By Ansel Elkins

Last-Penther-Frank_StanfordBooks discussed in this essay:

What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford, edited by Michael Wiegers. Copper Canyon Press, 2015. 764 pages.

Hidden Water: From the Frank Stanford Archives, edited by Michael Wiegeres and Chet Weise. Third Man Books, 2015. 200 pages.

“Don’t go down the rabbit hole,” my husband tells me, but it’s too late. It is 3A.M. and I am still at my desk, the lamp burning hot on my notebook. I have spent the past fourteen hours scouring this book for hidden meanings, and it’s leading me deeper and deeper into a strange world of psychedelic vision: I can dream watching the shooting stars in a black dog’s eye / I can dream a piano of bourbon / I can dream on Beale / I can dream even though I am asleep in a star drift. This is what obsession looks like: I am Dante following my Virgil, but if I journey too far into this underworld I fear I may not return. Yet this foreboding, mysterious landscape is familiar to me, so the allure is difficult to resist. “Just fifteen more minutes and I’ll come to bed,” I tell him, although I know this is a lie.

When I was twenty-three, I had a heady love affair with this beautiful Byronic poet from Mississippi, Frank Stanford. No matter that he was already dead—had been dead for years before I was born—or that he’d shot himself while his wife and his lover were in the house with him. I was poor and idealistic and living in Arkansas, the same state where he worked and died, when I found my way to his poems. When I first opened Stanford’s slim book of posthumously published selected work, The Light the Dead See, every word rang true and glowed like burning coal. I was enraptured by his recklessness, his rebelliousness, his loneliness; I drank up his language like whiskey and was pulled into his dangerous, nocturnal world full of energy and eroticism and death.

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