Frank Stanford — The Singing Knives

It is hard for me to remember a book where a sense of place imprinted itself upon me as a reader. The setting of the poems in Frank Stanford’s The Singing Knives become the main character in the book. The backwoods ethos and strange folkways of the characters who are invoked make one feel like one is witnessing the 1970s version of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. There is a lot of unusual behavior going on, but it all makes perfect sense to those who are in the middle of the action.

I kept getting the feeling that I was slowly being led to the scene of a crime. Indeed, there are many violent acts that take place in the poems. Knives are thrown. Hands are cut off. Houses are burned down. And that’s just the first eighteen pages. One gets the sense that the characters in Stanford’s poems in The Singing Knives are very passionate about life. Stanford’s work is nothing if not cinematic. It is not surprising to me that he was interested in film. The kinds of images he employs are ones that fill up the screen. They are larger than life, taking on an almost surreal quality . . . and perhaps they are surreal, but perhaps they’re not. This tension is what keeps the reader advancing forward, propelled toward answering the question in the mind whether there is possibly anyone as quirky as the characters assembled in the pages of the book. At times I imagine them as The Little Rascals with a streak of bloodthirstiness, like Sam Peckinpah was a guest director for an episode or two.

In fact, Spanky, Alfalfa and Buckwheat make an appearance in “Elegy For My Father,” a poem about the devil who has taken a shine to beating his wife. the speaker is waiting for the Negroe to set off in the dynamite while he waits in the roots of the cypress tree. There is some sort of natural cataclysm that occurs with animal body parts flying around. Then we arrive back at the opening disconnected scene (in italics) of Spanky and Buckwheat putting a gar in Alfalfa’s sock in order to calm him. At the end of the poem Alfalfa is singing with his gar leg on and this image is immediately juxtaposed against the image of the socks of the speaker’s father. The piece is an elegy to (presumably) Stanford’s father (1883-1963).

The odd details swirl to portray a picture that never opts for intense close-up and focus. The perspective shifts mightily, and the reader is always on his heels taking in new action information.

The Singing Knives

The dogs woke me up
I looked out the window

Jimmy ran down the road
With the knife in his mouth
He was naked
And the moon
Was a dead man floating down the river

He jumped on the gypsy’s pony
He rode through camp
I could see the dust

There was the saddlebag full of knives
He was crazy

When Jimmy cut a throat
The eyes rolled back in the head
Like they was baptized
I tell you
When he cut a throat
It was like Abednego’s guitar
And the blood
Flew out like a quail

He had the red hand
He poked the eyes out

I dreamed I stepped over a log
And there was fire in my foot
I dreamed I saw a turkey and two wildcats
Jumped on me at the same time
I dreamed jimmy was pouring ice water
Over my head at noon

I dreamed I heard somebody
Singing in the outhouse
I dreamed the mad dog bit the Gypsy
And they tied him to a tree
I dreamed I was buried in the Indian mound
And moon lake rose up
I dreamed my father was wading the river of death
With his heart in his hand
I dreamed Jimmy rowed out the front door
With a hawk on his shoulder
And I was in the bow kneeling down
I dreamed the blacksnake rode the guitar
Down the river
I dreamed the clouds went by
The moon like dead fish
I dreamed I was dragging
A cotton sack with a dead man in it
I dreamed the fish bandits stole the hogs
Off my lines
And one of them was hunchback
I dreamed the night was a horse
With its eyes shut
I dreamed I had to fight
the good man with the bad arm
And he had the dynamite
I dreamed I trailed a buck from Panther Brake to Panther Burn
I dreamed the Chickasaw slit his throat in the papaw
I dreamed that rising sun was smoking blood
You could pick up and throw
I dreamed the Chinaman’s peg leg
I dreamed I was fishing in heaven with Sho Nuff
and Jesus cleaned the fish
I dreamed a man flies wouldn’t bite
I dreamed I was riding through Leland in a dragline bucket
And the cotton making everyday
I dreamed we got the bootlegger’s truck out of the mud
I dreamed the levee broke

I dreamed the Gypsy was laughing under the water
And the minnows were swimming though his eyes
I dreamed I reached down in Moon Lake
And untied his arms and one hand
Floated up the way it did
When he threw those knives
I dreamed the pony that fights in the water
And the boat that towed the dead man
I dreamed I felt the knife singing in Abednego’s back
I dreamed I pulled the ring out of his ear
And Jimmy put it on his finger
And swam through the water
I dreamed he was looking for Abednego’s boot
And when he came up
He had the jackknife between his teeth
I dreamed he was so beautiful
He had to die someday
I dreamed a knife like a song you can’t whistle

“Let’s go, I got to throw tonight” he says

He had the bandanna around his neck
And the pilot’s cap on
He played the harp in the moonlight

I led the horse out back
I tied him to a Chinaberry tree

“What you want” I says
But I knew he wanted me
Standing at the back of that outhouse
“Shut up” he says “don’t move”
The dirt dobbers flew around my head

He threw Boo Kay Jack at me
He threw Django at me

The mosquitoes drew blood
I looked on the ground
I saw the shadows coming like gars
swimming under me at night
I saw the red moon too
I wished I was running a trot line
I wished I was in a fight
I wished I was fanning myself in church
But there was a heart on the fan
With a switchblade through it

And the knives came by

The bone handled one
The hawk handled one
The one with a blade like a skiff
Out of his boot
Behind his back
Mexican style
The way Abednego showed him
Singing in the outhouse
Like a horse breaking wind

He took the knife and ran it
Across his arm
The he ran it across mine

Blood came out like hot soda

He tied our arms together
With the blue bandanna
And we laid down in the cotton

I wished I was riding a mule somewhere
Blowing a jug
With a string full of crappie
And the cotton making everyday

Clearly Jimmy (and maybe the speaker too) is in need of intensive counseling. The bloodsport on display is placed against a backdrop of hunting and fishing so that dismemberment or death might just seem a part of the ordinary parade of events. But also there is an intensity here that is not like other intensities. It is hard for me to unravel what is rendered as effect and what is ethnographic. That tension between belief and disbelief seems to be the fundamental quality of what Stanford’s work conveys. They operate like myths, myths of the darkest part of Arkansas.

The bio of Stanford is well-known by now. Stanford was a prodigiously talented young poet who grew up in Arkansas and briefly attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He was immediately recognized by James Whitehead and began to establish a reputation in the local literary community.

He began to publish in literary magazines throughout the country while he worked on his magnum opus The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You which he had likely started before the age of twenty and finished it when he was 26.

The Singing Knives was the first of his books that was published when he was 22, and Stanford went on to publish 5 more chapbook-length books with this first publisher, Mill Mountain Books.

His life was to come to an end shortly. His second marriage to painter Ginny Crouch (later Stanford) began to fall apart due to what is generally considered to be exacerbated by the presence of another woman, C. D. Wright. Though there quite possibly may have been other mitigating factors. In Ginny Stanford’s “Death in the Cool Evening,” she describes what she remembers happening on June 3, 1978 (when Stanford was only 29).

Saturday evening. June third. He had betrayed me by having an affair and I had found him out. I was hurt and humiliated and angry enough to put him through a wall. I barely tolerated the hug he tried to give me, my arms stiff at my sides. He tried to kiss me and I turned my head so that his lips only grazed my hair. Then he left. Forever. He left me in a room and shut the door behind him as he left, and he took three steps across a hall into another room and shut another door and shot himself.

In the span of the longest five or six seconds I have ever lived through, Frank fired three shots into his chest. Three pops, three cries. All I had was sound. I couldn’t see him; I could only imagine what he was doing in another part of the house. With the sound of the first shot time stopped, changed course and went backwards through the second and third shots, then reconstructed itself into an endless, directionless loop.

Before Saturday, June third, time was a straight line. After Saturday, a loop.

I heard a sharp crack, a hard slap, an angry teacher breaking his ruler against a desk. I heard the crack and just as sharp I heard Frank hollering, “Oh” – surprised. I heard him step on a copperhead, get stung by a yellow jacket, smash his thumb with a hammer. I watched him jump into Spider Creek, heard him hit the cold water and yelp from the shock. Pop Oh! Pop Oh! Pop Oh!

After the third cry I knew he was dead. Imagine the wall is telling you a bedtime story. Go to sleep now, it might say. That is how the news was delivered. A quiet voice from somewhere inside me said flatly, It’s all over; he’s killed himself. I didn’t want to move. But the same silent voice was ordering me out. Get out, get out, it kept repeating. Call the police.

I didn’t want to look. He’s blown his brains out, the voice said. Don’t go in there. Save the memory

Some question whether Stanford had a death wish and merely saw the age of thirty as a kind of hotel check-out time. The ugly truth of the matter is that it is hard not to be a forensic philologist when one reads his work. The preoccupation with death (in particular, a dramatic death) is pervasive. Most of his characters seem to be an inch away from it, one bad decision away from getting swept up by its influence. Discovering this tendency is a lot like finding evidence of something before it happens. It defies logic in the strictest manner where causation is concerned. Yet one also can’t completely deny it is isn’t there.

It’s a lot like finding a reference made by David Foster Wallace in his commencement speech for Kenyon College, where he uses suicide to illustrate a point.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

In both writers there was a prodigious talent, a driving force that compelled them to write their magnum opus before the age of thirty. Perhaps there was less of a reason to add an addendum to a work which was their summation; there was no second act. Perhaps the amount of traffic that ran through their heads at such an early age and permitted the dictation of such juggernaut works, in the end, did them in because such traffic was so doggedly persistent. It became the “terrible master” that David Foster Wallace alludes to.

