'It Wasn't a Dream, It Was a Flood'
Approaching realness in Frank Stanford
Frank Stanford is an anachronism in late twentieth-century poetry. Like many of his southern contemporaries, much of his work is driven by a narrative impulse — his poems nearly always have stable, embodied speakers; they tend to use fairly normative syntax; they generally feel grounded in a particular geographic location; and they’re concerned with identity, memory, and depicting external action. However, Stanford also seems to have internalized many of the ideas of his postmodern contemporaries: most significantly, his work is characterized by an attention to the artifice of language, exhibiting an understanding that linearity seeks to project a false order on human experience.
Previous reviews and articles have been quick to typify Stanford’s work as surreal — for example, Lorenzo Thomas refers to Stanford as a “swamprat Rimbaud […] [a] redneck surrealist.” This distinction is unsurprising, given that his poems utilize disjunctive, associative leaps, and they do seem to concern themselves with repressed violence and sexual desire. However, to refer to Stanford as a surrealist — to relegate his work entirely to the world of the imagination — is to overlook its ontological uncertainty, which is ultimately what makes his poems distinctive. Stanford’s work doesn’t seamlessly fit into easy distinctions of realism or surrealism; rather, it blurs the lines between lived experience and the imagination, seeking to complicate the binary between “real” and “unreal.” Stanford adheres to narrative tropes while simultaneously questioning this fundamental tenant of narrative — a sense of dominant realness. This is precisely what makes his work subversive, and it also distinguishes him from many other significant narrative poets in the second half of the twentieth century — such as Philip Levine, for example, who claimed that in his ideal poem, language transparently represents reality: “no words are noticed. You look through them […] just see the people, the place.”
For Stanford, form is never a static container for content. Through his formal choices, his narrative poems project a refracted vision of existence; like Schrödinger’s cat, they permit multiple visions of reality to simultaneously exist. By defying a singular depiction of narrative “realness,” Stanford’s work functions as what Lyn Hejinian refers to as an “open text”: it resists the hierarchy of poet over reader, undoing the text’s status as a monolithic object, and ultimately, encourages reader engagement. By examining Stanford’s work — both in terms of his specific formal choices, as well as the macrostructures which inform his epic poem, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You — I hope to explore the ways in which Stanford simultaneously subverts and adheres to notions of narrative realism.
Metaphor and refracted narrative
When Stanford compares one object to another, the purpose is not to make the original object more emphatic, or cement its status as real; rather, his metaphors tend to follow the Miltonic tradition of the epic simile, in which “the local action or scene is extended cosmically.” That is, they push the reader in a different direction entirely, expanding outward. But unlike Milton, Stanford often does not return to the original tenor, and thus destabilizes our sense of a singular reality. For example, in the opening lines of “The Singing Knives”:
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
In this passage, it’s nearly impossible to make the leap from tenor to vehicle that metaphors typically demand. Since the moon is in the sky, the narrator is presumably describing a reflection of the moon in the water. However, a reflection of the moon would be stationary, not floating downriver. Whereas metaphors typically make the vehicle subordinate to the tenor, Stanford doesn’t place importance on one image over the other. The metaphor doesn’t seek to help us more fully visualize the image of the moon, but rather, invites us to imagine a dead man literally floating — thus gesturing towards a different narrative thread, and a different vision of reality altogether. In effect, the “real” (i.e., the moon that the narrator initially observes) is given no more primacy than the imagined object (the dead man in the river). Later on in the poem, Stanford compares the moon to dead fish, further destabilizing our sense of realness. It’s as though the artistic act of comparison — the imaginative work of invention, of dreaming — is more significant than unpacking the meaning of the comparison itself.
