March 2016

Patrick James Dunagan


Circumstances and Entropy: On Frank Lima

The poetry world is ever fickle. Attention to the work of some poets takes off almost from the get-go, while for others the stars wax and wane over altering possible destinies. Take Frank Lima (1939-2013): a New York City-born protégé of Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch during the 1960s who truly came from "the streets," complete with bad habits ranging from petty crime to heroin use and alcoholism. His early work startled readers with its upfront presentation of these matters, along with a thorough routing of the incestuous and sexually promiscuous home environment in which he came of age. In Lima's case, however, his early books and presence among the very-in-crowd of fellow poets and artists in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world just wasn't enough to secure him a long-lasting wide readership. He eventually ceased writing poetry for a number of years, until he unleashed a surprising flourish of writing beginning in the 1990s, right up until his death in 2013. A reappraisal of his work is long overdue.

Sometime around Lima's passing, I heard City Lights editor Garrett Caples discussing with mutual poet friends at the bar his interest in editing a new volume of Lima's work. Garrett had been in touch with Lima in recent years and had already begun working on such a project. To my own mind, Lima had long been a fringe figure of the New York School. I had read his work here and there, and recalled him from photographs and frequent mention in biographical/memoir material relating to Frank O'Hara, but I was relatively unaware of the details of his life and the sheer quantity of his later work. Garrett's enthusiasm for the project, however, made it clear that Lima was a poet worth looking into.

In early 2015, Garrett got in touch with me at the Gleeson Library at the University of San Francisco, where I work, for assistance locating first a back issue of Poets & Writers that contained poet Bob Holman's "The Resurrection of Frank Lima," then, shortly after, Evergreen Review no. 27 (1962), Lima's print debut. Sure enough, we had both issues on our shelves. Holman's celebratory piece, "an investigative poem," weaves together an interview he conducted with Lima with various lines from Lima's published work. It's a fine tribute to Lima's work and life, and one of the rare instances of such attention during his lifetime.

I suspected Garrett was reaching the final stages of editing his Lima volume, and I hoped for an expansive new collection, with further evidence of Lima's prolific writing in his final years. The collection, Incidents of Travel in Poetry: New and Selected Poems, coedited by Garrett Caples and Julien Poirier and recently published by City Lights, didn't let me down. I join with the rest of the poetry world in being brought to shame for having long neglected one of its most excellent practitioners during his own lifetime.

A scattering of poems from Lima's early books demonstrate fair representation of from where and out of what conditions he emerged as a poet. From incest:

The mattress groaned
I moaned
I'm no horse

("Mom I'm All Screwed Up")

To the inventive and weird:

I can hear the streets whispering
in the ears of yelping kids

("Inventory -- to 100th Street")

And those moments where his imagery closes in upon Surrealism:

But I can swim through concrete
It's easy, walk into my cage and ask the lions
Why they smell like money


Throughout his work, Lima celebrates the wonders of life, even when facing the dark, haunting underbelly of the urban nightmare:

There is a tiny creep in the room that steals my cigarettes
I won't kill him because I'm in love and nothing else matters
but love on this gorgeous Earth that we're on this wonderful trip
Anyhow I feel like an overcrowded greenhouse when you're around.

("Ode to Love")

For some readers, of the earlier work especially, Lima is perhaps seen to lean too heavily upon his close relationships with poets and artists of the New York School, his lines often reminiscent of O'Hara's offhanded, ever-personal asides, or Koch's trenchant juxtapositions and humor. Lima certainly is unabashed in acknowledging his intimacy with the characters and haunts of the era:

The shadow of the twentieth century
lives on in my liver with all the dead poets
and artists who drank at the Cedar Bar.

("The Cedar")

But I find myself asking: Why shouldn't he be? These were his early mentors who became his friends and peers. As he declares in "The Blessed," written for David Shapiro, "my very best friend": "Blessed are the poets who invented us as poets." He's not about to fret over dropping their names into many a poem:

Tony Towle is in his "Tomb" shrouded in poetry
Waiting for the phone to ring in a new
Poem from Frank.
Tony will resurrect an inspiration at
Cocktail hour.
Tony's mind is like hot coffee and
Cigarettes in the morning.

("Setting Up a Tombstone")

The poet and editor David Shapiro was one of Lima's valued and trusted comrades who befriended and helped him over the years. He edited Lima's Inventory: New & Selected Poems (Hard Press, 1997), and, in his introduction to that collection, "Frank Lima: The Poetry of Everyday Life and the Tradition of American Darkness," astutely marvels over the darkness from which Lima emerged and how, despite its overshadowing his entire life, he "never stopped learning, never stopped being a student of himself, language, and the city." He was ever glad to be living, writing, and declaiming visionary insights found within his poetry: "We are infinitely / Happy that at last we are the fluids between the stars" ("Necromancy"). And, like any poet who proves worth cherishing, Lima always kept pushing onwards:

When my life becomes too real for my own good, I jump into the
Appetites of night, and turn the lights into a bed that reads to me of your
Life as it stands in the moonlight that provides an ambiance in my dreams
Which is the best part of sleeping. On this glacier of bitter delusions there
Is happiness without pain, there is no emptiness as all I have is miles of

Imagination where you reside with that distinguished gentleman dressed
In black, my poetry.

