Writing and Art from the Middle and Beyond
Frank Paino was born in Cleveland, Ohio and earned an MFA from Vermont College. His third book, Obscura, was published by Orison Books in 2020. His first two volumes of poetry, The Rapture of Matter (1997) and Out of Eden (1991), were published by Cleveland State University Press. Among the awards he has received are a Pushcart Prize, The Cleveland Arts Prize in Literature, and a 2016 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. His poems have appeared in a variety of literary publications, including: Crab Orchard Review, Catamaran, North American Review, World Literature Today, The Briar Cliff Review, Lake Effect and the anthologies, Beyond Earth's Edge: The Poetry of Spaceflight (University of Arizona Press, 2020), The Face of Poetry (University of California Press, 2006), Under the Rock Umbrella (Mercer University Press, 2006) and Poets for Life (Crown Publishers, 1989).
Cocteau rightly observed, “Poets don't invent. They listen.” I couldn't agree with that more: but I will add that we may choose to which voices—both literal and metaphoric—we turn our ear.
I am a poet who listens, primarily, to ghosts. Not the literal type (about which I'm disinclined to believe) but to those who inhabit the more obscure pages of both historical and religious texts, and, of course, our imaginings. These ghosts haunt me with their peculiarities, their truths, their curious facts and fictions, and, in the case of religious texts (which, in my case, refers primarily to the Roman Catholic mythos) the inseparability of the erotic and the “spiritual.”
Of course, ghosts are part and parcel of another of my obsessions—death—a topic I return to repeatedly because we live in a part of the world where the denial of our mortality is the norm. Yet, if we refuse to contemplate our finite time on this blue planet, we may well be less-inclined to live our lives as fully, lovingly, and generously as we can, both for ourselves and those who will inherit whatever kind of world we leave behind.
Poetry is my way of listening to ghosts and, in turn, telling those generous enough to read my work, whatever it is those ghosts whisper to me.
Between Oneself and the World (after Bruegel's
Om dat de werelt is soe ongetru / Daer om gha ic in den ru
("Because the world is perfidious, I am going into mourning")
There is the gold of coins
hard-won and warm
in a leather purse lately strung
to a bitter man's waist,
cut loose now
like a vestigial heart
or the plundered reliquary
of his youth.
There is the gold of morning
fields flecked with sheep
watched over by a man
who revels in the coarse music
of ruminant mouths
grazing the incensed clover,
the sky-flung, metallic hum
of flies rising
from each shivered coat.
Between oneself and the world
is simply the world
in all its shattered radiance.
The heart insists despite.
I have seen monks burning
in their saffron robes for days,
coaxing sand from throats
of silver while they bend,
as if in supplication,
over floors or low tables
smooth as their solemn faces.
I have heard them hum
like earth before it opens,
watched them tap kaleidoscopes
of sand into prayer,
into bright galaxies I long to fix
in their mad spinning,
though the monks will finish,
will rise, will circle
that aching perfection
with brushes to ghost
the world into bright ruins
they'll gather in gold vessels,
carry back to the sand's restless
maker, all the while
that thrum still thrumming
their throats as if to say…
Return to the river, to the sea:
the same wordless hymn
I caged inside my lungs
as I watched my father gather
his final throatful of breath,
then let it go the way
a soft-mouthed retriever
will drop a fallen hatchling,
unharmed, at his master's feet,
a leaving so gentle
I could not say for certain
he'd gone until the horizon charred
to its black wick,
a darkness that found its level
on either side of the hospital window
before I opened my fists
and found I had nothing to hold
on to but his feet going cold.
And my heart, my heart,
the dark insistence of its dirge:
You have chased
all of your days.
have always been
From Palette Poetry, (online) 11 November 2019.
Museum of the Holy Souls in Purgatory
(Church of the Sacred Heart of Suffrage: Rome, Italy)
Granted brief reprieve from expiation,
what form might these souls have put on to move,
once again, among the living?
I say, “Sweltering exhalations of wind out of season.”
You answer, “Shadows woven from cinder and ash.”
It's no matter to the vanishing host of faithful
who wander these crumbling lanes
like a lost tribe in search of something to sustain them,
to hold up to tourists and lovers as blistering proof,
like the singed relics in this small museum
tucked behind the gilded altar of the Sacred Heart,
a room no larger than a prison cell
where fifteen mismatched frames depend
at fevered angles, each smoky pane holding fast
the scorched testament of the almost-saved
who came back to this world speaking a language of fire.