The dramatic choice that Stanford made on June 3, 1978 plays out in the dramatic choices made by the characters in The Singing Knives which invariably appear and then disappear from the frame. None linger as the center of attention for very long.

The Singing Knives creates the myth of the backwater Arkansas, and like the Minotaur and White Buffalo Woman it populates such a place with a number of mythical/magical creatures. The Snake Doctors (the title of the last poem in the book) is such an entity. In the poem we are introduced to many of the same knife-slinging characters [Baby Gauge, Born In The Camp With Six Toes, as in the book’s title poem, the same kinds of pigs and midgets, drunkenness and outhouses.

The poem begins in the first section where the speaker rides a 300-pound hog named Holy Ghost to church where some men take to beating on the hog with sledgehammers. The hog breaks free and the speaker catches up to it where he

I rode the hog
I hugged his neck
I stabbed him seven times
I wanted the knife to go into me

Despite the obvious parallels again for the fulfillment of a self-inflicted wound, the speaker rows out into the middle of the slew. The boat is filled with hog blood. Then a kind ritual burial-at-slew occurs with a number of ghost-like apparitions (including the snake doctors) appearing on the shore, the speaker setting himself within this dreamscape but still somewhat resisting it.

In the next section of the poem the scene is the butchering of the hog as it hangs from a tree. The speaker sees the snake doctors riding each other again at this point. There seems to be some confusion about whether the hog hanging from the tree is really the speaker himself as the last line of this section informs that “Born In The Camp With Six Toes cut me down.”

Section 4 begins with the speaker dreaming of a man cutting off his hand. This hand however begins to transform into the hambone of Holy Ghost, which the speaker is tracking. Again the speaker sees the snake doctors while he is tracking down the hambone. At the scene of the speaker finding the hambone, it turns into a bloody severed hand. It is the hand of the guitar player. The speaker puts it in a cigar box with a picture of Elvis Presley and takes it into town. There he sees the guitar player bleeding in the back of the pickup. The speaker drives back home and creates a little shrine for the hand in the outhouse.

In Section 5 all hell breaks loose. The speaker is being pursued by the midget and the guitar player. After many bizarre occurrences, including the speaker jumping down the hole in the outhouse and swimming with the severed hand in his mouth, it becomes relatively clear that the dream world and actual world are intricately woven together.

Eventually, the speaker returns the severed hand to the guitar player on the end of his fishing line while the guitar player is fishing. Alas, the ritual cleansing is over, and the speaker is attended to by his friends.

This whole gruesome display appears to be presided over by the snake doctors whose appearance can only said to ordain the proceedings. These mythical creatures (who seem to be forever riding each other) are the high priests of this scenery and place. The magical mystery tour though the subconscious is complete.

The entire poem as well as the collection relies on the tension in the mix of the ethnographic and the mythic. The mythic is actually easier to grasp than the ethnographic dimensions. The depiction of the folkways of backwoods Arkansans is evidently exaggerated. However, the dream-like apparition state that we as readers inhabit (as well as the speaker) ease off the notion that there is anything like wholehearted depiction going on. This is a relief.

Many times the depiction of another class or another group, though exaggerated, does not point to the mythic or dream-like in order to suspend a kind of pathetic quality a reader might attach to the characters.

Unfortunately, a piece like Jennifer L. Knox’s Chicken Bucket, though very funny and also exaggerated, does not temper its depiction with the idea that it is all a dream, that the subconscious is at work on the scene. The piece reads, to me at least, as more like class commentary, and I personally wonder if such a depiction is needed or wanted by people like those at the heart of the narrative. The joke is a little bit too hardhearted for me in that it gets us to laugh at the backwardness and uproariously poor decisions made by the characters. All at the expense of people whose life may be populated by many of the same details. Is it just open season on the lower class for poets who went to respectable universities where nice middle class kids are allowed to play? But perhaps I am taking all of this way too seriously. I suspect Knox is not wearing any hard edge at all in “Chicken Bucket.” Rather, she is musing aloud . . . but at whose expense? I don’t know what Knox’s background is, but I wonder if there isn’t also a modicum of self-hatred operating as well.

Yet Frank Stanford never succumbs to that kind of trope with his depiction. One gets the sense that whatever details he is using from his Arkansas experience to create his world, they are heartfelt, tinged with a hint of honesty about his experience. He believes in their visceral appeal. His depiction is not a commentating aside with a repressed sneer.

In short, The Singing Knives might be best described as:

Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch collaborate to direct and write a script for a psychological thriller about fishing, hunting and butchering starring the cast of the grown up little rascals who have matured into bloodthirsty criminals.


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