“Obscura,” by Frank Paino

Frank Paino

Reviewed by William Walsh

I remember in graduate school how I admired Frank Paino’s ability to move people with his strength of words and deep painful angst on subjects that neither I nor most poets could write about. I felt his passion for history and the truth his narrators were conveying. Whether the narrator was Paino himself is not important, because the truth is the truth regardless of who speaks it, although I have often wondered: how can you write about anguish without having experienced it? They were, his poems, the work of a tortured soul. It was a tortured Catholic soul that had long ago lost religion that enabled him to render such painful things that, if not taboo, were certainly so personal that even most poets would not mention them.

The loss of faith is a continuing subject in Paino’s newest collection, Obscura, as a declaration in “Swallow” where the speaker passes “an hour or more amongst the wreckage of /  flesh. Long enough to remind me / why I don’t have faith in any god.” There are no more than a handful of poets writing about the same subjects and with the same agony as Paino, who is as one crucified by his past. Throughout Obscura, Paino’s speaker is on the cross, often surrendered to bliss, knowing that beyond this physical world perhaps another world exists, “the means through which each would rise / or fall into eternity.” And yet, here is the quandary—this is a poet who is seemingly an atheist; however, he cannot escape the saints and angels of his childhood or the idea of an afterlife that even his speaker does not believe in. They haunt him into disbelief. Each poem, whether about Paino himself or a historical figure, is a sojourn of exploration into the truth about death, and ultimately reflects back upon the living to ask and perhaps answer those greatest and most important questions. Paino is the only poet I have read in recent years who has the skill and intellect to captivate on this level of poetics.

One of the most powerful poems I’ve read or heard—ever—was about loss of innocence, a young speaker, ringing doorbells on Halloween, one after the other, trick-or-treating, then lured into an unsuspecting situation and raped. I remember as Frank read that poem—the title of which I cannot recall—how I was distinctly brought into the situation, feeling ashamed and horrified at the same time. “Who could do this to a young child?” I thought. I began to understand Frank a little more that evening. This beautiful poem about a horrific event has never left me, nor have the details of his debut collection of poetry, The Rapture of Matter. Obscura likewise leaves an impression, namely about how horrific events can be beautifully rendered. I don’t even want to know the title of that poem—the Halloween one—because that’s where the mystery settles, something between me and time and memory. I remember the experience of listening to Paino read that one evening in July and how I was changed as a poet, and I leave it at that. Paino’s soul was opened for everyone to see that day. It was raw. It had purpose and necessity for being so revealing. And now, some twenty-nine years later, the poems in Obscura haunt me in similar ways. Once read, they burrow into the reader and never leave.

Back in 1991, a few nights after that reading, around three a.m., I was struck by insomnia and decided to go for a walk around the Vermont College campus, and who did I run into but Frank Paino, also suffering a sleepless night. We walked for about thirty minutes, talking poetry and finding an understanding about our lives that were wrought in completely different worlds, both of us misunderstood to one another yet brought together by poetry. The air was stagnant, even at three a.m., but there was a slight fog around the streetlights as we walked around the quadrangle talking about the future. “Who among poets was most likely to go on to success?” we wondered. It never dawned on me then that many of our students would never publish a book, that the drive it takes to be successful is difficult to teach. Frank and I had such grand plans for our own futures and thought many other writers and poets would share our drive. Yet so many faded away. But not Paino. And this latest book is proof.

Here I am, today, with Paino’s newest collection, Obscura, a beautiful book, black and looking as soulless as the sculpture on the cover: “Eternal Silence” by Lorado Taft. However, this book is anything but soulless. It overflows with the soul, with agony, with voices crying out for mercy. Beneath the historical nuances, it asks amid silence where sin begins. Where does sin end? What is in the middle of this journey where everyone falls from grace? The sculpture on the cover is ominous, as is the book. Despite the profound darkness marbling through the poems, there is life to this collection that had me asking myself, “Who could have thought that evil and death could be so beautiful?” Reading Obscura, I recalled Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway and how the alternative to this life could be, in fact, beautiful. Clarissa Dalloway has thoughts that engage the idea that death could be beautiful or a better alternative to her drab, although secure, life. In Obscura, too, death is beautiful. Even when the subject of the poem is not about death, it’s about death, the great unavoidable metaphor.

In “The Execution of Mata Hari,” minute details of action and life—e.g., “She tightens the lace corset. . .”—yield to beautiful descriptions of death:

Nothing left but to let the sabre

drop, catching the day’s

first gold in its decent. . .


to pull hard against cold triggers,

each man praying his is the one

that bears no harm

as eleven bullets blossom

inside the cage of her ribs,

suffusing her heart

with an aching, foreign light.

Even more closely associated with Septimus is “Litany of ‘The Most Beautiful Suicide’”—which is Septimus’s final act, jumping from the window: “Let her step off the ledge as if / beneath each scapula / she feels the itch of wings.”

