I am thinking of the dead
Who are still with us.
They are not like us, they are
Young and beautiful. . . .
—Frank Stanford, “Dreamt by a Man in a Field”
Some lives are too easy to read backward. Frank Stanford’s is one of those: the last page is now read as the first page—sometimes as the only page—and the first becomes illegible without the last. You may already know how Stanford’s story ends; I won’t spoil it for you if you don’t. Let it suffice to say that a literary reputation once glittering with promise has faded into a myth that grew larger than the man himself—the hard-living, fast-loving Ozark sage, spawn of Lao-Tzu and Whitman by way of Vallejo and Breton. We’re left with three books that you won’t find in many stores—a slender volume of selected poems called The Light the Dead See, an obscure but often wonderful collection of short stories titled Conditions Uncertain and Likely to Pass Away, and a legendary 15,283-line epic poem called The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You—as well as eight other books of poetry, all long out of print.
Frank Stanford’s story begins on the first day of August 1948 at the Emery Memorial Home for unwed mothers in Richton, Mississippi. But the beginning is a hole. Emery Memorial burned to the ground in January 1964. Its records burned with it. Stanford’s adoptive mother, born Dorothy Gilbert, who took him in as a single divorcee and who died in 2000, told Frank next to nothing about the circumstances of his birth. His adoption papers reveal only that he was born Francis Gildart Smith and that “soon after the birth of said child it was permanently surrendered by Dorothy Margaret Smith, mother and only living parent of said child.”
The two Dorothys confuse. The surname “Smith” feels less than honest. No matter: Stanford would never discover anything concrete about his origins. “Night has put her coins over my eyes,” he would later write. “I don’t know my past.” When the boy was four, Dorothy the Second married a wealthy Memphis engineer many years her senior named Albert Franklin Stanford, who also went by Frank. He died after a lengthy illness when Frank the younger was 15, but it wasn’t until he was nearly 20 that Dorothy finally revealed that she and he shared no blood, and that the man he had been told was his father was not.
This provoked a crisis in Stanford. “From the time we found out we were adopted,” recalled his sister, Ruth Rogers (who was herself adopted one year later from the same home), “it was like day and night—Frankie just wasn’t the same.” People who knew him before he learned he was not the Southern blueblood he had grown up believing himself to be, remembered a cheerful, outgoing, charismatic youth, an athlete. People who met him afterward remembered him as a quiet man, easygoing but somehow removed, funny but always from a distance. Before and after, women found him irresistible. “He was handsome as the sun,” recalled the poet C.D. Wright, who lived with Stanford for the last three years of his life. In the few surviving photos, he looks either stubbornly defiant or wistful, as if he’s laughing at a joke that he doesn’t plan to share.
But for a young man already obsessed with poetry and myth, the discovery that his life began with a blank page also provided an opportunity. “He felt that he was a bastard,” said Wright. “The only advantage to that was that he could create his own identity.”
The beginning was a hole. Frank Stanford dove in, and never landed.
"All of this is magic against death": Where did the self-mythologizing end and Stanford start? Photo used by permission of the Estate of Frank Stanford. C.D. Wright.
* * *
When the rest of you
Were being children,
I became a monk
To my own listing
It is no coincidence that Stanford would become a great American poet of both childhood and of death, simultaneously dubbed “a swamprat Rimbaud” by Lorenzo Thomas and “one of the great voices of death” by Franz Wright. In truth, though, Stanford was no swamp rat. His adoptive parents were more than respectable: his father the distinguished scion of an upper-crust Memphis family, his mother a descendant of what his sister Ruth would with a mild sneer call “Mississippi aristocracy.” For most of each year, Stanford lived a conventionally privileged Memphis childhood. “We always had a Cadillac, usually black,” his sister recalled. A chauffeur dropped the Stanford siblings off at school each morning.
But in the summers, the elder Stanford moved his family down along the Delta, where he was engaged to build the levee system that tamed the Mississippi River. (“These levees,” Stanford would later write, “my father’s long graves / which he raised like a pharaoh.”) They lived in tents in hardscrabble levee camps along the bayous, among the laborers and their families, most of whom were African American. There young Frank Stanford enjoyed a freedom that he would chase for much of the rest of his life, in his poetry and elsewhere. In an early 1970s interview conducted by his friend Irv Broughton, whose Mill Mountain Press published six books of Stanford’s poetry, Stanford recalled that period of his life: “I remember relating time and dust and weather and stars and speech as if it all were a constellation that came out every night. To me it is another world.” Note the present tense.
In the same interview, Broughton asked Stanford what he learned from living among African Americans—far from a common situation for an affluent white youth in 1950s Tennessee. Stanford’s answer was brief: “How shitty white people were to them.” Those two experiences—wonder at the wild and intricate beauty of the world and of language, disgust at the brute facts of racial injustice—would form the basis for much of Stanford’s early work, particularly in his first collection, 1972’s The Singing Knives, and in The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You.
That work described a world of remarkable completeness, what he would call “the strange country of my childhood.” If it’s a paradise lost, it’s a peculiar one, a myth-laced Southern dreamland of gypsies and dwarves, dragonflies and drive-ins, as if Huck and Jim had been joined on the raft by Hank Williams and Antonin Artaud. Stanford introduces much of his cast in “The Blood Brothers,” the first poem in The Singing Knives. (The poem, astonishingly, is dated 1964, when Stanford would have been 16.) “There was Born in the Camp With Six Toes / He popped the cottonmouth’s head off. . . . There was Baby Gauge. . . . There was Ray Baby / He stole the white man’s gold tooth. . . .”
These same characters, joined elsewhere by O.Z. and Tangle Eye (“Tang” for short), were named for Stanford’s real-life playmates from the levee camps. They would populate Stanford’s work for many years, though he had not seen most of them since he was a small child. The family left Memphis for the then all-white Ozark town of Mountain Home, Arkansas, when Stanford was in eighth grade, by which time the levee days were already a memory. Yet he told Irv Broughton years later that he still longed to see his old friends. “I know whereabouts most of them are living,” he said. “And one day I will visit them.”
They appear again in “The Snake Doctors,” one of the strongest of those early poems, written around 1970 and published in The Singing Knives. In short-lined, staccato verse (“I was riding the hog / He weighed three-hundred pounds / I called him Holy Ghost”) that dips only occasionally into metaphor (“Now the moon was a fifty-cent piece / It was a belly I wanted to cut open”), a guitar player and a midget castrate the boy-narrator’s pig as he watches from inside an outhouse. They later bludgeon and shoot the hog, and the child-hero wins a terrible revenge. Bloodletting is frequent, often comical, at times startlingly beautiful (“I ran the knife across his throat / And the blood came out like a bird”). For all the slapstick, there is something weighty here, a dewy combination of awe, menace, and loss that flows throughout Stanford’s early work. “Oh Sweet Jesus the levees that break in my heart,” the poem ends.
* * *
all of this
is magic against death
—The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You
The world of Stanford’s imagination—that “unknown country where my dreams jump and shout”—found its fullest expression in the work for which he is best known, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. Like the lost text of some esoteric faith, many people have heard of it, but few have laid eyes on a copy. The Battlefield is a single poem, almost entirely unpunctuated, more than 500 pages long in its first edition, and until its reprinting in 2000 almost impossible to find. Borrowing the author’s first and middle names, Francis Gildart, the dreamy, rebellious child narrator (“knight of the levees and / rivers and ships keeper of tears and virgins and horses with lucky markings”), will be familiar (by voice if not by name) to readers of Stanford’s early poems, as will much of The Battlefield’s levee-camp cast of characters, to which Stanford adds, among many others, Count Hugo Pantagruel, the world’s smallest man; a blind astronomer; the tragically costive Rufus Abraham; Vico, a philosophizing deaf castrato; and Sylvester the Black Angel, whose lynching young Francis yearns to avenge. Christ and the apostles drop in for a while. So does Hank Williams. He’s drunk. Sonny Liston weeps alone in a short-order café. When he falls asleep, Francis kisses the back of his neck.
