Snake Train: Poems 1984 – 2013
(Shearsman Books, 2015)
Many a poet has mused on the haphazard nature of inspiration, how it can arise when least expected and evaporate without notice. Some carry notebooks to catch it on the fly; others sit before their laptops, awaiting enlightenment. In Snake Train: Poems 1984 – 2013 Edwin Frank builds a book not just on the fleeting content of vision, but on the mystery of its appearance and how it leaves a residue which he can neither quite assimilate nor deny.
Frank—best known as the longtime editor of New York Review Books Classics—has previously issued a chapbook (Stack), a series of poems (The Further Adventures of Pinocchio), and occasional lyrics. With his new book, he assembles his sequences and longer works into a single volume, a slim work that offers an overview of his poetic career as a whole. Since the collection covers twenty-nine years, one might expect a miscellany; a fair amount of contingency no doubt went into Snake Train’s construction. Nonetheless, the book is strikingly unified, both in thematics and tone. While it contains a number of translations and these occasionally register as somewhat alien presences (one does not easily harmonize Khlebnikov and Montale, Hebrew hymns and Eichendorff), the poems attributable to Frank alone, whether early or late, are remarkably consonant and to a large extent explore a single vision. The latter is perhaps best symbolized by the book’s cover photo, which shows commemorative crosses stuck into an eroded landscape. The discovery of the visionary within depleted earth is not too far from Frank’s fundamental outlook. The world is mundane yet sometimes we find it miraculous without it ceasing to be drab.
Although no dates are given, internal evidence suggests that the poems are largely ordered chronologically. After “Snake Train,” a tour-de-force translation from Khlebnikov, the book foregrounds poems from the author’s youth. These deal with the sorts of apparently simple memories (seasons, months, birds in trees, a house by a lake) that have kept poetry workshops humming for half a century. Yet unlike many such poems, these display little of that self-satisfaction which afflicts many youthful writers—Frank must be one of the least complacent poets in existence—and already a curious anxiety haunts their expression. The writer aims to be celebratory, and some of these encounters seem replete with meaning: “the whole cargo of dazzle” as he calls it; yet the eye is always moving, “dispossessed and possessed,” and his visionary glimpses, so rich at the time, seem to hang at the end, like a suspended chord which remains unresolved.
Frank may be visionary but he has no illusions. He observes that the transfigurational moments he celebrates don’t build but are encountered piecemeal and seem to have little to do with the rest of his life. He wonders that he is compelled to find glorious visions in “the accident of things: not what one had in mind.” Worse, once apostrophized, these lyrical occasions don’t stay still but are always petering out in baffling inconsequence.
Unable to remember what it was [that]
Quickened the heart awhile or gave it pause:
What settled it in this unlikely place?
This is an awkward situation for any aspiring lyricist, and as though recognizing his plight, Frank takes a detour, following these early pieces with a number of sometimes brilliantly achieved special projects. He presents a version of 3rd and 4th century Hebrew poems, ecstatic celebrations of the divine throne and the mystic’s ascension into heaven. He writes a sardonic yet appreciative account of what it means to make a poem (“Stack”), and a poignant celebration of Pinocchio, the mischievous wooden figure, whose adventures lead him alternately to consult books on philosophy (The Critique of Pure Reason) and the more gentle remonstrances of the Blue Fairy. Frank also composes a prose account of a visit to India which he made as an adolescent, a narrative which arguably constitutes the heart of the book.
André Gide once celebrated objects “mise-en-abîme” (literally, placed in an abyss), by which he meant items inserted into a work which represent its overall meaning in miniature form. (The play within a play in Hamlet for example.) In Snake Train Frank places a prose work at the center (literally the midpoint) of these poems, and it repeats in an utterly different form of language all that has come before and will follow. Titled “The Accident,” a noun which resonates throughout the book, it describes a trip he made to southern India where he was visiting grandparents. In this account of Indian small towns, everyone seems out of place—the American missionaries who came over “to be of service,” but also the servant who was transplanted from his beloved village and cannot speak the local language, and perhaps even the cook “who was said never to have tasted anything that he had prepared.” In this off-kilter world where most entertainments appear to be imported, the adolescent Frank sits down to read, of all things, the Aeneid (in translation, of course, so that he is not quite reading Virgil at all), and he describes the melancholy hero as someone who had to lose everything “in order to be given something he not only does not want but cannot even imagine.” The author meditates on the plight of Aeneas, Dido, and all those characters who were sacrificed to the haunting poetry which transcends them all, and he inquires, “When or how, do a writer’s words take their place in the memory and imagination? What does their having done so have, in fact, to do with those words? This is the accident.”
The rest of the book depicts the author recognizing the finality of his lack of faith and attempting somehow to turn it to poetic use. Although Frank remains a celebratory poet—wildly ecstatic, for example, in “Instant Torrential Rain Breaking”—he refuses to view the world as redeemed by these effusions. It remains the dismal, quotidian affair that it always was, and he forgoes all edification, consolation, or even the deus ex machina of “deeper meaning.” To speak musically, he has written a book without vibrato. Yet a poignant beauty which he finds inscrutable does arise from the language and from its oblique parallelism to the world it describes.
Sometimes Frank does seem to wish he had been a different kind of poet, one more satisfied and magisterial; but as his poems show, he is not to be believed. Thus, after presenting the rather smug Hans Sachs, the paragon of German song and poetry in the opera, Die Meistersinger, he turns to Sixtus Beckmesser, the hapless loser in the song contest which provides the plot of that work. After Beckmesser mourns his own apparent inabilities, we meet Marsyas, the musician who dared to challenge Apollo in song and was flayed alive for his impertinence. Now hung among the flies and animals, “my skin a flapping / White flag … // Me, facing the earth / At last for all I’m worth—,” it would seem that he ends in rejection and disgrace. Yet Frank allows him a low-key exoneration, as in one of the most delicate of his lyrics, the “failed” poet’s rhythms and rhymes assemble in a forest clearing where “silently they / unstring from the branches / of the tree the carcass // and carry it away.” There Marsyas’s song takes root and grows, not so reproachable after all, but rather abiding, to play its tune another day.
Metamorphosis is at the heart of Frank’s poetry, implicitly in the Pinocchio poems, explicitly in a late piece that invokes Ovid. It is correspondingly difficult to quote him because his language won’t sit still but is always heading somewhere new, depending on context and the words that precede or follow. Thus, he writes, “As love is / or / As justice—” the line break suggesting that that final word should read “just is.” Or, describing an ecstatic climb up a visionary ladder, he writes, “I climb // rung after / echoing rung” where the final word is both part of a ladder and an echo to the musical verb “ring,” tilting the poem from the visual to the auditory. This is a book in which nothing stays put—not memory, words, autobiography, nor life itself. Frank accepts this and indeed celebrates it as the theme of his poetry, even if he sometimes wistfully wishes that things were otherwise. If in the end he holds up a pitiless mirror to reality, he does not despair for he finds it amazing all the same. As the final words of his book read (and one should not miss the resonance of that three-syllable word):
stop. We are
astonished to be
in the dark.
DANIEL BLUE has published fiction, poetry, memoir, and criticism. His book, The Making of Friedrich Nietzsche, will be published by Cambridge University Press in May.