A Piano of Bourbon



From Oxford American:

“Don’t go down the rabbit hole,” my husband tells me, but it’s too late. It is 3 A.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.

The first poem I memorized from The Light the Dead See was “Memory Is like a Shotgun Kicking You near the Heart,” which originally appeared in Stanford’s 1978 collection Crib Death. It has remained with me a decade on. The poem begins:

I get up, walk around the weeds
By the side of the road with a flashlight
Looking for the run-over cat
I hear crying.
I think of the hair growing on the dead,
Any motion without sound,
The stars, the seed ticks
Already past my knees

The narrator describes a solitary night walk in the woods (through the “deer path / Down the side of the hill to the lake”), shining his flashlight on passing scenes, searching for something lost, yet unknown even to the searcher. I too was possessed by restlessness, rising to wander after midnight in my own loneliness—questioning why I was more at home in the night than the day. The poem ends where it began:

When I get home
I drink a glass of milk in the dark.
She gets up, comes into the room naked
With her split pillow,
Says what’s wrong,
I say an eyelash.

Trying to describe the effects of a poem, the mysterious mechanics of its power, is like trying to describe how good sex is good.

“Last Panther of the Ozarks”, Ansel Elkins, Oxford American