The text proceeds with a reckless oneiric logic, inspired as much by Beowulf as Faulkner, Apollinaire as Twain: “there are the dead and the dead and the dead and the dead / like the Mississippi River / there are the dreams Huckleberry never thought about telling.” Sections of dialogue and something close to narrative prose are punctuated by long, lyrical lists and dream sequences. All parentheses are left open. Narratives spawn narratives, dreams sprout from dreams. Stanford called his work up to this point “the poetry of being awake and asleep at the same time. It’s just not night or day, it’s both.”
For all its surreality, the poem is a proper epic. A battle is being waged, primarily a fight for racial justice. Most of the narrative sections involve some race-tinted wrong, or an attempt to right one. Young Francis joins the Freedom Riders en route to the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Earlier, he helps his cousin Jimmy, Charlie B. Lemon (a recurring character modeled on his father’s driver), and Tangle Eye wreak a chaotic revenge on the segregated drive-in theater that denied them entry. There are no happy endings. Nothing works out well. But Francis’ loyalties are clear. Of his own Caucasian kind, he says, “if you take them as a whole then they is evil quality and quantity / I ought to know I’m white.”
At the same time, The Battlefield narrates a struggle against wealth and its depredations, a defense of “the ribald the sublime and the reckless” from the creeping forces of sameness that define America as much as any bright vision of freedom. “I believe there is no sanctuary for me and my strays / in the subdivisions,” Stanford wrote, and he was right. The fight, he knew, was already lost. For the cover of the first edition, Stanford chose a photo shot on the last day of the Vietnam War: children’s bodies stacked in the Saigon airport, the faces of the living beside them contorted in agony. As much as it’s an epic, The Battlefield is a psalm and a lament. It articulates a dream that’s already been banished. Visions of an impossible togetherness keep despair at bay:
Have mercy Jesus deliver me from the lawyers and the teachers
and the politicking flies can’t you hear them buzz can’t you hear
chunk out of me oh brother I am death and you are sleep I am
black brother tell me I am that which I am I am sleep and you
one person getting up and going outside naked as a blue jay
at the moon oh brother tell me you love me and I’ll tell you too.
Awake and asleep all at once: Stanford's The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You is a single, barely punctuated poem of more than 500 pages. Photo used by permission of Meredith Boswell.
* * *
I don’t believe in tame poetry. . . . Poetry busts guts.
—“With the Approach of the Oak the Axeman Quakes”
It is unclear when Stanford actually wrote The Battlefield. The poet seems to have intentionally wreathed the work in mystery. According to C.D. Wright, he refused to tell her when it was composed; she believes he wrote much of it while still in high school. But while the Stanfords lived in Mountain Home, neither Stanford’s sister nor his boyhood friend Bill Willett was aware that he was writing poetry. Neither was Father Nicholas Fuhrmann, his English teacher at Subiaco Academy, the Benedictine monastery and boarding school in western Arkansas where Stanford attended high school from 1964 to 1966. (The Stanfords left Mountain Home not long after Frank Sr.’s death.) Wright’s belief, though, is supported by a 1974 letter to David Walker, the editor of the journal Field, in which Stanford mentions “trying to make fourteen years of early, Huckleberry Rimbaud mss. readable.” But that letter is so filled with self-mythologizing fictions (“bad trouble with the law,” burned manuscripts, “an irate husband” out to do him in, a big New York editor spurned, a wrongly diagnosed disease) that it’s hard to strain out the true bits.
Willett believes Stanford wrote large parts of the manuscript beginning in the fall of 1966, when the two shared a room at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. “He would go three and five days straight,” Willett recalled, “essentially living off coffee and whiskey and writing, writing, writing.” And Stanford must have written significant parts of the poem after 1972, only because he based the character of Sylvester on a friend named Richard Banks, the one black man in the all-white town of Eureka Springs, where Stanford lived for several months that year after the dissolution of his first marriage and an aborted move to New York City.
