A Hard-Won Innocence: Remembering Frank Lima
Constitutionally averse as he was to categorization (“I do not align my lifestyle or work with the second generation New York School. . . . I do not want to be a ‘Latino’ poet. . . . Art is much bigger than that. My poetry is much bigger than that”), Lima’s work is marked by its influences but seems always set apart from them. He is a surrealist without a program, an oracular New York School poet, a kid from the barrio who believed that, “Our culture is much richer and classier than glorifying El Barrio.” There is something vast and accomplished in his poetry that is not incompatible with a certain awkwardness, a hard-won innocence. It’s hard to explain, but easy to love:
You must forgive me, it is my new life in the fog.
My errors disappear like magic from their own exhaustion,
and I want to forget the furniture of complicated women.
Well, the history of the sun moves farther into the west;
below the mountains you can see the stones in a bottle of
brandy that breaks in the heart of the ocean. —Frank
Frank Lima died last October at 74, and to little in the way of public mourning: a few tributes around the internet; his bio on the Poetry Foundation website belatedly updated; an obituary in the paid section of the New York Times. Thus always to poets, I suppose, but it seems especially ungenerous for one of Lima’s caliber, not to speak of his coterie—loved and admired as he was by Allen Ginsberg, David Shapiro, Ron Padgett, Joseph Ceravolo, and their like. Then again, all that quiet wasn’t very different from his reception in life. One of his great champions, Guillermo Parra again, notes Lima’s “marginal, semi-invisible position within the New York School.” Not one of his books is in print, much less the fat, fantastical Collected Poems we need.
Until that time, I return as always to the poems uncollected. I never met him, but that doesn’t make me sad. Lima’s generous spirit emanates from his work, rejecting bitterness, seeking only life and more life. I return, too, to the images of Frank Lima on his Inventory: New & Selected Poems (Hard Press, 1997). On the cover is Elaine de Kooning’s bruise-colored portrait of the artist as a young man with a hangover. (“In my efforts to recuperate, I began drinking with Elaine. She began to paint me as I recovered.”) A lean, big-shouldered kid, he hunches darkly on the corner of a bed or a box, cuffs hiked up to reveal his skinny calves and long, pointy shoes. Light and air billow into the room through unseen windows, but they scarcely touch him. An incontrovertible haze of reds and yellows gathers around his head. He stares wearily, droop-eyed, back at the viewer. He is the saddest young man in the world. He collapses everything around him—light, air, color, breath, talk—into himself like a dying star.
On the back jacket, his author photo is that of a middle-aged man with a mustache, a hint of pudge on his frame. He wears, hilariously, a bow tie with jeans, his hands cupping something unknowable (nothing?), He smiles at them in bemused delight. His face says:
I am a fine French chef!
I wear a bow tie with jeans!
There is something amazing in my cupped hands!
Read it all at Boston Review.