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Old 08-27-2012, 09:30 AM
Bill Carpenter Bill Carpenter is offline
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Default Frank Stanfordís the battlefield where the moon says I love you: Introduction

I

tonight the gars on the trees are swords in the hands of knights
the stars are like twenty-seven dancing russians and the wind
is I am waving goodbye to the casket of my first mammy
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
he didn’t even give you time to spit he didn’t even let you
take the iron out of your hair
you said his fingernails was made of watermoccasin bones
and his teeth was hollow he was a eggsucker
you said he reached up under your dress and got the nation sack
you said the conjure didn’t work he didn’t smell the salt in your shoes
you said he came looking for you and you hid out in the house you waited
for him with a butcher knife you asked him why not
let the good times roll
you wasn’t studying about kicking no bucket
his tongue was a rattlesnake those sunglasses death wore
I was talking to the pew of deacons they had white gloves on
a midget collected ears on a piece of bob wire
the black dog lifted his leg on the hubcap
the wagon load of boots and banners was dumped in the bayou
the chain gang drowned together in the flood
the disguised butterfly
the quivering masts when the hero returns. . . (1-24)

     So begins Frank Stanford’s living monument, the battlefield where the moon says I love you, a 15,000-plus line poem first published by Mill Mountain Press and Lost Roads Publishers (which Stanford founded) in 1977, the year before his untimely death. C.D. Wright and Forrest Gander re-edited and re-published battlefield through Lost Roads in 2000. They also maintained Stanford’s legacy by sustaining Lost Roads until 2006, when they handed it over to Susan Scarlata.

     battlefield is an amazing poem and not easy to grapple with. I post this introduction in the hope of interesting other readers in it and to bear witness to it. (For a shorter induction, see appendix below.)

     The poem is not difficult to describe. It is spoken by Francis, a precocious, clairvoyant, brilliant, violent 12-year old Caucasian boy growing up circa 1960 between Memphis and the construction camps of the Mississippi delta, where his stepfather (as Stanford’s did) acts as a levee contractor. Francis lives in two worlds, the white world (which he generally detests) of public schools and country clubs, bigotry and deceit, and the black world (which he prefers) of personality, humor, struggle, and outlawry. Francis claims to have an invisible black twin, but that is a recurring allusion or figure (for Stanford’s muse, perhaps) rather than a plot element. He also alludes to messages received from outer space and from his clairvoyant pen pals.

     Francis’ chant alternates between lyric and narrative. That alternation is the main formal feature of the poem, taken broadly, and provides its overall rhythm, though the lyric expanses in part consist of narrative fragments and the narrative expanses frequently digress into lyric flourishes. (“boys this is going to be a long song,” 344. This intro is long to read on line. Send me your email address and I will send you a Word document.)

     The poem is in good free verse. It never gives the impression of random notes that someone has failed to work up, or of dull prose agitated by line endings. Rather, it fulfills the original conceit of free verse, of being language too urgent and/or sacred (cf. Smart and Blake) to subject to metrical manipulation. The dreams, memories, and visions come tumbling out. Stanford carries the conceit further -- the utterance is too urgent to submit to punctuation and often, grammar. As it says on Stanford’s gravestone, “It wasn’t a dream it was a flood.” One could call the poem a stream of consciousness (“and Edouard Dujardin was finishing / his book of the night,” 12859-12860) or a dream vision or a series of interlocking dreams. (Cf. channel-surfing.) I will touch on its internal ars poetica below. Metrically, there is sometimes a higher density of stressed syllables than in ordinary prose (sometimes achieved by dropping unstressed syllables in accordance with colloquial stress patterns), adding urgency and gesturing towards meter (cf. Fairchild’s Art of the Lathe); the fragmentation and interruption of utterance (including variable use of line endings ranging from no-stop to full-) also contribute impressions of stress, though the absence of punctuation and the fragmentation can also have a leveling effect. As with any challenging work, the realization of intensity or monotony in battlefield depends in part on the spirit the reader brings to it.