The Battlefield was likely cobbled out of work composed over at least a decade, but the carefully crafted enigma that surrounds it helped to build the Stanford myth—the backwoods prodigy and self-sprung genius, autochthonous fruit of the red Southern clay. The poet’s outsider status has made it too easy for some critics to dismiss his work as “primitivism” (see especially Susan Lasher writing in Parnassus in 1993), as if Stanford were a sort of hillbilly idiot savant, spitting out stanzas between watermelon seeds.
In fact, Stanford was, in his way, deeply engaged in the literary world. He maintained correspondence with poets from Thomas Lux to Allen Ginsberg. He submitted work constantly, and was published everywhere from Italy's La Notte to the Boston Phoenix. “He chose his own route,” Irv Broughton told me. “He could’ve written poems that were more aligned with the academy—he read everything, he knew everything.”
In ways that counted, though, Stanford chose to stay outside. He avoided big cities, never gave readings, never taught or even finished a degree. “He thought you could do what you wanted to where you were,” Wright said. To that end, Stanford founded Lost Roads Publishers while living in Fayetteville in 1976. (Wright later took over the press and published work by little-known Southerners who couldn’t find a home in mainstream outlets, authors Wright would call “the beautiful wild poets we grow from the road.”)
In his second semester of college in the spring of 1967, Stanford took a poetry class from James Whitehead, who was so impressed with his work that he let Stanford into the graduate poetry workshop. He thrived there briefly but soon began to chafe at the traditional approaches taken by poets such as Whitehead and Miller Williams (father of Lucinda, who later wrote two songs about Stanford), both of whom were teaching in Fayetteville at the time. Stanford later paid his early mentors backhanded praise: “They are all good and honrable [sic] writers,” he wrote to David Walker, “only better poets advised me not to tow their line of neo-fugative [sic], neo-redneck verse.”
Ralph Adamo, a friend of Stanford’s who was enrolled in the graduate workshop, remembered a party Stanford threw for Alan Dugan (one of the “better poets” to whom Stanford referred) as the occasion of his decisive break with the academy: “Frank did some outrageous things, like pointing to people in a circle around the kitchen and saying either ‘I like you’ or ‘I don’t like you’ to them. (Majority of the latter.) He also fired a shotgun through the ceiling, and at some point either he or his friend Billy Willett started up a chainsaw in the living room. I was . . . tripping, so it all seemed sort of normal to me, a lovely evening.”
Stanford dropped out of school in 1969, and from then on did his best to duck the institutional literary world entirely. He got married and quickly divorced, then moved briefly to New York, but only, he later wrote, “to go to movies.” He lived in a series of Ozark towns between 1972 and 1978—Eureka Springs, Busch, Rogers, then Fayetteville again—married the painter Ginny Crouch, and earned a difficult and often meager living as a land surveyor. He did his drinking in rural juke joints and in the bars of the Tin Cup, Fayetteville’s small black ghetto, not at departmental mixers. When interviewed by Broughton a few years after jumping off the academic path, Stanford warned, “If you’ve come here to get me to talk about movements in poetry and schools and writers and so on, I believe you’ve come to the wrong place. . . . There are plenty of people who enjoy such conversation, but I don’t.”
Later in the same interview, Stanford quipped, “I’d rather be Muhammad Ali than T.S. Eliot any fuckin’ day. That’s the truth.” Inside but outside, he qualified his claim when Broughton asked him to repeat it: “I’d rather have written some of the sonnets of Shelley or Keats or Rossetti wrote than knocked out someone Muhammad Ali knocked out.”
* * *
Death is a good word.
Death is everywhere in Stanford’s poetry, and it often drives a Cadillac. It’s there—he’s there, I should say—in the first lines of The Battlefield, which begins with the funeral of young Francis’ nanny: “well that black Cadillac drove right up to your front door / and the chauffeur was death / he knocked on the screen he said come on woman let’s take a ride.”