("Invitation to a Self-Portrait")

As Caples describes in his introduction to Incidents of Travel in Poetry (an excerpt of which appeared as an essay in Poetry a couple issues back): "There's an almost mythic quality to Frank Lima's life, in that it is rife with striking detail, but its particulars are hard to nail down." Lima's hip erudition allows for the weaving together of fact and fiction with a remarkable dexterity that leaves any sense of certainty far behind. Caples nonetheless manages a levelheaded assessment of both the life and the work.

After publishing several early volumes of poems, Lima veered off from writing for many years, becoming an established chef. He went through a number of marriages and fathered a son and daughter before returning to poetry with a passion in the late 1990s. Lima, it seems, was as surprised and happy about this with his later work as anybody else. Even though it was rarely seen by any but his closest friends, and still remains largely unpublished outside Incidents of Travel in Poetry, Lima continued to further develop and fine tune his work as he went.

While Lima was never in favor of overly identifying himself by his ethnicity -- his father was Mexican, his mother Puerto Rican -- he also never hid it. It unsurprisingly appears in his work whenever relevant.

There is a poetic life in America, ask Helen Vendler.
Just pay your electrical bill. Speak English.
Remember, Mr. Hernando Cortez, El Caudillo,
Didn't speak English. Look what happened to him:
He left Spanish Harlem and wound up in the South Bronx;
The first "identificate MexicanPuertoRican" on methadone
With a liability of possible euphoria.

("Urbane Parables")

In all likelihood "Mr. Hernando Cortez" refers to Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, first Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca (1485-1547). This "Cortez" was a Spanish conquistador who led an expedition in the early sixteenth century that caused the fall of the Aztec empire and brought large portions of mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile. He was part of the generation that began the first phase of Spanish colonization in the Americas. And El Caudillo ("caudillo" is the Spanish term for "military-landowner") was the title generally used by twentieth-century fascist dictator Franco. The implications are nothing more and nothing less than what the facts remain. Many an "identificate MexicanPuertoRican" such as Lima himself has bounced between boroughs of New York City, a descendant of conquistadors whose historical actions here in the Americas could certainly be viewed metaphorically as a search high on "methadone" for "possible euphoria."

Caples quotes in his introduction to Incidents of Travel in Poetry from a personal interview with poet Filip Marinovich, who knew Lima and solicited work from him for publication in Ugly Duckling Presse's 6x6 (an issue which infamously went up in flames prior to distribution), on Lima's later "freewriting" composition process:

It's not like he would write quatrains. He would just freewrite. He even had these Xeroxes of Peter Elbow's freewriting manual from the '70s or '80s, whenever that came out. And he would just freewrite and divide it up into quatrains.... And there was something about that new form that allowed him to write poetry where he felt like he couldn't write poetry before because it was part of the whole vortex of addictions. So he found a new form for it and he was very defensive about that and very proud that he had found a new form after all this struggle.

Here are some such quatrains from the later work:

I would want to prove you wrong, now that you have become the sinner's
Paint and the baksheesh of a glacier in your hand.
I am not the innocent poet that is inspired by faults and someone's
Shortcomings, nevertheless, yours are mine to cherish.

Truths are as real as lingering smells or the relocation a lonely star.
Why must I stare at my face in the morning when I shave? When your
Face is more inclusive and habitable than mine? It would be tragic to
Think the supernova of faults you mention will not become the young

Stars of my universe. I would rejoice in common passion if you thought
Of the grey lines in my head as less advanced than yours. You are surely
A lot wiser than I am: Modern physics will attest to that as my mind has
Chosen, it seems, to see you as you are and not in that cancerous village

You occupy on that childhood swing. My spirit is willing to represent its
Life with yours, if you will permit the grass to grow and the universe to
Fumble its ways through things it does not understand. Snow will be blue
In our lives as if we were the blatherskites of circumstances and entropy.

("A Case of Overwhelming Evidence")

Much of this later work is at first daunting in its onslaught of rich vocabulary, lines loaded with densely clustered phrases, and abrupt, even apparently near-arbitrary, line breaks. However, as with much initially challenging poetry, the further you read the further the work opens to you as you learn to trust in Lima's decisions and become familiarized with his personalized rhythms.

Amazingly, as coeditor Julien Poirier, who also helped edit that Lima issue of 6x6 lost to a house fire, describes: "While Incidents of Travel in Poetry showcases the better part of an eponymous manuscript sent by Helen Lima to Garrett Caples in 2014, the kicker is that our selection is little more than a taste of late Lima." There is ample material for tomorrow's editors and scholars to begin poring over and eventually bring to light. Lima is a poet whose future legacy is full of nothing but promise.