     The level of diction is evident from the first sample above: colloquial frequently tending to dialect with a sometimes juvenile tone that gives Stanford a double edge of detachment and naivity. He maintains an impressive consistency in diction and in his adopted notation conventions, not a small achievement over 15,000 lines in a language unique to this poem. Here is an early lyric passage:

the autograph was a dream it was a black cape I took off on the levee
I dream about dresses flying up for a moment I dream about
mussels in the moonlight like castanets the antimacassars drifting off
the couch the hair let down in the evenings I can dream about a stabbed man
shooting dice in a tent I can dream about the legions of angels in the forest
I can dream the harquebusier showing out for Venus fencing with his shadow
cast on the beach the grave the dreams sifted through cold dirt
I can dream about a dead man’s letter and the five dollar bill in his shoe
I can dream about the ship of blind horsemen
that puts out in your sleep that is rigged by spiders
that has a plank everyone must walk
and the dream sweat on the figurehead’s lips like dew like mourning tears
like a poisoned animal like moist silk like slivers of wood
there are so many revolutions light years away
like a catfish winding a trotline up like the emblem of a saint. . . (54-68)

     Francis identifies with St. Francis and mentions him and St. Clare from time to time. He also identifies with FranÁois Villon aka Montcorbier. Anaphora is a favorite figure in the poem; in addition to this “I dream” and “I can dream” series, there are other “I” series that build a Whitmanesque dimension into the poem, culminating in the declaration, “I compose the great poem of death and these States / I dream the body hovering. . .” (12329-12330)

     The first lyric sweep of the poem gives way to the first sustained narrative. Francis assists an escaping black convict, Johnny Lee Dowd, by warning him of an ambush up ahead. For reasons we never learn, Francis’ “father” is also helping Johnny Lee escape. Possibly he is a former employee or the relative of one. As Jimmy, apparently Francis’ older brother or stepbrother, later tells some threatening whites who object to his family’s proprietary attitude, “we just run a levee camp and we look after our own.” (5069)

     While Francis is rowing Johnny Lee across the river, he remembers him from infancy:

he told me now you mean to sit there and he had him a pistol too and tell me you don’t
remember me he pulled down his bottom lip
with his finger I saw the gold tooth with the star of David in it
he spit the tobacco juice out between his teeth he reared back he said woowee
boy and I remembered it was a long time ago I was a baby I was
drifting away in a washtub tied to the raft the cottonmouths was crawling
up through the willow limbs there was a dark face above and black hands
grabbed a hold of me the negro swam a long way with me in his arms
he always smiled there was the star in his tooth we got to the bank he cut
a X in my foot with his razor he said this hurts me more
than it does you white baby he was biting the bottom of my foot he was
spitting the moccasin juice and the blood on the ground all the while
him swatting things jumping out on him and the gold tooth
with the star of David in it I was trying to catch a butterfly
then he started cutting on himself he kept a saying woowee
just like mosquitoes he picked me up I sat on his shoulders we ran
through the bogue we ran through timber all the time I’m riding up high
on his shoulders bouncing he wasn’t no horse. . . (131-148)

     Johnny Lee makes his escape with the help of Francis and his father, introducing the theme of (mutual) loyalty towards black outlaws that defines the poem.

     The next narrative, however, involves “the world’s smallest man,” Count Hugo Pantagruel, a grandiloquent and vindictive sideshow performer (apparently white) whom Francis befriends. (490-980) He drugs Francis, setting off a lyric flourish (493-510), and plays music for him, setting off another (534-545). They engage in a poetry contest:

I said well the horses drowned in whirlpools
he pinched me on the cheek and said and the blood and the ships were burned
I said I ride a wolf
he said the fire is perpetual like the great trees of night that genuflect
in the lightning
I said the floor of the altar is a whetstone
where is the pyre in honor of the victory of the dauntless knife he said
I said below the ice the shadow of the grave ship bearing the shattered blade
can be seen ho and he said the horsemen are hanging from the gibbet masts
the thieves the courageous who fell in smoke battle with the rune rock
anchors around their necks and barebacked the young warrior naked as snow
dealing out death and the aces of wind
comes commanding the ship of the dead comes maneuvering the swatch
or night sail in that journey through the black knees of sea
I said a dream of a great horse a man dies. . . (560-574)

     The world’s smallest man episode culminates in his recital of violent revenge against boys who try to take advantage of his small size. He guillotines a wrestler’s penis in his trick camera when the boy exposes himself, and he blinds the boy’s football-player friend who comes back to avenge his friend. After a digression that includes an erotic encounter with his sixth-grade teacher at the class picnic (764-830), Francis receives the count’s ashes through the mail along with a letter that describes the unhappy fate of the “Floating Troupe of the Unnaturals.” (839-960)

     There is an episode of disruption at school -- “this ain’t no school . . . it’s a dog food factory go to hell” -- but the next major sequence has Francis serving his family’s black driver as chauffeur. (1193-1407) Francis admires Charlie B. Lemmon, the driver, as the epitome of coolness. Emulating him, he asks if he can say “nigger”:

. . . and I say
hey boss what he says you mind if I say nigger depends on how you say it he say
well I says if I says it like you say it I don’t give a damn he says would you
mind if I say it a couple of times go head on if that’s what you want he says so I
got the steering wheel and I look down the sidewalks and on the steps and there
is this colored man in a wheel chair taking pictures for a quarter and I say theres
a nigger ain’t it Charlie B. and he says yes with his head I see him through the
rearview mirror we go on aways and there is this kid on roller skates and I say
look at that nigger boss I see him he says we turn the corner and in the
next block a woman has a mouth full of clothes pins and I say that’s a nigger
woman for sure ain’t it and he says sho is and I look around and say would you
at that nigger and he says ok that’s enough and I say did you see him he was a
and he says I told you boy that’s nuff fah one day don’t get out of hand ok boss
I say and I thought many times I drove Charlie B. Lemmon around and I looked back
over my shoulder and I said boss is it ok if or boss can I say nigger now and he’d
look at his watch and say you got two minutes and I’d say it. . . (1335-1350)

     Charlie and a friend learn that a “white man’s nigger” is going to repossess a car they bought together. They take off the tires and strip out the radio and burn it. (1396) Francis fears the consequences:

. . . and he looked at me and says since you itching to say nigger so
bad why don’t you call that cocksucker there one he’s a real nigger alright come down here
taking our Buick away and I said let’s beat it and the white men took my mamma’s
license tags down and I thought see I’m in it now I’m in shit clear up to my eyes. . . (1404-1407)

     There is a long lyric sequence -- “I do not exist” (1489), “all I am is a song” (1541) -- and the next narrative sequence depicts Francis in the company of Rufus Abraham, an aged black farmer who occupies a spit of land on the river called “Abraham’s Knife.” Rufus worries that when he dies whites will get his land and his money. He blames whites for his constipation: “and him thinking those doublecrossing goddamn white shithooks / he was thinking they was the reason he couldn’t shit.” Francis helps him count his coins and bury them in cans. Most of their dialogue occurs while Rufus is sitting in the outhouse, Francis helping him with the garden hose. They talk, Rufus reads the Bible or preaches, or they play checkers. Near the end Rufus comes up with an idea for saving his property:

. . . and he finally got it one day it come to him out of the blue
he tole me about the rope and the bucket of shit and the bricks and the coffin
and the candle in his room and the ice cream stick he tole me just what to do
and it all happened right but I can’t tell you cause I promised him I wouldn’t
. . .
and I buried him like he wanted to I done it just like he said I knew his
heart was gone give the day he passed I just knew it he quit counting early
that night and just sit there and grunted like he was tugging a barge rope
and he said Lawd it’s me or this crap take me now or let me job how about it
but 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. . . (1744-1758)

     The high point of narrative in the first quarter of the poem is BoBo’s struggle to land a giant catfish while a hostile dog attacks and chews on his leg, comically replaying the final battle of Moby Dick (1880-2516). Like Ahab, BoBo burns with resentment, towards whites, towards women, towards the dog, and towards the catfish. Unlike Ahab, BoBo lets the cat go to rescue Francis, who is floating past, tied up with barbed wire in a boat. The episode is riddled with lyric and narrative digressions and climaxes in mad, comic, violent, poignant chaos that shows Stanford in one of his best veins:

. . . now he’s pulling the catfish up the bank he’s down on his knees
with the knife in his mouth the dog is trying to get a hold at his throat
so BoBo jerks his head around and gores the dog again I mean a good one too
the dog is lying in the mud whimpering BoBo has got a hold of the fish it’s nigh
as big as he is about two hundred pounds about the size of that alligator gar
we was riding the other day and I see catfish whiskers that look like
indigo snakes I’ve felt them brush up against my knees at night when I was in
the water I know BoBo is trying to stick his knife in the soft spot on the fish’s
head all he needs is a piece of wire like those sapsuckers twisted me up with
that’s right bob wire BoBo is going to try to paralyze it but the catfish
rolls and sweet Jesus the spike the big fin on top of his back it went clean
through BoBo he is hung up on the fish it is like the fish had it in him to spear
the nigger who run him through I can see it sticking out of BoBo’s back
and just when BoBo was grinding the knife in him turning the blade around and
around but the negro he still ain’t found the cat’s brain you got to hit it just
right that dog is just gnawing and now I can’t tell the difference
between catfish blood dog blood and BoBo’s blood come to think of it
I’m bleeding again myself I’m going to have to yell in a minute
but I’m mostly scared too I don’t know if I got no tongue left or not
I ain’t got no felling of one but sometimes I think I can see it
I see the negro pulling himself off the spike and the dog he done chewed
down to the bone pulling his guts along like a king’s robe
BoBo is on his back I think he’s crying I hope not cause the salt will be
running down in the cuts he is looking at the catfish and it’s growling
like a bobcat I know that cat is smart but the fisherman is smarter. . . (2153-2177)

