Obscura: Poems by Frank Paino
Cleveland Arts Prize winner Frank Paino’s just-published collection of poems, Obscura (Orison Books, May 2020), offers a precise and sensual look at death and dying. It is an accident of timing that this mortality-focused book debuts in the midst of a pandemic, but (never fear), it’s a happy accident in that it traces both contemporary and past encounters without flinching.
A fascination with what’s terrible, with what keeps us awake, illuminates its 35 poems, works based on historic tragedies, martyrdom and even recent news items.
As poet Nickole Brown writes in an insightful introduction, “With all of the lush but haunted eroticism of his previous work, Frank moves away from personal narrative to investigate the lives (and more often the deaths) of others … [a] collection that weaves a tapestry as macabre as it is achingly sorrowful. . . . With an unflinching eye, these poems peer into glass coffins, formaldehyde-filled jars, and photographs of horrific scenes—they crouch among the dank silence of catacombs and reliquaries and ruins—all to hear what the dead might have to say.”
Eliciting the same fascination one might feel watching a horror film unfold, some poems illuminate tragic events largely forgotten. One concerns the 1904 sinking of the steamer General Slocum just off New York City’s East River. Over 1,400 men, women, and children on their way to an annual neighborhood picnic drowned. The poet envisions “the white blooms/of petticoats, bonnets, child-sized blankets, opened/against the liquid blue, as if a throng of revelers/had just passed through the gates of hell,/casting handfuls of pale roses as they went” (“Hell’s Gate”). It is hard to unsee the terrible loss.
Not all are tragic. Sometimes we consider curious speculations, as when we are invited to contemplate whether or not Maria Callas had a tapeworm (“Maria Callas’s Tapeworm”). Other times we travel, for example, to Philadelphia’s historic Mutter Museum of photographs and exhibits that document death in “their brass and polished cases hung with human grief” (“Swallow”).
And the tragedy isn’t always for humans. In “Laika,” the poet describes the fate of the Moscow stray dog sent into orbit. She dies, “Fevered. Frantic. Blood-boiled./Six-hundred miles between herself and/solid ground.”
My personal favorite, “Armageddon,” imagines ultimate destruction eons ahead: “It will start at the edge of the universe,/when the thrust of that ancient, unthinkable force,/finally spent, shudders to a halt in the airless dark.” And as it reaches earth “each face will lift to watch the sun/tear off its robes of fire, setting the earth alight,/and in those last breathless seconds, we may finally/turn, each to the other, and forgive everything.”
I cannot help but recall William Butler Yeats’ unadorned tombstone, and the epitaph he composed: “Cast a cold eye/ On life, on death. /Horseman, pass by!”
The poems collected in Obscura exemplify one fine way of following Yeats’ orders. These poems avoid sentimentality, but illuminate beauty, love, and truth as they flicker, pinned in the light of the poet’s gaze.
Side note: Frank Paino’s first two volumes of poetry were published by Cleveland State University Press: The Rapture of Matter (1991) and Out of Eden (1997). He has received awards for his work, including a 2016 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council, a Pushcart Prize, and the Cleveland Arts Prize in Literature. His poems have appeared in Antioch Review, Catamaran, Crazyhorse, The Gettysburg Review, Green Mountains Review, The Kenyon Review, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, and World Literature Today, among other places.