of the review here, and join us tomorrow to pick up a copy of the book and meet the author! As always, we’re at 624 Pirate’s Alley in the French Quarter.

And this Sunday, March 15, from 2-4:30pm, the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society will be co-sponsoring a celebration of the launch of Randy Fertel‘s new book, A Taste of Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation, at the Cabildo in Jackson Square. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins says of the book,

A Taste for Chaos provides a sweeping view of the complex history of the notion of artistic spontaneity. Packed with erudition and references ranging from Lucretius to James Brown, and written with reader-friendly clarity, Fertel’s book is a lively examination of the centuries-old debate between the improvisers and the deliberators. This detailed labor of love deserves its place on any serious bookshelf devoted to literary study or the history of ideas.

Randy will give us his own take on improvisation, which he sees as at the very heart of literature. There will be wine, refreshments, and books available for sale. This is a free event, but please RSVP to faulkhouse@aol.com so we have enough wine for everyone!

Maxine Kumin: And Short the Season

faulkner house books-maxine kuminMaxine Kumin. And Short the Season. WW Norton & Co, 2014. 24.95. Call or visit us to purchase.

Maxine Kumin’s death, a year ago this month, was a loss felt deeply by the poetry community. Her final book, And Short the Season, was published the year she died, and is a beautiful meditation on the close of a life.

In this final collection, Kumin explores nature, death, loss, and what it means to live as a poet. Her stunning formal abilities are on full display as well: the music of her meter and rhyme is subtle, yet almost perfect throughout. Kumin maintains her sensibilities as a New England poet, painting the outdoors with the eye of a naturalist. The first poem in the collection is one of my favorites, beginning

And short the season, first rubythroat

    in the fading lilacs, alyssum in bloom,

    a honeybee bumbling in the bleeding heart

    on my gelding’s grave while beetles swarm

    him underground.

Kumin’s choice of natural detail is powerful: she suggests creeping mortality even before we come to the gelding’s grave, using the rubythroat and the bleeding heart to call to mind the violence inherent even beneath the serenity of nature. The season is short, the lilacs dying already, the life of the horse long since ended. This is Kumin’s gift throughout the collection: the quiet, yet steady, focus on the ephemerality of our own world. We see it especially in the final section of the book, in poems like “Going Down” and “Just Deserts.” Here it is the violence not of nature alone, but which humans have inflicted on the natural world, that haunts her:

    Despite outcries of purest angst

    dikes won’t save the playing field

    so blow a kiss to this drowned world.

    The gods have spoken: yield.

These final poems are some of the starkest in the collection. Here is a poet who visualizes herself not only on the brink of her own death, but on the brink of the collapse of the earth as she knows it through climate change. Kumin puts into words the sneaking fear felt by all who have seen our fragile worlds come crashing down in wind or flood.

Woven into the natural world of the book is also, of course, a very human element. Kumin reminds us of her rightful place in the canon, writing about poets from Sexton to Ginsberg to Williams. I especially love the series “Sonnets Uncorseted,” in which she writes about what it was like to be a woman poet of her generation. She nods to forebears from Margaret Cavendish to Virginia Woolf to Emily Dickinson, and writes fondly of her friendship with Anne Sexton. Describing the male poets of her generation, Kumin says

…if a poem

    of ours seemed worthy they said, you write like a man.

When asked what woman poet they read, with one

    voice they declaimed, Emily Dickinson.

    Saintly Emily safely dead, modern

    women poets dismissed as immature,

    their poems pink with the glisten of female organs.

Much has changed since then: Kumin revels in the ambitious female writers of today, the MFA programs and small presses that give an alternative outlet to poets whose voices veer from the traditional. For woman poets today, Kumin’s blessing is something to hold onto.

And of course, And Short the Season is Kumin’s last book. Thus it is tinged with the sorrow of the dying, with the profound loss felt by the reader upon coming to the last page. There will be no more, the poet seems to say. Her short final poem is a sort of goodbye:

Allow Me

    Sudden and quiet, surrounded by friends

    –John Milton’s way–

    But who gets to choose this ordered end

    Trim and untattered, loved ones at hand?

    –Allow me that day.

Kumin bids her reader adieu; she is off to join the ranks of the other historically great poets: Milton, Dickinson, her friend Anne Sexton. We are lucky to have had this last book. It is a masterfully realized goodbye from one of our most important poets.

Mardi Gras Literature

Just in time for Mardi Gras, we have some exciting rare books for you! If you are looking to enrich your Carnival with some collectible literature, come by Faulkner House and check these out.

faulkner house books-comus

The Mystick Krewe: Comus and his Kin. Perry Young. 1931. 1st ed. $775.00.

This out-of-print, exceedingly rare book is in great condition, and features color illustrations. Young’s book outlines the history of the Mistick Krewe of Comus, the Krewe that turned Mardi Gras into the celebration it is today.

faulkner house books-rex

Marched the Day God: A History of the Rex Organization. Errol Laborde. 1991. $150.00.