When Stanford’s metaphors function most effectively, they echo his tendency to resist a singular narrative route. That is, they gesture towards a fragmented reality wherein separate narratives can occur simultaneously. In one particularly climactic scene in The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, an undertaker forces Francis, the young narrator, to lie down inside a coffin. In this moment, Stanford enacts a tapestry of metaphor and dream sequence where it’s impossible to distinguish the vehicle from the tenor:
the coffin was like a boat in the pocket of the watery harbor of sleep
I saw what was left of the light and their fingers crawl
from under the lid of the boat
the lame negro had bored out two holes for the plaque
and I looked out into the night from my portals
and I heard the harbor master death call lad overboard
dead wings crisp as the biscuits in the pockets of a man on the run
I dreamed I was wading in deep water
I kept reaching down in the mud
until I found something heavy
it was the black tennis shoe of the drowned child
the moonlight was coming through both portals
I had to shut my eyes
Here, Stanford introduces at least three different overlapping narratives: 1) the scene where Francis is placed inside the coffin, 2) the metaphor of the coffin as a boat in a harbor, and 3) the dream where Francis finds a shoe in the water. Interestingly, we don’t merely shift from one scene to the next, but rather, the instances blur into each other. For example, when the narrator tells us, “I looked out into the night from my portals,” we imagine Francis on a metaphoric ship (with “portals” being read as a pun on “portholes”), but we can just as easily imagine him looking through the holes in the coffin. Two narratives are seemingly occurring simultaneously, and neither of them are given ontological primacy. This is further complicated when the third narrative emerges: “I dreamed I was wading in deep water.” The initial scene with Francis lying in the coffin doesn’t last long enough for him to fall asleep, so perhaps “I dreamed” is merely meant to be a rhetorical gesture. But it’s also possible that this line is meant to occur within the boat scene — and if Francis is in fact dreaming while he lies on the metaphoric boat, the scene where he wades in the water is operating at two levels of remove from the initial “reality” of the coffin scene that Stanford presents. When the narrator tells us that “the moonlight was coming through both portals,” we are again invited to imagine both the coffin and the metaphoric ship. The “porthole”/“portal” pun is significant: it embodies Stanford’s tendency to foreground form, revealing the materiality and malleability of language. Like the pun itself, which refracts into multiple meanings, Stanford effectively creates a portal for the reader, establishing narrative as a mode of transit between disparate visions of reality.
The scene in the coffin is, ultimately, a continuous metaphor. Francis symbolically enters a liminal space — he’s in the void of death while maintaining his status as a living body, and the separate narratives of dream and reality are permitted to blur and intermingle. However, Stanford’s willingness to mix metaphors — to force the reader to question what is literal and what is symbolic — sets him apart from the vast majority of American narrative poets in the second half of the twentieth century. For the most part, many post-WWII narrative poets use continuous metaphor in a relatively predictable way: the poem serves to depicts an external scene — one which is narrative, which is quasi-cinematic in its attempt to visually render reality — and at a certain point, the narrative becomes symbolically evocative, gesturing towards some kind of internal development or revelation. In James Dickey’s “Cherrylog Road,” the narrator waits to meet a woman in a junkyard of abandoned cars. Over the course of the poem, the external thread — what actually happens, in a literal sense — runs parallel to the internal, figurative thread. But in several moments of poetic affect, it gestures towards “deeper” symbolic meaning, and the two threads begin to veer towards each other. The junkyard becomes “more” than just a junkyard — it becomes evocative of death and decay, of the eventual ruin of youthful energy and independence. However, the literal action never fully collapses into the figurative meaning; after all, this would threaten the sense of “realness” that the narrative action establishes, revealing the artifice of language. Thus, Dickey — whose early work is often oriented around these notions of narrative realism — establishes a clear hierarchy between the internal and external, the real and unreal. Indeed, Dickey argued that the quality of a poem was in direct accordance to its sense of realness:
A great deal of poetry has nothing whatever to do with reality: that is, anybody’s reality. It is a verbal construct merely. The good or great poetry, though, has something to do with reality […] The poem should come of reality and go back into it. But it should impose itself on fact.
Dickey’s claim rests on a singular conception of reality, and he establishes a clear binary between reality and the “verbal construct.” Thus, it’s the job of language — and narrative — to define what is real. At least by this definition, narrative creates ontological hierarchies, establishing closure. Stanford’s willingness to dismantle these hierarchies is what distinguishes his poetry from more traditional narrative approaches. By questioning the definition of “realness,” Stanford is effectively shaking the foundation that allows most narrative poetry to conceive a sense of order. Rather than seeking closure, his writing is closer to the vein of Hejinian’s “open text.” It is generative, “unfinished,” demanding reader engagement; rather than reaffirming a singular narrative or establishing a hierarchy, Stanford creates a narrative that challenges a dominant sense of realness, sprawling outward.
