I read the poems of Larry Frank for the first time a half hour or so before I met the poet. His wife, Alyce, and I were seated at the Frank’s dining room table about to indulge in tea and scones when Alyce gestured toward Larry’s first collection of poems, a full-length volume titled, Siftings, which lay on the table. Alyce and I had only recently met, but during our brief encounters she had mentioned more than once that her husband was a poet. I had heard of the Larry Frank who was a collector of Penitenté and Native American iconography, and I had heard of the Larry Frank who railed against the powers-that-be in local town meetings, but the Larry Frank who wrote poems I had no knowledge of, at all.
I opened the book prepared to glance at a poem or two, murmur something polite, and move on. Montale speaks of the poetic moment in terms of song pelting like rain into the breast. I was literally struck by something I hadn’t expected in the poems, by the energy of their maker captured in the field of each of the poems. I didn’t expect it, and to the moment of this writing cannot entirely account for the experience, except to say: this is what happened and I am grateful. The poems led me to the poet and the poet became my friend.
If poems serve as an intersection between two people’s realities, then what happened that day in the Frank’s living room can be described as a moment of recognition. The voice in the poems of Siftings as well as those of Burst Afresh, Frank’s second and final collection, are at times humorous, at other times scalding, at still other times full of charm--even playfully silly--but, in the end they are honest--“a man speaking to men”--and intimate.
Larry Frank wrote the poems in Burst Afresh primarily during the invasion and continued occupation of Iraq by the United States, and that background noise, those “lethal cannons” appear to play a significant role in poems such as “Soldiers March . . . ,” “Breathing,” “Counterpoints,” “Curse,” and “Disorder.” Frank wrote the poem, “Curse” in response to an assignment I gave in a workshop I taught the first summer we met. The other participants in the workshop were moved by the poem and assumed its speaker to be a prisoner in Guantánamo. Larry was pleased by that reading, but later told me the poem was inspired by Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gently Into That Dark Night,” and was an address to Death. Poets are often the last to know the meanings their poems contain. One thing may be consciously intended, while a host of other equally relevant meanings wait to be unleashed by time, circumstance, and insightful readers. Nevertheless, we read the poems in Burst Afresh knowing that many were written during the eightieth year of the poet’s life, the year that was his last, and that he was grappling with the fact of mortality. His concerns on that score are tenderly and with humor articulated in love poems such as “Breathing,” and “Love,” as well as the elegiac “We will meet somewhere . . . ,” “Circles,” and “Your absence from me . . . ,” while “Blue Asters,” also a love poem, addresses the possibility of the transmigration of souls (it may help the reader to know that Alyce Frank, to whom the poem is addressed, suffered from polio at a young age and walks with a cane). Frank’s poems express his vigorous preoccupation with definition and transformation, from the light touch of,
Wearing black-orange banners
a glut of butterflies
engulfs the yellow sagebrush blooms
changes their color
to “Fragments,” the poem that most exemplifies Frank’s philosophical kinship with Whitman, as it meets and is clarified by argument:
It matters not, doesn’t matter
yet matters I define myself
exactly as self
and not as cat, bassoon, void or turnip
but as thinking instrument
In temperament, Frank resembles one of his poetic heroes, William Blake. There is fury in a poem like “Curse,” rage at the fact of death, balanced by concern that a hummingbird may have “tarried too long/to complete/its destined migration.” Where Blake’s circumstances were largely urban and his concerns included social justice issues, Frank lived in the high mesa desert and was a committed environmentalist. In the poem “Dirge” he spares the reader nothing, “Ant larvae emerge still-born. /And insect packed dirt/dies inert,” while “ . . . the sky does not lie/ comfortably on our guilt.” In a more overt gesture of homage, Frank offers an endangered species response to Blake’s “Tyger.” The mythological and imagistic world that so compelled the visionary Blake, becomes the only remaining sanctuary for the big cat in whose symmetry the existence of God is expressed. It is worth noting how Frank blends Blakeian preoccupations with the influence of his other hero, Hopkins. In the poem “Related to Gerald Manley Hopkins,” found in Siftings, we hear echoes of Blake in the phrase “a green God stirs in symmetry,” while in “Curse” Frank at one point addresses Death, as well as Death’s executioners, in the sprung rhythms, packed rhyme, and alliteration recognizable as deriving from Hopkins’ influence.
All of these factors come into play in the poem “Counterpoints.” Its speaker is primal and mythological, articulate and (one senses) ferocious in physical strength, as well as in emotion--fearful, perhaps, of nature in an animal way--yet one with nature, aware of himself as being nature. At the same time, perhaps unnerved to discover himself dislocated at the turn of the millennium, horrified by the events, the realities of what it means to be human--what human beings have evolved to become--in particular the alpha human: “a sterling bedecked general/emblazoned in 1998 newsprint/quashing rebellion . . .” It’s a philosophical poem, full of energy and intensity. I think of the speaker as a kind of Beowulf, were Beowulf to wake to himself on the vast high mesa desert in 1998. Or, Frankenstein’s monster--a being larger than life, and full of a complicated range of emotions, most predominately love.
While “Counterpoints” reflects in a certain way on its maker, so does its alter ego, the beautifully meditative title poem of the chapbook, “Burst Afresh.” In it the reader experiences the other side of Frank’s richly complex personality: “It is not I who burst afresh among humming-/birds,/ Nor do I out-race startled running/ deer . . .” the poem begins in a series of broken seven stress lines of negation, that shift, in the second half of the poem, into a run of short affirming enjambments of what the speaker, Frank’s everyman, is, and is capable of being. I would ask the reader to look closely at the last two lines, “ . . . when the moon’s floodlight/ smothers the warp of war.” The word “floodlight,” when situated near the “warp of war,” insists on an image we associate with imprisonment, yet Frank alters it, heralding nature and the feminine as he shifts the source of that floodlight from a dark tower to the moon, thus doing what poetry, incantation, prayer have always sought to do, transform the metaphorical base metal into gold. “Burst Afresh” is a song of praise, humility, and acceptance calling to mind Job. A poem that, even as it lists human creative limitation, delivers typically Larry Frank style images “Neither could I jam into a picnic basket pulsing stars . . . ” And even as it recognizes human flaw in “rancid parliaments,” quietly announces and confirms, “Yet, I am made holy/ by a natural order of things.”
The order and selection of the poems in this posthumously assembled and edited book reflects the continuation of a lifetime of creative collaboration between Alyce and Larry Frank, as does the final determination on all edits.
Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico