The Singing Knives by Frank Stanford


The Singing Knives
by Frank Stanford
Lost Roads (2008)

Since The Olives of Oblivion started collecting volumes of poetry, we’ve searched high and low for Frank Stanford’s scarce chapbooks. Stanford’s individual volumes, largely, have been out of print for decades. The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, Stanford’s epic masterpiece, has floated in and out of print since its publication in 1977. If you’ve never gazed upon this 15,283-line leviathan, then rush to your local bookseller and order a copy immediately. The Battlefield is currently in print for 20 dollars thanks to Lost Roads Publishers.

(Below: cover images for The Battlefield in its first and second editions, respectively.)

We all have dreams we awaken from, dreams in which miracles have occurred. Yet upon waking we cross over into our empirical existences and find ourselves mourning for those miracles as they wave to us from the other shore. This is the feeling The Olives of Oblivion had a few months ago while picking through the new arrivals at our favorite local bookseller. We thought we saw a book with Frank Stanford on the spine, but knew it simply couldn’t have been true. But there it was on the shelf, refusing to vanish, the long-awaited-for reprint of Stanford’s seminal first collection, The Singing Knives (originally published by Mill Mountain Press in 1971). There has been much speculation and rumor about Stanford’s literary estate and the future of Lost Roads, and the occasional buzz about individual volumes coming back into print, but we had no idea the gears were actually in motion. Luckily, for all of us, the dream of finding Stanford’s books is becoming a reality again. The miracle we carry into our waking hours. Not only has Lost Roads reprinted The Singing Knives, they have also reprinted Stanford’s ninth collection, You. If anyone has the ear of the current editor at Lost Roads, please let her know that we here at The Olives of Oblivion are clamoring for more! In his 29-year life (1948-1978), Stanford’s poetic output was colossal. There are 6 additional out-of-print Stanford books out there, and this major author needs to be read by more than just devotees and bibliophiles.

The Singing Knives, like so much fine writing out of the South, is a lyrical witness to place and people. Staford’s writing is dark, comic, violent, and beautiful; it leaps from a world so vividly and persuasively imagined that you feel as if Stanford is reporting with utmost honesty and urgency about life in the underworld. In this collection we meet Baby Gauge, Born In The Camp With Six Toes, Ray Baby, Jimmy, Charlie B. Lemon, Mose Jackson, BoBo Washington, the Gypsy, and the midget, among others. During the poem’s opening gambit, Stanford takes us from our world into his, and neither author nor reader ever looks back. Here are the opening stanzas from the lead-off poem:


There was Born In The Camp With Six Toes
He popped the cottonmouth’s head off

There was Baby Gauge
He tied the line to his wrist
He tied it to the alligator gar
He rode the fish

There was Ray Baby
He stole the white man’s gold tooth
He knocked it out with a two-by-four
He rode the moon-blind horse…


And here is an ecstatic outpouring from “The Singing Knives”

…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…


Clearly, this is the kind of writing that speaks for itself. What more do we want than to enter a realm so believable and fiercely imagined that it changes the one we live in? If you are looking for a good sampling of Stanford’s poetry, then check out The Light the Dead See (University of Arkansas Press, 1991), which is edited by the poet Leon Stokesbury. The Light the Dead See is a good selection, and it shows just the very tip of a very important iceberg. If you’ve got your rich uncle’s credit card, then hop onto one of the links at The Olives of Oblivion Bookseller Hall of Fame. Stanford’s out-of-print volumes, even those in second printings, tend to sell from 100 to 1,000 dollars.


The Olives of Oblivion was  an anonymous site dedicated to contemporary poetry that ran during 2008. The critics have permitted The Owls to revisit the essays.


One comment

  1. If it is not inappropriate to do so here, I want to ask if there is anyone interested in buying a first edition (the original Mill Mountain book) of The Singing Knives. It is intact and in pretty good shape, except that the front and back cover are both off (though both preserved to be sold with the book). Not something I am eager to part with, but I am interested in discussing the sale with any serious collector, and ideally, fan.

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