One of the most recognizable formal features of Stanford’s work is his strong use of anaphoric, end-stopped lines. Though this strategy can be found throughout the body of Stanford’s work, it is most prominent in The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, as well as in his collection The Singing Knives. Typically, these lines are comprised of declarative statements with a simple subject/verb construction (e.g., “I rode the hog / I hugged his neck / I stabbed him seven times”). On a surface level, these anaphoric lines provide a rhythmic pulse and a sense of sonic cohesion, pulling the reader down the page. But more significantly, they serve to “stall” the momentum — the repeated pronoun interrupts the narrative flow as we begin each new line, our focus returning to the subject. From “The Snake Doctors”:
I knelt in the prow with the knife in my mouth
I looked at myself in the water
I heard someone singing on the levee
I was buried in a boat
I woke up
I set it afire with the taper
I watched myself burn
I reached in the ashes and found a red knife
On one hand, the content of these lines is suggestive of action — of drama and violence. But at the same time, the repetition of “I” induces a sense of stasis, establishing the speaker as a stationary subject; the narrative seems to simultaneously move and sit at a standstill. This tension is further enhanced by the lack of narrative linearity between some of the lines. If traditional narrative movement progresses cinematically, then Stanford’s anaphoric constructions evoke a kind of montage: each line briefly depicts a different startling image, and though we can find some continuity between them, the narrative action doesn’t necessarily play out in a seamlessly linear way.
Distinct from Philip Levine’s vision of a narrative poem that transparently depicts reality, Stanford foregrounds his formal gestures. After all, these lines are not cloaked in complicated syntax, but rather, are stripped down to the basic elements of narrative (character and action), and of a sentence itself (subject and verb). The use of anaphora is, ultimately, a rhetorical tool, and Stanford does not attempt to convince us otherwise. The repetition of “I” can either function as an exaltation of the subject, or as an obliteration. In one sense, it serves as a constant reminder of the poet’s individual agency to perceive, to describe. But through the act of repetition, the anaphora also enacts an evisceration of the author’s ego — it strips the “I” of its meaning, reducing it to a rhetorical stand-in, or perhaps establishing an open medium for experience into which the reader can project the self. (In an anaphoric list near the end of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, Stanford seems to gesture in this direction when the narrator tells us, “I forgot I was I” ). In either case, Stanford’s anaphoric repetition creates an open text by drawing our attention to the materiality of language—we’re reminded of how it functions not only as a signifier, but as a sonic utterance. In effect, Stanford returns us to the act of making. Rather than presenting a “closed” narrative, Stanford depicts the artistic process in flux.
Stanford’s tendency to resist a dominant narrative plays itself out on a larger scale in his epic poem, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. The poem is narrated entirely by a twelve-year-old white boy, Francis Gildart (a kind of alter-ego for Stanford himself), and for the most part, it can be divided into lyric and narrative sections. The narrative elements of this poem — where the external action primarily occurs — mostly take place around the Mississippi Delta, and are often concerned with Francis’ interactions with African American laborers. By virtue of specificity — being rooted in a specific time and place, with a recurring set of characters — these episodes approximate a kind of “realness” relative to the rest of the poem. However, the narrative scenes frequently descend into dream and memory, and it is often difficult to determine what is and is not “real.” More significantly, since the digressions are given as much narrative weight as the seemingly “real” scenes, it is sometimes difficult to decide what’s thematically important.
For example, in one of the earliest episodes of the poem, Francis spends several hundred lines describing his past encounter with Count Hugo Pantagruel, a sideshow performer that Francis met at the circus. The two engage in a pastoral call-and-response singing contest, and the performer shares stories of his revenge against two high school boys who taunted him. The scene is fairly typical of the line that Stanford continually walks between real and unreal: the scene is odd, certainly, but as readers, we don’t yet have a reason to believe that the episode is necessarily imagined or untrue. The narrative then cuts to a scene where Charlie B., the Francis’ family driver, gives Francis a letter from the circus performer. Upon reading the words, Francis enters a mythic, stream-of-consciousness digression:
I thought my eyes would burn holes through the paper Charlie B.