In much of the work Stanford published in the mid-1970s—presumably written in the poet’s early and mid-20s, around the time he bid academia goodbye—death took center stage. As time passed, death gradually pushed everything else to the sidelines, everything but love, which grew more pained and brittle as the years went by. Stanford’s “biggest love affair,” C.D. Wright told me with a tired smile, “was with death.” And he was not a man known for being stingy with love.
When death first appears, Stanford greets it with comic defiance. In “Called,” apparently written in Stanford’s late teens, a character named Salamanca reads the Bible in his outhouse: “He talked to death like a man / fishing in his hole. . . . He told death to suck hind teat.”
Death’s appearances a few years later are still whimsical, if slightly more respectful. Stanford seems enthralled with his visitor, and somewhat puzzled: “I came up on death and love / hung up like dogs in my garden,” he wrote in “Plowboy,” published in the 1974 chapbook Field Talk. (The novelist Joan Williams, a friend of Stanford’s mother, recalled a visit from him at around that time: “Without prompting he began to tell me how happy he was! That with Ginny he had the relationship with a woman he'd longed for. And I see him moving about as if he needed exertion to tell me the final summation about his life: everything was going well and far better than he could ever have dreamed.”) “I told them / stay out of my greens / what I really meant was what do you want.”
Before long, that question had unfolded into a nearly full-time concern. Death becomes a character, as fully fleshed as anyone from the old levee-camp gang. “Death had a socket wrench,” he wrote in “Shed,” from 1975’s Arkansas Bench Stone, “That’d fit any nut / He knows a little tune / You can’t carry.” In “Island,” from that same collection, he wrote “Death had a smell to him / Like he had Wildroot hair oil on his head. . . . Death was like a man in a bow tie / Looking for a hubcap / We had spyglasses we all figured death ran a hotel…”
There is barely a poem in Stanford’s next collection, Constant Stranger (published in 1976, the year Stanford launched Lost Roads out of the Fayetteville house he rented with C.D. Wright), that does not in one way or another converse with death. The narrator is no longer a sly adolescent. The levee days have begun to fade. Baby Gauge is nowhere to be found. Stanford has a new friend now. There are poems about love and poems about poetry, but mainly there are poems about death. Stanford does not hide his admiration. In “Death and the Arkansas River,” death is promoted to a capital “D.” Death is a bootlegger (“In the winter Death runs snow tires on his truck, / He makes long hauls at night. . . . / He’s paid all the Laws off.”) and a honkytonk saint (“Death dances a slow boogie. / Even the awkward can follow / Where he leads”). Death is a trickster (“Death is fond of the double-entendre”), and Death always wins (“Death controls the journeys / The fare and the gender, / And death is around you / Like a lock and dam”).
Curiously, there is nothing of defeat in these poems. They are consistently, achingly funny. Tears are falling everywhere, but there is room still for conversation, for banter, for gibes. Stanford does the dozens with death. For the time being, he’s ahead. “There is no doubt in my mind,” he can afford to jeer, “Death is a bad hog.”
* * *
None of us told the truth, we didn’t lie.
—“In This House”
Looking back, it’s easy to say that there were signs, but who could say which way they pointed? Even now, they’re not easy to interpret. What was myth and what was real? Which of our stories are true? Which become true in the living, and which in the telling? It’s hard to be certain whether Stanford himself even knew. Toward the end, he gave most of those close to him little cause for worry. No one remembers him seeming particularly morbid or depressed. Ralph Adamo spent much of Stanford’s last week with him at the novelist Ellen Gilchrist’s house in New Orleans and recalled the time as being “fairly relaxed, even fun.”
He was drinking a lot, said Leon Stokesbury, another friend from his university days who remembers running into him in Fayetteville toward the end. But then, Stanford always drank. “We all drank,” Bill Willett told me. “But Frank had a special affinity for drinking bourbon.” Given the time and place, though, and how unusual Stanford was in so many ways, his intimates didn’t worry much about his drinking. “That’s one of the unfortunate things about being intelligent,” said Willett. “It takes more whiskey to make you drunk.”