This is a rare first edition of an out of print history of the Krewe of Rex, “King of Carnival.” Rex, along with Zulu, is perhaps the most famous Mardi Gras Krewe. They were founded in 1871, and have been marching Mardi Gras day ever since. The highlight of the season is the Rex Ball, held across the street from the Comus Ball. At the end of the night, the two courts meet. To learn more about this uniquely New Orleanian secret society, come by to check out the book! (And if you are looking for something less collectible, we also have Laborde’s most recent book in stock, 2013’s Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival.)

Call us at 504-524-2940 or come by the shop to see or purchase any of these books! Happy Carnival!

M.O. Walsh’s My Sunshine Away

faulkner house books-my sunshine away

My Sunshine Away. M.O. Walsh. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015. 26.95. Come by and pick up a copy or call us to order!

This week marked the highly anticipated release of the debut novel by M.O. Walsh, My Sunshine Away, praised by Southern literary royalty the likes of Kathryn Stockett and Anne Rice. Walsh’s prose moves the story along at a pace that finds the perfect compromise between meditative and page-turner.  Set in Baton Rouge in the early 90’s, the book is narrated by an unnamed man recalling his childhood, beginning with the year his neighbor, the 15-year-old Lindy Simpson, was raped on their usually quiet Southern street.  The rape is still unsolved, and the narrator confesses to us early on that he is a suspect. This is, in some ways, a deeply unsettling story: we are immersed in the consciousness of a narrator who may or may not be a rapist, and whose lovesick actions toward Lindy are often unconscionable.

My Sunshine Away seems to plunge us into a normal childhood in the South, on Piney Creek Road, where neighborhood kids spent their days “tearing around in go-karts, coloring chalk figures on [their] driveways, or chasing snakes down into storm gutters.” But a dark current runs beneath the narrative. This is a street shaken to its core by the sexual assault of a teenage girl, Lindy Simpson. The insularity of the story is emphasized by the fact that the rape takes place right outside Lindy’s house, across the street from the narrator’s own home. Piney Creek is quietly, constantly under siege from the kinds of tragedies that are inescapable on any street, as well as the kinds of tragedies that make us question what is normal in human nature. The rape is just the publicly tangible manifestation of a world in which adult men take pictures of their teenage neighbors and drug their children, where the narrator spies on Lindy from an oak tree and draws her head onto pornographic images.

The darkness of the novel is tempered by the fact that it is also a kind of love story. My favorite thing about this book is Walsh’s ability to so fully crystallize what it means to be young and in love. Speaking of Lindy, our narrator says, “There’s this girl. And when I look at her, I don’t know what to do.” And on technology: “There were no cell phones. No private text messages. It was simply one on one conversation and, if it was any good at all, you had to whisper.” This is the kind of evocative power found on every page. Even if you didn’t grow up in the South, you will find remnants of your own high school experiences in the Spanish moss and mosquitoes of Piney Creek Road. And you will find yourself nostalgic for summer in Baton Rouge, even if you have never been: “And so the soul of this place lives in the parties that grow here, not just Mardi Gras, no, but rather the kind that start with a simple phone call to a neighbor, a friend. And after the heat is discussed and your troubles shared you say man it’d be nice to see you, your kids, your smile. And from this grows a spread several tables long, covered in newspaper, with long rows of crawfish spilled steaming from aluminum pots…” One can’t help but feel that South Louisiana is more than a backdrop to this story: it is almost a living character, loved by the narrator with the same passion he feels for Lindy.

This story is as much about Lindy as it is about the narrator. Lindy is objectified by almost everyone she encounters, reminding the reader of what it is like to grow up as a young girl in a world that becomes increasingly unsafe the more she begins to look like a woman. Lindy is never, however, objectified by the author. She is a real girl, experiencing a trauma that is not understood by the narrator, but that is deeply understood by the author. Walsh never gives us the narrator’s name, reminding us that the real protagonist is, in a way, Lindy. However, the namelessness of the narrator also fits him into the time-honored tradition of the every man, and this is what makes the book truly chilling. Does every man really enact such violence on the women around him? The narrator concludes, in the final pages of the book, what we have wanted him to recognize all along: “That’s why I am so lucky to have Julie around now, and to have had my mother and Rachel around for so long, to make me realize that life is not always about me and the unloading of my conscience. The story of Lindy’s rape, for instance. It is about Lindy. And that is all.” As he grows from a boy into a man, the narrator realizes that there is a world of women around him, women with secrets, women whose parallel existence in the world is shockingly different from his own. He realizes, for instance, that Lindy was probably not the only girl to be raped that year in Baton Rouge. That women bear scars that they don’t tell men about.

It is this nuanced understanding of what it means to be a man that makes My Sunshine Away so special. It is unsettling to read what presents itself as a mystery about a rape, but the solution to the mystery is, appropriately, unsatisfying in a way that a true crime novel’s ending never is. There is nothing glamorous, nothing outrageous about rape. We aren’t reading to find out who did it. Men commit these atrocities against women every day. This isn’t a mystery so much as it is the story of a man who comes to recognize his own complicity in a culture that is dangerous to women. It is a story about becoming a better man, and recognizing that some narratives will always remain secret.