asked me if I let a fart there was that smell I didn’t I closed my eyes I
heard that music I was a dead lion I was a black stallion I disappeared
under the water I was made sure of death the icebergs the wagging tongues (18)
At some point in this lyrical run, Francis remembers that he needs to go to school the next day, and then recalls an instance on a school field trip where he engages in a pseudoerotic encounter with a schoolteacher while swimming in a lake. The two participate in a brief call-and-response passage (not unlike the prior interaction with the circus performer), and the scene suddenly takes a mythic turn — Francis describes her as “a mermaid but with legs / instead of fins,” and it’s revealed that the teacher won’t be returning back to school with Francis and the other students:
she said it’s time to go she wouldn’t be going back on the bus
she kissed me on the lips it was a french one like falling underwater her lips
and all the time the moon was behind her hair when she left
that summer I sent her the drawings of the ships they called me teacher’s pet
we got a letter and a clipping that summer she drowned in Mississippi
Charlie B. threw some cold water on me he fanned me with the letter from the freak (21)
In this moment, Stanford breaks some of the most basic rules of cause and effect in narrative: the memory of the encounter with the schoolteacher has very little narrative consequence, the scene isn’t intrinsically necessary to the development of the poem’s “plot,” and the schoolteacher never returns for the rest of the poem. The entire moment is quickly undercut when we return to “reality” — Charlie B. wakes Francis up, and we’re brought back to the primary narrative that Stanford previously established (Francis’ friendship with the sideshow performer). But despite the fact that the scene with the schoolteacher seemingly comes out of nowhere, it amounts to a reimagining of a familiar epic trope: the moment when an otherworldly external force imparts wisdom to the hero. It feels like a pivotal scene in the early stages of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, but it doesn’t fit seamlessly into the progression of the narrative.
For more traditional narrative poets, the discursive signal — i.e., the descent into dream or memory — often sets up an expectation that the digression will have some kind of narrative consequence, directly affecting the narrator in the present. The dream sequence is not meant to truly convey an alternate reality; by momentarily deviating from the “real” and then returning to it, the poet is in fact enforcing a singular, dominant depiction of “realness” that exists in stark contrast to the dream. Stanford uses familiar digressive narrative cues — he tells us “I closed my eyes” (18) right before he descends into the dream sequence — but the dream does not reaffirm a singular realist narrative. (In fact, most of the seemingly “real” scenes in The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You are just as unusual as the flights into dream and memory.) Stanford does not present a “completed,” commodified representation of reality, but rather, an open text that denies ontological primacy to any singular narrative thread. We, as the readers, are expected to determine what is and is not important.
The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You defies narrative causal relationships in other ways, as well. For example, a narrative scene will often reach a moment that triggers a digression, leading the narrator into a dream sequence, and the dream sequence will funnel out into a different narrative scene that isn’t necessarily related to the first one. In one passage, early on in the poem, several hundred lines are devoted to describing Francis’ friendship with Mr. Rufus, an elderly farmer. The scene develops some important tensions that remain constant throughout the book (in particular, the greedy, exploitative tendencies of white characters), but the episode ends abruptly with Mr. Rufus’ death. Francis describes burying Mr. Rufus, and respecting his final wish that he fly his flag at half-mast:
I done it right just like he said he wanted the flag flowed at half mast
down by the river so I done that too he would a really liked that when the
fishermens all took off they hats when they come in of a evening he’d a really
got a kick out of that I can tell you I bet you never even heard of Abraham’s knife
there was only one guy worth a shit who worked in the orphanage
he had an oboe and when this boy put hisself outen his misery the guy
had the decency at least to play Kindertotenlieder on the gramophone (44–45)
The death of Mr. Rufus feels like a climactic moment in the narrative, but instead of reaching some kind of resolution, Stanford quickly digresses into a memory that is only tangentially related. Shortly after these lines, Francis tells us, “I beheld death with my own / eyes there passed the night” (45), and then rapidly shifts into a fairly long list in which he describes his dreams. Some of the statements seem purposefully symbolic or hypothetical (e.g., “[my dreams] like a stolen car coasting down the road with its lights off” ), and others statements briefly segue into micronarratives that feel comparatively “real” — for example, “my dreams like red dice you can’t throw down / like somebody’s older sister in Memphis who leaves a crack / in her bedroom door and lets you watch her undress” (46). However, the dream sequence doesn’t mention Mr. Rufus, and refuses any obvious ruminations about the significance of his death. Francis spends several lines personifying his dreams as “dogs” — “with their howling like splices of rope with muddy feet tracking things up / they kill everybody’s chickens they run up side of the big house” (47) — and then the dream sequence eventually funnels out into an 800-line episode wherein a character named BoBo tells a long story about trying to catch a catfish, but is bitten on the leg by a vicious dog. The only obvious sense of continuity between this episode and the dream sequence is the reference to a dog, and by this point, the narrator seems to have entirely forgotten Mr. Rufus. As is often the case in Stanford’s work, associative logic — that is, internal logic, dream logic — takes precedence over the logic of an external narrative.