The embossed lettering of the title and the frame around the sculpture on the handsome cover of this collection are impressive. I am a reader who loves texture, the tactile sensation of a book in the hand. Obscura is weighty and feels good to hold. Perusing the title page and reading the introduction by Nicole Brown, I realized that Paino’s last book, Out of Eden, was published twenty-three years ago. On the heels of successful collections in 1991 and 1997, this up-and-coming rock star of the poetry-biz appears to have vanished for nearly a quarter-century. While every author I know desperately tries to publish book after book, Paino became a ghost-poet, invisible to all but a few people. Why has it taken twenty-three years between collections? I hesitate to ask but could probably discover an answer if I pursued it.  I won’t, though. The situation, clearly, involves quality over quantity.

Where Paino’s early books were more personal and, obviously, youthful, as well as a move away from whatever organized religion he once practiced, Obscura “is, but is not” about Paino himself. He takes the reader on an historical voyage with and about famous people, but also addresses the average, the ordinary, and the uninteresting, which, rendered as poetry, shine brilliantly. In his hands, walks in the back alleys of an underworld with an ugly history become beautiful, even desirable or necessary.

“Museum of the Holy Souls in Purgatory” guides readers through the religiosity of altars, cathedrals, angels, devils, and the nuances of the church. The speaker, throughout, sadly, is held captive in a purgatory that he cannot escape, doing the best he can to explain himself both to the world and to himself. Paino is one of the “almost-saved,” searching for a salvation of a different nature with god, trying to grasp a physical love that seems evasive. It may be evasive to the flesh-and-blood poet, but not so in his poetry, where it is found:

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 umber,

the ghost of your lips still warm on my mouth.

Attempting to find solace in the religious past, Paino unravels the mystery hiding “its dark side / in the shadow of our shadow.” See, for instance, “Something About Her Mouth That Makes Us Want To,” in which the speaker is (or was) shamed by religion. This theme continues in “The Lily of Ecuador”: “as if the angel always besides her might / find himself unable to look away for shame.”

Here are a few stunning lines that characterize this marvelous collection:

  • “we may finally / turn, each to the other, and forgive everything.”
  • “presses cold fingers to the knot in his throat / where cancer’s taproot feeds its deadly flower.”
  • “it will be hours / before the last of them stop knocking the keel.”
  • “her / flared nostrils as she buries her muzzle / in the barley cupped in his outstretched palm.”
  • “Twenty minutes and most of the dying / was over.”
  • “hundreds still held within / that timber tomb.”
  • “the man who hangs lifeless on a cross too heavy / to shoulder into the mountain’s anoxic atmosphere.”
  • “the cruel amusement of boys.”

The micro-biography of “Edison’s Last Breath” features events that may or may not have occurred. It’s filled with excellent details about a test tube in the Henry Ford Museum that contains Edison’s last breath, “a slender vial” held “above his pallid lips,” then a “seal of cork. A crust of paraffin.” How mesmerizing, and odd, to think that Edison’s last breath is held lifeless in a test tube.

“Descent,” about Harriet Westbrook Shelly’s death in 1816, is one of the strongest poems in the collection. Consider this line: “the hem of the ivory dress / soon to be her shroud. ” And this one: “She thinks about / the soldier she met in June, how in his fumbling rush he’d only partially / disrobed. And the sound of his medals made—like faint applause— / when his body shuddered above her.”

The speaker in “Cephalophores” first hears the word cephalophores—those saints who were beheaded and then forced to carry their head—at age twelve from a nun he’d fallen in love with. The cephalophores “haunted” him during “thunderstorm nights” when he was a child and, forty years later, continue to haunt him beyond his “childish fears,” “the headless” keeping him “awake.” It is a charged, sexual poem regarding pre-pubescence and adulthood: “What wouldn’t I do to conjure / the cephalophores / to lie with me upon this shroud / of twisted bedsheets.” It ends with the speaker willing to do anything to lie with the decapitated saints:

I would let their blood pool

upon my pillow

in the split moonlight

I would let them

do as they wished with me.

Whatever it might take.

Anything. Anything at all.

My favorite poem in the collection is “Laika,” which, of course, is about the Soviet dog launched into space in 1957. A dog lover, I know Laika’s fate (unavoidable death when rocketed into low orbit around the earth) and how she “was chosen / for a kind of brute salvation.” After the dog’s death, the world is changed forever. The innocence of a faithful and obedient dog plays against the horrific background of “everything it would take / to lift a thirteen-pound mongrel into history”—a mongrel who roamed the Soviet street for three years as a stray. Even if we know Laika’s fate, we desire a different outcome, an alternative history in which Laika somehow survives. Paino knows, however, that “there is no faith to be placed / in the weary myth of sacrifice; / no way to make right / the trust that was betrayed.” One wonders whether the Soviets could have found a cat or a few rats instead to fly to the moon? No, it was Laika, a cute, adorable street-urchin of a dog, a survivor of the streets, playful and innocent, her death a tragedy.

Paino has a mature intellect and cannot escape the religion of his past. From the bowels of his dark cathedral, he has journeyed to a purgatory where he waits, and awaits, his poetry battling the remaining demons. Long overdue, this formidable collection announces to the world that this fascinating poet has returned.

Click here to purchase this book:

Leave a Reply