His mother worried, but then mothers are known to worry, especially when their football-playing sons become poets, stop going to school, and work as little as they can get away with. But Dorothy worried more than most, because at some point in 1972, shortly after the collapse of Stanford’s first marriage, she convinced him to have himself committed to the state mental hospital in Little Rock. Willett remembers Stanford being in a bad way, but Stanford made light of the affair in that same 1974 letter to David Walker: “I forgot the part where they put me in the horse pit et al,” he punned, “to dry me out, only Alan Dugan and [Malcolm] Cowley and some others found out and called the nuts at the nuts house and tole them let me go.”
Father Nicholas Fuhrmann remembered it differently. Fuhrmann, who had been Stanford’s English teacher at Subiaco and remained his friend and occasional drinking partner for the remainder of his life—“The Snake Doctors” is dedicated to him—drove Stanford to and from the hospital. “He did it just for the sake of his mother,” Furhmann told me. “He was just joking about it all the way. As far as he was concerned, it was just another experience. I went to pick him up about a month later—he said it was fun.”
In both cases, Stanford’s own account is less than credible. But whether or not he suffered a real collapse is hard to reckon. Perhaps less ambiguously, there were, Willett told me, two attempts at suicide that he knew of. Even those, though, were a little off, such absurd and almost comic failures that they feel more like episodes from The Battlefield than serious acts of desperation. “The first one was at Subiaco,” Willett said. “Frank said that he went out one morning early, before dawn, and laid down in the cemetery. He had a letter opener, and he stabbed himself in the chest with it.” Stanford didn’t realize it, but the point broke off on contact. “He lay there for a long time thinking he was dying or dead.” Then the sun came up, and the monks came out for their morning prayers. “Realizing he wasn’t dead, Frank had to skedaddle out of there.”
The second time, Willett said, “he went out to Beaver Lake, which is close to Fayetteville. He takes his clothes off on the bank somewhere, jumped in the water, and started swimming.” He intended to swim out until he was too exhausted to swim back. But “Beaver Lake is very shallow, and every time he would go down he could stand up. He did this for a while until he got tired of trying to drown himself.” Some hunters gave him clothes to wear, he said, and a ride home.
* * *
When a man knows another man
Is looking for him
He doesn’t hide
—“Everybody Who Is Dead”
Stanford’s last two collections, Crib Death (Ironwood Press) and You (published posthumously by Lost Roads), contain work that is tauter and more haunting than anything he had written earlier. Gone is the rollicking dreamland lyricism of the early poems. (“I for one leave the transcendence of language / To the auctioneers on the widow’s steps.”) Gone are the good times with death—the flirting is over, the stalking’s begun. (“When no one is looking / We touch the thin underthings / Of our death to our lips.”) Love is not fun anymore. (“…my love / Is a dark and rotten fruit on the ground. / A deathbed for your dreams.”) The luminescent sprawl of childhood is at last too far away to hold out much charm: “Cold-hearted women, work, madness and death / Are the things separating the nuts from the shells. / Everything else is strictly a pile of shit— / Except for childhood, which we moon over / Because it smells to high heaven. So, go it / Alone.”
Many of the later poems are terse, misleadingly simple narratives, often highly cinematic and overflowing with quiet menace. A milk truck runs over a maid: “She lifted her white dress / And waded out into the intersection.” A man listens through the wall to the woman who lives in the room next to his, and after her death (“She bled through the walls / Into my side of the house”) regrets never having approached her. A couple is caught by an unidentified “they,” who have been pursuing them, and who kill them.
Stanford’s language here is as sharp as it’s ever been, if colder and less joyfully free. “Summer is almost here,” he writes in “Wind Blowing on a Sick Man,” a poem about a murdered prostitute, “the river is down, / The sun comes loose / Like the bright orange thread / I used to bite off a new pair of dungarees.”