Behold, a husband's nightcap scorched by
the slim gold ring of his burning bride;
a young nun's pale cape gone black at the hem
clutched by her late confessor's hand;
a well-worn psalter pressed tight to a flaming breast—
each earthly artifact a caveat, or so we're told,
from heaven's igneous stepping stone.
But what can the dead tell us that we don't already know?
We are born from water into fire that keeps pace
with our days in desire, and beyond our last breath
lies understanding or oblivion.
Love, if the dead go on, they still burn as we do.
So let's light a candle to hold back the vaulted black
beyond this charred assemblage.
Let our prayer be my hand against your cheek,
a long kiss in this chill room, then one more
before we step back into Rome's falling ochre,
the ghost of your lips still warm on my mouth.
From Obscura, 2020 (Orison Books)
Originally published in World Literature Today, 89:3-4
(May - August 2015)
Nocturne for The Apocalypse
As if it was just another night,
no different from the last or yet-to-come,
we drew the blinds against each vanishing
as streetlights snapped on like charms
against erasures that moved like
a draught of hemlock over the tongue,
numbing us from the toes up
so slow it was nothing to pretend
we didn't even recognize the sigils of our ruin:
summers unsung by the deep hymn
of honeybees, rainforests stripped
of their resplendent canopies,
an arms-length of extinctions, genocides,
the ragged ghosts of plunder
who rode the dusky tails of that receding light.
In those last days, night engulfed our cities
like the great wings of a black swan
that scissored the moon in two,
another portent for which we claimed no cipher;
so too, the rain-blurred newsprint
that described another shooter run amok,
another glacier vanished into rivers that crested
above our bridge's bright flood lines.
And all the while another republic fell
to anarchy, another black man was choked
breathless for some fabricated crime,
another woman was buried shoulder-deep
in desert sand, her head caved in with stones.
And all the while the last ivory sickles were hacked
from the face of the last bull elephant
and every work of human hands burned
with the imprimatur of the damned.
Everywhere, levies crumbled,
coffins boiled out of the earth and drifted
like rafts of refugees ocean-crashed by waves
called disappeared and never, never again.
From Asheville Poetry Review, 25:1 (2018)
To the Corpse of Alexander the Great
(Present location, unknown)
Whether you lie amidst a tide of hymns and tourists' murmurs
that seep past the groans of a sinking Venetian basilica
or rapt by the melancholic wails that spill from soaring minarets
beneath the city that bears your name, we have only scholars to suppose,
though we're told with some degree of certainty your soldiers
steeped the abandoned house of your flesh in drafts of wild honey
so it would keep eternally, like the fragrant dream of summer fields
on winter's longest day. They bestowed on you a second immortality,
beyond fame's bloodied crown, so the hands that raised a sword
beside them on a hundred battlefields might forever grant,
by torch or candlelight, a sparkling commendation.
So the lips that kissed Hephaestion would endure through ages beyond
counting, ever plump and flushed, as with a thousand beestings.
From Gettysburg Review, 29:3 (Autumn, 2016)
Where There's Smoke
Smoke means the way you looked the last time I ever saw you, back pressed against the scuffed
bridge rail, bare-chested above the Bay's ragged thunder, scars so bright it seemed you were already
burning. Smoke means a rabbit might flee or set itself in stone, means white semaphores of deer tails,
cicadas buried beneath root and soil waiting out the lightless years before their single season of song.
Smoke means cinders adrift in the shifting breeze, means a far-off fountain that gabbles its wet hymn
of before we were born. Smoke means the right words will always fall stillborn. Where there's smoke
something is vanished. Where there's smoke I'll always see you stepping through the dew-grass that
final late-October morning while our hemisphere tilted toward a longer dark. Then gasoline. Then
lighter. Then you in your shirt of flames.
From Cultural Weekly, 4 November 2020 (online)
Litany of “The Most Beautiful Suicide”
(Empire State Building)
Let her awaken unafraid
on the first of May 1947.
Let her put on her rose dress & makeup,
her double-strand of pearls.
Let her check out
of the Hotel Governor Clinton
& walk east on 34th Street.
Let her enter the Empire's lobby
with its stratums of gold.
Let the ticket vendor take the coins
from her white-gloved hand.
Let the elevator rise to the open deck
on the 86th floor.
Let her lay down her purse
& family photos.
Let her fold her long tan coat just so.
Let her offer her alabaster scarf
to the mild mid-morning breeze.
Let her close her shadowed eyes.
Let her step off the ledge as if
beneath each scapula
she feels the itch of wings.
