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C. D. Wright on Frank Stanford's Long Poetry

C.D. Wright

[As one of the publishers of the Lost Roads Press, Wright was responsible for seeing into print The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, the long poem completed in 1974 by the legendary Arkansas poet Frank Stanford who killed himself at age 30 in 1978. In this portion of her essay on the poem, her comments on the contents of Stanford’s poem reveal some of her own interests, and the momentum she attains in her enumeration recalls her own prose poetry.]

Stanford’s exceptional memory and synthesizing ability render the poem inclusive. Hundreds of literary references simply call out when their presence is felt, Beowulf the most frequent touchstone. But autobiography and history anchor The Battlefield in the real world. By their observance, violations in probability and verisimilitude are overcome. Stanford’s recreation of city, town, land, was exact. He was vigilant of weather and ever-conscious of how some could and others could not earn a living. Brand names date and locate. The confections alone – Eskimo Pie, Nehi, Banana Flip, Zagnut, Stage Plank – bring back the sticky nickels in my land-filled palms, baby-tooth cavities. These are no fiction: freedom rides, lynchings, falsified news reports, Jim Crow, the Mid-South Fair, Sonny Liston’s defeat, Charlie Chaplin’s expulsion, Elvis’s rip-off of Big dad Arthur, the tent camps on Snow Lake where the poet’s engineer father directed the levee building, Vietnam which the poem "foretells." The outrageous people who populate The Battlefield are imaginative composites of relatives and friends. For the most part they play themselves. Their names have not been changed. Charles B. lemon was the Stanford family chauffeur, Jimmy was the poet’s cousin, Sylvester, the Black Angel, was probably modeled on his friend Richard Banks – the only black resident of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Born -in-the-camp-with-Six Toes was a child born in the levee camp, six-toed. O.Z., Ray baby, Baby Gauge were children of the levee hands. The world’s smallest man was an annual feature at the Mid-South Fair. The piano player, the astronomer, the attorney, and many others Stanford deployed unwittingly, albeit respectfully, to lead a war of liberation. They are the ones to whom the book is implicitly dedicated, and the debt paid in full.

[. . .]

Epic in deed, scope and moral purpose, narrative in style, the poem manages without straining to be elegiac in substance. Death claims its dominion. There are deaths and near-deaths in every imaginable form. True to the epic tradition, the contours of physical and spiritual pain must be endured. The dream sequences which function transitionally are by and large meditations on death. In an abiding sense the journey is deathward. But by no reckoning does the poem diminish or exclude the affirmative acts of living.

From "A Note on The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You, A Poem by Frank Stanford," Ironwood 17 (1980), 159-160.

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