These are terrifically lonely poems. The world is closing in, shutting down: “A bird sick of its tree, I despair.” Death is everywhere, no longer a character to play with but a feature of the landscape, a climactic fact. It may be beautiful sometimes, but it’s not funny anymore. Only one dream of release is offered: in the poem “Terrorism” the narrator flees his mother’s house, naked, carrying a pistol. “I am / Going to take it all out, in one motion, / The way you taught me to clean a fish. . . . / And I will work that dark loose / From the backbone with my thumb.”
* * *
Now my life the Sphinx
Laid by slaves,
My death the promised land.
—“Time Forks Perpetually Toward Innumerable
Futures In One of Them I Am Your Enemy”
In September 2006, C.D. Wright and her husband, Forrest Gander, donated to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library the papers of Stanford’s that Wright had kept. The reading room at the Beinecke is almost unsettlingly still. I spent three days there last spring, sifting through the objects that Stanford left behind. The floors are carpeted. Oil paintings of librarians gaze down from the walls. Daylight filters in through one windowed wall. Stanford’s papers fill seven cardboard boxes.
In those boxes, among many other things, I found the joker from a deck of Bicycle playing cards; a boarding pass for a Delta flight to New Orleans; a library call slip for a book of Bertolucci’s poetry; a leaflet advertising a protest against the University of Arkansas’ South African investments; a sheet of Lost Roads stationery marked with penciled calculations of printing fees; 1975 tax returns for Frank and his second wife, Ginny (their combined income was $2,611); a rental agreement for the Fayetteville home Stanford shared with C.D. Wright (they paid $190 a month); an ancient photostat of a certificate for the fourth-place prize in the Ninth District Tennessee Federation of Women’s Clubs poetry contest, dated April 14, 1958; a much-handled booklet of trigonometry tables, useful in land surveying, Stanford’s livelihood for the last years of his life; and drafts of poems on blue-lined notepaper, on yellow legal pads, on sheets of textured bond, on a Mobil travel map of Kentucky and Tennessee. I found a single leaf of peach-colored paper marked in ink with the words “I wanted to be a family man / but I couldn’t keep my heart / under a map in a glovebox.” I found the following typewritten fragments on wrinkled sheets of onionskin:
“leave me all you scholars and clerks with your enemas and
quills . . ..”
“I am a friend of the clouds”
“no one takes my life from me / I lay it down myself”
“I have nine love affairs a month / all ending in suicide and
“last night I tired to hang myself with my sock / only it
bad / so I went outside and lost my glove”
I found a postcard addressed to Lost Roads from Lawrence Ferlinghetti that read, “Can you put me in touch with Frank Stanford. . . . I think his “Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You” is a very unusual book.” It was dated December 1, 1978. It arrived six months too late.
Things are stubborn and far too mute, so I looked elsewhere. Mountain Home, Arkansas, is not the sleepy Ozark town it was when the Stanfords moved there from Memphis. “Essentially, we’ve been found,” drawled Bill Willett. The main highway through town is an anywhere drag of Super 8s, Hardee’s, Taco Bells, and Sonics. There’s a megachurch on the outskirts of town, its parking lot as big as a Wal-Mart’s. But Stanford’s lakeside boyhood home on Mallard Point is standing, a white-shuttered brick ranch house almost as long as a motel. And Stanford’s eyes still stare out from a canvas on Willett’s wall, one of many portraits Ginny painted of him. His jaw is set, his eyebrows slightly raised. He’s wearing a red kimono, the same robe in which he would be buried. Willett told me about the day they met, at football tryouts. “We just became friends,” he said. “Actually, we’re still friends. He just doesn’t happen to be around.”
I drove through the green mountains, the roadsides bright with ironweed and yarrow, to Eureka Springs, where Stanford lived in the Hotel New Orleans for part of 1972 after returning to Arkansas from New York. It was in Eureka Springs—an old spa town, long abandoned by health-seeking tourists, later discovered by hippies—that he and Ginny met. Stanford described it in a short story as an eerie, empty, beautiful place: “The streets wound back and forth, up and down; the buildings were an odd mixture of gothic, Victorian, Swiss, and hillbilly design. They weren’t built by sane men. They were built into the steep sides of the hills, not on them.”
The streets still wind, but Eureka Springs is a tourist town again, surrounded now by a seemingly endless string of motels boasting of in-room Jacuzzis and free continental breakfasts. In town there are kite shops and quilt shops and shops that sell fudge, T-shirts, glass knickknacks and fancy soaps, wind chimes and wind socks. “The lawyers and the teachers and the preachers / and the politicking flies” appear to have won. Commerce has edged out the wildness. There’s no space for strays or unbranded dreams. The Hotel New Orleans has wireless now and a boutique in the lobby that sells natural-fiber clothing and new-age CDs, but no one I spoke with there had heard of Frank Stanford. The woman running the bookstore down the street knew his name, even had a few of his books for a while, but didn’t know that he’d ever lived in town.
In Fayetteville, I searched for Stanford’s old haunts. George’s Top Hat is a Valero station now, and Sherman’s Bar is a field of weeds beside a parking lot. I drove up Mount Sequoyah on the eastern side of town to look for the cabin in which Stanford had lived. It was gone without a trace—just a big woody gap on Skyline Drive between numbers 117 and 111. The only house still standing in Fayetteville in which Stanford lived was the one on a shady block of Jackson Street, a small white clapboard home trimmed with beige. A gnarled tree leaned in the front yard, its trunk resting on the ground like an old, tired dog. It was in this house that Stanford lived for the last two years of his life, and it was here that he returned from a trip to New Orleans on June 3, 1978, one month before what would have been his 30th birthday. Ginny Stanford and C.D. Wright were both in the house when Stanford retired to the bedroom, closed the door behind him, and lay down in bed. He unbuttoned his shirt, his sister told me, so that it wouldn’t get stained, then shot himself three times in the chest with a .22-caliber target pistol.
* * *
I’ll just bleed so the stars can have something dark
to shine in
—The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You
Among Stanford’s papers at the Beinecke, I found an unpublished, incomplete manuscript called The Last Panther in the Ozarks. Its first poem was titled “To Find Directions,” and it was one line long: “Go to the graveyard.”
So I did. I drove to the small Ouachita mountain town of Subiaco, to the old grey-stoned Benedictine abbey where Stanford attended high school and where he now lies. Father Nicholas Fuhrmann, ruddy-faced but sturdy at 78, met me in the visitor’s lounge. As we stepped out the door, Fuhrmann shed his tattered cassock, revealing a stained, yellowing T-shirt beneath. He climbed onto a little six-wheeled Gator and pulled on a John Deere cap, transforming himself in an instant from medieval monk to aging hill-country farmer.
“I feel good in the company of these men,” Stanford had said of the monks at Subiaco in a short film about him that Broughton directed. “They understand what I say.” And it’s hard not to think that Stanford would have approved of the brief tour Fuhrmann gave me, which covered, in its unassuming way, life and death and their overlapping edges. Fuhrmann started with the abbey’s old barn. He unlocked a quiet room in the back filled with smooth-sanded pine coffins, handcrafted by the monastery’s abbot. “All sizes here!” he laughed.
We rode the Gator across the highway, through green fields and under an arch reading “St. Benedict’s Cemetery.” Fuhrmann stopped at a pond to fatten its stock of catfish. He hurled a bucket of dry pellets into the still water. Strange, mustached gray mouths broke the surface. “Come on, greedy things,” Fuhrmann barked. “Splash!”
We rode on to the cemetery. There he lay below tall pines and beneath the hard red earth, beside his mother, among the old stones carved with German Catholic names. “Frank Stanford, Poet,” the age-blackened footstone read. Beneath that was etched a single line: “It wasn’t a dream, it was a flood.”
“I often stop here to say a prayer,” Fuhrmann said, and did just that. “Eternal rest be upon him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine on him.”
We put our caps back on and drove off. Fuhrmann slowed to taunt the cattle. “Heifers!” he yelled. The cows did not look up. Around us, the tall grass twisted green in the wind and the low sunlight danced above it, tracing and erasing patterns atop the blades, words and shapes that shivered and quickly disappeared.