     Another narrative involves Francis’ time with “Sylvester, the Black Angel,” known as the “town nigger,” who is lynched based on a false charge of rape. Francis and Sylvester discuss politics, Sylvester insisting, based on King Kong, that the U.S. will never be able to defeat the “gorillas” in its “border wars.” (2721-2789, 3313-4323, 4949-4981) There is also an episode in which the Last Supper is retold with Jesus and his disciples as black agitators, but the pointed humor has a flavor of juvenile blasphemy that does not seem the poet’s best. (3006-3102)

     He is at his best with sexuality, along with the other major subjects of the poem, poetry itself, racial love and hate, and death. Having been aroused by his schoolteacher (764-830), and abused by a woman perversely substituting him for her lost child (2835-2956), Francis awakens to romantic sexual love in an unexpected encounter with the half-clad daughter of an Italian produce vendor on the back of his wagon:

when I had leaned over my belly touched her on the back
she reached around and rubbed my side like I was a pony
I didn’t have no shirt on either
it wasn’t dirty I don’t have to ask forgiveness no I don’t
. . .
she rubbed me like I rubbed the trees at night like a flank
. . .
I looked out in the field the dago was rolling his wheel
I don’t have to be forgiven
it was like the moon said I love you (3742-3752)

     Francis finds a mystery of redemption in sexual love. He pursues this calling in a dream vision of attempting to rescue a girl his own age from some strange situation in which “all girls fourteen and under must die in a duel” (4586-4949). (Texans play a minor but unfavorable role in the poem, more's the pity.) She is shot and killed but he takes revenge, takes a bullet, and carries her body away to where she magically comes back to life:

she said Francis I am dead from now on but I will live as long as the cloud
stays in front of the moon and I looked up and saw the black ship
like a great wolf after the neck of the moon
and she took off my pants and my cap and my wool sweater and my boots
and she stopped the bleeding with her hair and she said why do you always dress
in black and I said on account of all the hand-me-downs in my closet
are midnight blue for the winter and sweet milk white for the summer
but I thought about the black cloud so I didn’t want to speak
and so the grass was a quilt patched by one night and though I couldn’t see her
I knew she was there and I loved her I was with the girl with black hair
and when she lifted her legs it was as if
she wanted to balance the moon on her toes to keep it from falling
but I knew all along it was the black cloud that needed to stay in place
and so in that country where I was once and now and will be before I was
where I spoke the words holy holy holy Lord God Almighty all the earth
is full of Thy glory where the whistling swans ride the backs of the white
horses of the river where the boxcars and skiffs are full
of drunken troubadours where once I did lay awhile longer the pavane
of whippoorwills while the pallbearers are strutting in the ceremonies
of my sleep the passing bell nodding like a snake charmer all far
past away deep behind the woods down the road where I saw that lighting bug
in the country where my dreams are like bark
peeled off by lightning I was with her the girl with black hair
while the wolf had the moon by the throat. . . (4885-4908)

     There are too many vignettes and characters and good lines in battlefield to do justice to them in an introduction, so I will skip over further dialogues with Sylvester, Five Spoke’s expedition to Memphis, the grief of Roundtree the bartender, and the letter to Francis from his Hindoo penpal to Jimmy’s revenge, part 1 (7069-7299). Jimmy is Francis’ older stepbrother, a rebel whose cause is fighting, fornicating, and “looking after our own.” After Jimmy is beaten to a pulp for having a lively time with another man’s wife, he sneaks up on a barbecue his assailants are having and (1) poisons their hunting dogs and brakes the dogs' necks, (2) feeds them one of their dogs, barbecued, (3) poisons the men, and (4) chainsaws the structures at the picnic ground. The episode is grotesque and hilarious, except that it sounds the most questionable theme of the poem, a dehumanizing hatred of whites (aka peckerheads, peckerwoods, sapsuckers, trash, or towheads) on the part of various characters, Francis, and/or the poet. The victims of Jimmy’s attack are made so loathsome that any violence against them appears legitimate, like Odysseus’ beating of Thersites in the Iliad. While some of the black characters are grotesque in some fashion, e.g., BoBo, Rufus, and Sylvester, Francis and the poet regard them with affection and compassion; grotesque whites, like “Stoole” in this episode, merit only hatred, ridicule, and disgust.

