Any Motion Without Sound
I suppose that a poet’s influences happen largely by chance.
When I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas to start the MFA program, I was not all that well-read. It didn’t matter though. Even if I had been well-read, I doubt I would have stumbled across the work of Frank Stanford. At the time, many of his books were out-of-print and impossible to find. I started hearing talk of Stanford around Kimpel Hall, but all his books were missing from the library, either stolen or lost (though stolen was more likely). One day myself and several other grad students discovered copies of The Light the Dead Sea marked down to $2.50 at an off-campus bookstore.
We bought them all.
Since then I don’t really remember a time when my notion of poetry changed so quickly and suddenly. Stanford’s life, of course, brought with it a lot of mystery, but his work really changed my notion of what a poem could be or do. The first one I opened the book to was “Memory is Like a Shotgun Kicking You Near the Heart.” I fell in love with the fact that the poem provides more questions than it answers. I love the simplicity of its opening stanza:
I get up, walk around the weeds
By the side of the road with a flashlight
Looking for the run-over cat
I hear crying.
The poem takes you right inside that moment. Then it takes you somewhere else entirely:
I think of the hair growing on the dead,
Any motion without sound,
The stars, the seed ticks
Already past my knees,
The moon beating its dark bush.
This was just the start. From there, I discovered The Moon Where the Battlefield Says I Love You, a book you can literally pick up and start reading at any point. I can still see Jim Whitehead’s copy of the first edition, complete with coffee-ring stains and a random phone number scrawled on the back. I’d be lying to say that Stanford’s life didn’t factor into the initial intrigue I felt towards his poems. Luckily, the poems eclipsed all that. They are holy, profane, and careful. I ordered all of his books through interlibrary loan and made copies. Luckily, The Singing Knives and You are back in print. Hopefully the others will follow.
Alice Notley talks about how all poems are, in essence, imitations. We read a poem we like and we attempt to write in that poet’s voice. In failing to imitate, as we are bound to, we produce a poem in our own voice. I like to think of all poets I’ve read as impacting my work in some way, but Stanford’s work maintains an important role in my process. I revisit his simple and mysterious world again and again:
When I get home
I drink a glass of milk in the dark.
She gets up, comes into the room naked
With her split pillow,
Says what’s wrong,
I say an eyelash.