It’s worth noting that despite the fact that The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You abandons traditional narrative logic, much of the poem is oriented around the act of storytelling itself. Stanford continually alludes to a variety of other epics (particularly Beowulf), and the episode with BoBo is an obvious parody of Moby Dick, evocative of Stanford’s clear desire to simultaneously adopt and reinvent narrative archetypes. If the “traditional” narrative poem presents a singular pathway, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You presents a web that moves outward in all directions. Not only does Stanford encourage reader engagement, forcing us to triangulate his ruptured narrative logic with our own experiences, he gestures towards the interconnected fabric of literary tradition. In the same way that his use of metaphor pushes towards a refracted, multiplex narrative, each allusion provides an opportunity for the reader to spiral down a disparate narrative pathway. Furthermore, the BoBo episode is a metanarrative — initially, BoBo is the one telling the story, sitting in a store while Francis listens. (Again, with storytelling itself as the subject matter.) Interestingly, towards the end of the passage, the episode ceases to be a “nested” narrative, and the initial narrative frame is abandoned; Francis becomes the narrator, and appears as an active character in BoBo’s story. The episode becomes part of the dominant narrative of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, and we never return to the scene in the store where BoBo originally began telling the story. The significance of this development is clear: in Stanford’s work, narrative can never be confined to a frame, but rather, is a mythic entity that always becomes larger than the singular storyteller.
An open narrative
At its best, Stanford’s work is capable of serving as a conduit between disparate aesthetic camps. While his poetry is clearly influenced by modes of postmodern thinking (e.g., it seeks to enable the reader, it rejects binaries, it challenges the notion that language can transparently depict reality, etc.), it isn’t intransitive in the fashion of many of Stanford’s aesthetically radical contemporaries. Additionally, it still achieves Dickey’s claim that poetry should “have something to do with reality.” Stanford’s poetry does not abandon narrative altogether — it only seeks to disrupt the hierarchies that prioritize one narrative over another. As a result, his work has the ability to reveal narrative poetry’s potential within a contemporary context — a context which has been permanently altered by the rise of mass media and the legacy of postmodernism, which can no longer abide by the notion of a “universal” cultural narrative.
In calculus, one can approach infinity, but never reach it. Stanford approaches realness in a similar way. Unlike “traditional” narrative poets who view realness as a static, accessible concept, Stanford’s poetry pushes in a narrative direction, gesturing towards the real, while simultaneously acknowledging that reality is limitless.
1. Lorenzo Thomas, “Finders, Losers: Frank Stanford’s Song of the South.”
2. Stanford himself refuted the “surrealist” label. In an interview, he describes these allegations of surrealism as “miscarriages of imagination, misconceptions of reality — due to the lack of perception of it.” Matthew Henriksen, “‘Keep an Eye on the Moon, Your Poetry’: Towards a Biography of the Poet Frank Stanford,” Fulcrum 7 (2007): 366.
8. Interestingly, Dickey and Stanford mutually appreciated each other’s work. Stanford claimed that “some of [Dickey’s] poems are among the best written” (See interview with Irving Broughton, reprinted from The Alsop Review). In a blurb, Dickey described Stanford’s work as “rough-cut, vital, primitive in the best sense, the poetry of Frank Stanford forces us to make essential encounters. There are few poets who can do this, but I challenge anyone to read Stanford’s work and remain unchanged.”