Let the sky that cannot hold her
take her shoes
but nothing more.
Let mercy turn each pedestrian gaze
toward the swizzle of white
that precedes her.
Let glass & steel become
Let her rest like a beautiful lie.
Let we who did not know her
be absolved for finding beauty
in such broken truth—
for, having looked upon her,
being powerless to turn away.
* [Based on Robert C. Wiles' iconic photograph
of Evelyn McHale]
From Obscura, 2020 (Orison Books)
Originally published in Atlanta Review, Vol. XXIV, No. I (Fall/Winter 2017)
Maria Callas's Tapeworm
(for Dan Hoyt)
the way he comes
in the sweet tang
of blood & raw flesh,
how he coils inside her,
the way he never says
She feels him glide
down her throat,
sanguine & slick as
He kisses her belly-deep,
swallows her sins,
tucks in her waist
like a hard-boned corset,
polishes her eyes
He tightens a fist
like a miscarried child.
He is the ravenous
secret she keeps,
the one who chisels her
skin closer to bone &
buffs it to a pregnant
though she knows
that light is false as
though she knows
some day he will
with his desire.
he will swallow her
From Obscura, 2020 (Orison Books)
Originally published in North
American Review, 300:4 (Fall, 2015)
Out of Eden
Because each day was the same
as the last.
Because of the endless naming.
Because of blue, untroubled skies—
Because of ceaseless bliss.
Because Adam slept
like the proverbial child.
Because Eve could not sleep.
Because each night God opened
the garden gate, dark-jawed
hinges creaking against his weight.
Because the Forbidden Tree
was also the most lovely.
Because Satan said its leaves
rattled in the wind like bone.
Because Eve ate the apple
Because God saw and whispered
Don't tell. If you tell
I'll kill you.
Because Eve ran through the violet
orchard, loving the feel of her
Because the future was something
she half-remembered . . . painful
Because Satan unfurled his twelve
Because God took something from Adam
and Eve took it back.
Because Satan smiled like a promise
she knew he would keep.
Because Eden was endless.
Eden was endless . . .
From Out of Eden, 1997 (Cleveland State
Originally published in Poetry Northwest, XXXIII:2 (Summer, 1991)
Spring again, and outside our hotel window swallows raise
their raucous cries between branches that bear only
the faintest blush of jade. I watch you, still lost to dreams,
a knife-edge of sun slicing the length of your perfect neck,
and I'm back to yesterday, to the Mutter's two dwarfed
galleries, their brass and polished cases hung with human grief:
a young man's throat flayed and pinned wide to unveil
the tumor that finally choked back his last breath;
twins molded pelvis-to-face in a grotesque parody
of pleasure; the toothless woman, mouth agape,
whose corpulence turned her to soap inside her grave;
countless rows of yellowed bone eaten to lace by syphilis,
and varnished drawers filled with objects swallowed
then later retrieved—dental work, buttons, children's toys,
and a puzzling host of unclasped safety pins.
We passed an hour or more amongst the wreckage of
so much flesh. Long enough to remind me
why I don't have faith in any god. Long enough
to make the lovers who moved ahead of us press
so close I knew their night would end sooner
than most in the comfort of their rumpled bed.
What better salve for sadness than such bliss?
And we, having had our fill of things unsound, stepped back
into the street where the seemingly-whole wrapped their coats
against early evening's chill and carried themselves to the places
strangers go while we drifted, arm in arm, back to the hotel
where you opened your thighs, luminous as x-rays
in the fallen light, and I swallowed the damp gathered there,
then entered you as a swimmer enters a warm, solemn lake,
and we slept, limbs entwined, while the Milk Moon moved
across the sky until morning swallowed it whole, just like
the light that vanishes halfway down the throat
of that nearly-bottomless cave in Mexico where swallows rise
in unison each dawn, unspooling from darkness in a fluttering iris,
until, at last, they spill into daybreak and disappear
toward the far horizon. I think their swift ancestors
must have mesmerized Cortes and his men, made them
draw back their reins and watch a while in wonder. I want
to believe the sight of those thousand-thousand wings lifting as one
made the soldiers stay their torches a heartbeat or more before
they wicked the forest into a second sun to burn their way back
into paradise. And I want to believe they wept to see those birds chase
cinders they mistook for prey until their flight became a smolder,
then a stillness, as they fell back to this earth which, however broken,
beckons us to drink deep. Swallow. Deeper still.
From Obscura, 2020 (Orison Books)
Originally published in Lake Effect, Vol:17 (Spring, 2013)