     Part 2 of Jimmy’s revenge is the most prolonged sequence in the poem. Long after the poem has moved on to pastures new, it keeps cutting back to it, so that the sequence that begins at l. 7352 does not finally end until l. 11952 (though where anything begins and ends in the poem is approximate). Jimmy, Charlie, Tangle Eye (an older black levee worker), and Francis try to attend an all-night drive-in movie extravaganza on Easter eve, but are turned away at the gate because Charlie and Tang are black, and there is to be an Easter service at sunrise. The troupe drives away, indignantly, to where they can watch the movies from higher ground through surveyors’ transits.

     For better or worse, the sexual theme seems to climax in this episode. The spectators catch sight of a drama of infidelity unfolding among the parked cars of the drive-in customers (“uh oh I got a fight,” 8023), and Francis recognizes the woman involved (from Tang’s reference to her eye patch, which Francis gave her) as the girl he met in the vegetable wagon. “Jimmy asked me the usual question did you get any pussy / no I got forgiveness for my sins / boy you got it bassackwards Charlie B. said / yea Tang said next time get the pussy first then ask the Lord for forgiveness / all y’all be in hell fore the night’s over I said” (8076-8080) After noting more flirtation and fighting they follow her through their scopes to her own car, where she caresses herself in solitude. The viewers are transfixed:

it would be a lie if I said everybody didn’t have it up
we was all breathing like we been pumping water all day long
when she comes when she come Charlie B. said
someone could a cut a onion and not one eye would have been batted
her eyes were closed now
and her arm looked like it was trying to find something lost somewhere
it was like she was blind and feeling around for something
it was a matter of life or death
Charlie B. screamed loud as a man got stabbed
she opened her eyes and her mouth at the same time like she was going under water
and she knew it and she aimed to get one last breath
before she drowned
that is when the figure appeared on the screen
the figure I had been seeing all along why they hadn’t the black spectre
Dracula appeared in his cape
just as the gypsy was drowning
it was like having someone meet you at the time of death
it was unexpected
for Jimmy and Charlie and the old man too were frightened
perhaps it was the unusual timing something I would call a rebus
that made all four of them tremble in their pleasure
I saw the girl bring both hands to her eyes I saw the mute scream
I was use to reading lips by then
the one hand already glistening in the moonlight as the tears
were forming and seeping through her fingers like blood
my three companions had their heads in their hands too
if all I saw was the ball and chain of guilt then I was free
for I did not feel it at all I only felt like I’d swum a long way
it was midnight
or after I knew by the stars and the moon and the animals and fish and insects
they forgot about the gypsy
the gypsy couldn’t forget about us because she never saw us but she might
as well have
Tang said ain’t that the doublecrossingest thing for a gal to do by herself
like that the night foe Easter. . . (8162-8196)

     The men have been drinking. They fall asleep, wake again, and get angrier and angrier about being excluded from the drive-in theater, especially because Tang wants to catch a glimpse of his long-dead wife in Hallelujah, and Charlie B. wants to see himself in Baby Doll, both of which were filmed in the vicinity. Jimmy and Charlie B. start up a bulldozer and head back down to the drive-in theater. The trek is scattered over the next few thousand lines. They wreck the place. In the midst of the vindictive mayhem, however, Francis makes a significant choice  he does not kill the hated segregationist drive-in theater operator when he has the shot. (10500)

     Francis does not retire from the racial battlefield -- he briskly returns a hand grenade pitched at a freedom rider bus (which he has accidentally boarded) from a passing pick-up (10157) -- but he does not follow Jimmy’s path of vengeful violence, nor the path of his stoic hero, Dark.

     Dark is the philosopher of things as they are:

and just like Dark has said to me Dark the only negro I know
who has killed more than one white man and can tell about it
boy there ain’t no such word as if he says they hung Sylvester what of it
I kilt me a whole sty of white mens kilt them in the war and kilt them
at home kilt um up north and kilt them down here boy don’t talk to me like
you doing you can’t say if only this or that they hung him and that’s it
all you can say is it happened and that’s it when you think of him you got
to think of him ventually getting hung cause that’s the way it was
you can’t think back on something that didn’t happen because if it was
it is now but it ain’t so when you think about it you can’t change it you
got to think on the whole thing the whole truth and nothing but the truth
shoot I wish I’s young as you was again I’d go through it all again just to
be your age but I’d still do it I go through all that hell again just to do
it no I don’t wish none of it happen different that’s like wishing I was white
like thinking some of that going to be white when I get to heaven that’s woman
talk that ain’t nothing but bullshit all my young days I wished everything
was different but I wished myself I didn’t never wish I was no white boy. . . (9134-9150)

     Dark’s affirming resignation, however, is limited to himself. He also sees himself as a helper and precursor, and prophesies the possibility of racial peace:

