I-70 Review

Writing and Art from the Middle and Beyond

Frank Paino

     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).

Artist Statement     

     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

“The Misanthrope”)

   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

the wind

all of your days.

Your hands

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

                 (for Tony)

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

     her catafalque.

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)

She loves

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

with fever.  

He tightens a fist

inside her

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

the moon's,

though she knows

some day he will

waste her

with his desire.

Some day

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

   and understood.

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

   naked flesh.

Because the future was something

   she half-remembered . . . painful

   and sweet.

Because Satan unfurled his twelve

   brilliant wings.

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

University Books)

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)