. . . sure as shooting
I’m telling you the gospel ship is coming in one these days it’s on the way
now but I ain’t thinking about it I’m just my sassing back self ain’t even
a christian I’ll talk back to yo daddy anytime I ain’t scared nuthing
it’s coming fah my people let them take the long walk up the catwalk
but I ain’t going somebody got to shove the boat back out in the water
I got plenty chilluns on board maybe when you get old they’ll be chilluns
of yours on board white chillun maybe everybody gone be in the same boat then
putting out to some different place it gone be the same country but
I don’t know how to say it just a different place you might have to stay
behind and get it too would you do it I think you would things is changing
just not like they use to be they might quit that scuffling I don’t know. . . (9160-9171)

     In any case, Francis takes in Dark’s history of killing whites without a qualm:

I have known the evil procreated in the offspring of the bad ones in bad times
I would like to say something good but the way I figure it if you can’t say
something good about nobody then don’t say anything atol and that’s a white washed
lie right there some of my own kin folks tell me you ought not to say that
spitting in the face of God and the white race they’re not all bad if well if I
say I could find all these white folks I know so good was good where I wouldn’t
have to all time be telling them then maybe they might be right but ain’t so
if you take them all as a whole then they is evil quality and quantity
I ought to know I’m white. . . (9115-9122)

     Francis’ unintended freedom ride frames a long stretch of the poem (9351-11893) in which the dominant figure is Vico, a part-Greek, part-African freedom rider and former monk, who in his youth was the foremost castrato singer in Europe, until jealous monks cut out his voicebox. His current profession is bank robber. He tells much of his story by sign language in his sleep. That gives the poet the opportunity to thicken the texture of European high culture references without breaking his irreverent, anti-institutional tone.

     The freedom ride ends with the accidental death of the black boy Francis has befriended on the bus, after which the poem returns for the last pulse of the drive-in story, which ends with Jimmy and Charlie B. knocking down the screen with their bulldozer (cf. the burning and smashed pianos passim), as a result of which, at sunrise on Easter Sunday, “the moom pitchu Hallelujah was showing on the rain and the trees in the woods. . .” (11939) Francis feels miserable and tries to cut out his tongue, but Tang stops him. (11942-11950)

     The end of the drive-in sequence is a turning point. No long narratives follow, though there are shorter ones (e.g., Francis’ reverential encounter with the defeated Sonny Liston, 13771-14053). In the last fifth of the poem, lyric sequences predominate, beginning with the “blue yodel” (11953-12252) that seems to come from an older, chastened Francis. There are “I” sequences, “you” sequences, and a “she” sequence dedicated to Astarte Syriaca. The lyric sequences are partly composed of, and yield to, narrative fragments. Some of that material will be discussed below in connection with Francis’ poetry theme, the poem’s internal reflections on poetics. New characters are introduced towards the end of the poem: Coldblooded Margaret, whom Francis loves; Oakum, the drag-line operator and preacher; and Thomas Merton. It may be that the rhythm of the poem quickens in the last fifth, with a quicker and more blurred alternation between lyric and narrative, but that may just be an impression born of the wish to explain the poem’s construction.

     Near the end, Francis and his companions build a new multiracial community on Abraham’s Knife, Rufus Abraham’s legacy, outside the jurisdiction of either neighboring state. (14741-14895) “Tang said it better not be no communism or no notci living / he said it better be like the Indians / it was like a tribe on the farm just like the tents on the levee camps. . .” (14797-14799) “How seventies,” the reader may think, remembering his or her youth, or the recollections of older friends or relatives, or The Outlaw Josey Wales. It is an attempt to realize the “different place” Dark spoke of, though in accordance with his dialogic method, Stanford balances it with the earlier destruction of the “Floating Troupe of the Unnaturals” (936) and with his somber “prophecy” of the Vietnam war, which touches a Ginsberg note:

and I’m seeing it all get me off this river there’s going to be
a WAR I see it the high temperture bullets is going through me clean
up into the sky like the stars the little nailheads in the coffins it’s a place
called VIETNAM goodbye mammy wind blowing through dead american hair
o these cosmologies sadder than the sea
and the long presidential horseshit
and the moon say get up you want some more so I open my eyes think see tell. . . (14169-14174)

     The poem ends with Francis and his friends on an ocean liner (the Giotto) headed for Japan, enjoying the bounty of a movie studio that wants to film their adventures. (15213-15226) On board Francis meets Thomas Merton, who talks to him about the painting of Henri Rousseau. (15228-15246, 15255-15275) Father Merton’s paean to Rousseau (or is it Stanford’s to Merton, or to himself) is the poem’s last direct statement on aesthetics:

. . . he makes an art out of eluding
us with his imagination as if he were a clairvoyant of what we dreamt
he begins with the usual the very real and we conclude we are
seeing ghosts acknowledging the gods we all fall prey to
his form is like a snake under sway to a boy with music
his serenity is an indefatigable shadow hovering over us as we sleep
he was instinctually conscious of his hands like wings facing the stars
his foreground was a horse drinking water faraway at night
he inspected silence like a nude letting her get away with murder and love
his visions were real observations his imagination formal his dreams
determined his form like night follows day his power passes over under
standing what he intends is left behind like a past full of strange music
reality is his relief he give the world a unity again. . . (15263-15275)

     The poem breaks off during the conversation with Merton, the poet simply refusing to reveal more. (15272-15273)

II

     Stanford’s poetry on poetry in battlefield takes various forms. In the BoBo episode, Stanford imagines a super-sensitive movie camera with the reflexes of “any of the swift animals of the woods” that gives the viewer the feeling “like if you opened / your mouth once too many times and a man takes off his gloves and slaps you. . .” (2400, 2406-2407) He expands this thought in a series of vignettes conveying intense and troubling emotion.

     Movies play a recurring role in battlefield. They are many things, shared and private dreams and memories and a metaphor for dreams and poetry. The most pertinent reference to movies is in the internal subtitle for the poem given here:

just another bastard childhood is not worth living no matter what you hear
that voice coming from the parlor holding my hand good luck is all I can say
DEMOCRATIC MOOM PITCHU REBUS BLUES
how two infants one invisible landed on earth after a journey from another
planet floating dirt and became one with the people and told their story in
song and dance and the only one invented in the last two thousand years. . . (9840-9845)

     Also: “I say let this be a movie and you will live forever / in the beginning there was the sound of the word. . .” (12739-1740); “a word in a song is like an image in a moom pitchu. . .” (13081)

     Also:

and Lady Poverty’s maps will take you to a picture show
where the holy ghost will give you a ticket
you will see moving pictures like dreams
King Kong will be an archangel Dracula says Mass and Buster Keaton is
a faith healer you will come out of the darkness for the better (14569-14573)

     Also: “looking down into the projector is was like another dimension and I saw the /
star and I thought how it was all moving and how what it all means when it / moves like how much black you really see in a movie but don’t know it. . .” (14984-14986)

     Also, Francis says he will claim Charlie Chaplin as his father. (15044)

     The “rebus” figures poetry as a mystery of juxtaposition, a conjunction of parts in a hieroglyph (like the conjunction of Dracula and the self-experiencing girl spied on in her car) which Francis is under an unexplained obligation not to reveal. (“but this is another song one of many I will not sing on account of the rebus,” 3456) Francis condescends to explain it to Jimmy, at least to the extent he can with violating “the secrets of the rebus” (8136):

before men could speak they enjoyed confounding one another with signs
they enjoyed this as much as a mirror enjoys an image
as much as the evening like a ship enjoys its sapphire grave
they came to this not out of folly or spite but love the love in their own eyes
like rivers of no return and the other eyes like two dead moons. . . (6138-6142)

     From here begins a narrative of a boy who left the community on a solitary quest, on his return frightened and disturbed the community with his laughter and his carvings, rescued a girl offered in sacrifice, dodged a leaping tiger and let it escape, and “formed an elaborate rebus commemorating this experience.” (6143-6224) He split the rebus “and made a rebus of each thought” and later tells his son “the rebus that would lead to all rebuses. . .” (6230, 6265) Like Rousseau’s painting, the rebus, and the poem conceived as a rebus, point to things for which no word exists, that are known only by triangulating, so to speak, from the known terms, or from reading the interference created by the collision of known terms.

     Also: “I wrote my death warrant like an opera based on a koan. . .” (14976)

     Francis offers the reader his poem as a model of healing through self-assertion:

when you are gathered together
let each one take a line to himself
or herself or both
let no one read me alone
say I like the beautiful coal in the pulpit swamp
say I like the king snake
say I going round to your friend
say it again
. . .
say I seen through the glass darkly you say it for now
you take the song
. . .
say I Auntie Covoe say I
seen him in the fog
eating easter jonquils on the hill
seen him cold as fury
rising in the bloom
sing I everybody don’t let me down
promise the egg
you’ll wander in your stocking feet
that you’ll be known
. . .
say I like the inevitable breeze
. . .
pass me around
. . .
say I to the face of the one you want
whether they’re free or not. . . (12743-12788)

     To conclude, two passages addressing the role of God in the poem necessarily pertain to its poetics. Early on, Francis recounts a rebellion against God:

I started talking back and it was like real orange juice like a breeze like
diving into cool pools with no snakes I took a knife I cut
myself open the blood and the sawdust fell on the floor
it was like a circus arena like a butcher’s shop I cut the ventriloquist’s throat
the same stuffing came out like mother’s Thanksgiving dressing
I heard God spoiled like meat like the child of a king I heard him tattling
in a mudhole like breath in a sour building like some old man
that shits in his pants and he was the crowd and I was the bullfighter
and so instead of severing my ear as the painter did I slit
God’s wrist nothing but black
blood flew up in my face our lips pumped like dogs riding each other like beating
hearts the clowns the elephants the wrestlers of Greece the wives
who were always slipping me letters on the side behind their husbands’ backs
and the chinaman chopping bologne all had blood on their shoes
God has lost so much blood now he can’t speak he had to go to giving
hand signals like a deaf and dumb man. . . (4373-4388)

     Near the end, dialogically, the tables are turned, the potential blasphemy being mitigated by Francis’ humility with respect to his own image:

you must forgive poor Francis down there by the water
writing his poem because he is so melancholy and afraid
one of his girl friends is pregnant for he knows not what
he does neither did his namesake I let them read the minds
of the earth so that they might know me I used them
I have come here again into this poem as the Lord I have
used these two boys but if you could only know the joy
they have given me no matter their sins I love a sinner
who knows who has sinned that is why I wish every one
could see what little Francis the rich boy has been getting to
what he’s been stalking like a wolf I wish it was a moving
picture him on the river and all as he says we could get something
a cross I am glad I am doing the talking not Francis not my father not
the holy ghost all of their styles must flow into mine they will
bring you pleasure and like lovers you will dissolve in me
this is the voice of the Lord as surely as Matthew is
I am speaking help me Mr. Rufus help through this child who is writing
his little saga on account of his miserable loneliness his love of
his own death like a brother and the bleeding Francis is whispering
poems in his ear while he sleeps he goes on writing his
name in the water his prayers to women and the living
not knowing it will never be read although knowing he can
go in peace because he will always be unknown at least that
is what he thinks now but I am the Lord I tell you this
is the only second coming you are going to get and he thinks
he is writing his poem good going down his wrist like blood into the black
feather but I have taken possession of him as if he were some musician
playing his sleep but this is the sleep of the Lord of the dream
of oblivion his brother knows the twin the Negro who he calls his death
and Francis the saint knows and the wolf knows and the river does too
but Francis does not know now but this is the Lord. . . (14586-14616)

Lost Roads Publishers is located c/o Susan Scarlata, P.O. Box 146, Kelly, WY 83011. See also lostroads.org/index.html. See also Ben Ehrenreich, “The Long Goodbye,” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/article/181083.

Appendix: Beowulf in battlefield

     (The short-form introduction to the poem.) There are allusions to approximately 260 persons, real or fictional, extrinsic to the poem, in addition to approximately 100 named characters or references to persons in the poem’s fictional world. battlefield is populous, like the Divine Comedy, Finnegans Wake, or the Iliad. Few extrinsic persons pop up as often as Beowulf (often with Unferth in tow, or vice versa).

I know Beowulf probably looked in the mirror at himself every morning
just like the other so-called heroes. . . (273)

black and white rattling the mail of
Beowulf his dreams staring one another down . . .(1503-1504)

Beethoven the definite anarchist Beowulf the gallant spirit. . . (1507)

. . .the cowards didn’t talk as much one of the exceptions being
Unferth who always liked to wag his tongue while he picked at the bumps
on his face you might remember how he stood up in the king’s saloon
and told that lie about how Beowulf couldn’t swim a lick well that’s what I mean
if I’d a been that seagoer I wouldn’t been knife fighting and arm wrestling
with that gar or gorilla or whatever that damned abominable snowman was
I’d a hauled off and kicked that son of a bitch in the knee and then when he
bent over crying I’d drug my gauntlet crosst his lying lips
that chain mail a clear up them bumps real quick old Beowulf should have just
said shit on it and kicked his teeth in. . . (2819-2828)

of Beowulf with his visionary sword. . . (4679)

I dreamed I saw the burial of Beowulf. . . (6337)

and of course Beowulf and Snorri Sturluson and Kalevala and Codex Regius. . . (11703)

barking its sleep lovely bear beowulf his father burnt up and sunk. . . (12132)

and learned how to swim and sing dark songs from Beowulf. . . (13257)

I dreamed Robert Burns was a merman a Beowulf with gills in Loch Ness. . . (12281)

sometime I feel like a Beowulfless child. . . (14705)

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Last edited by Bill Carpenter; 08-28-2012 at 10:09 AM. Reason: to correct publisher info
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