A review of Frank Dark by Stephen Massimilla

Review by Cheryl A. Passanisi

Frank Dark
by Stephen Massimilla
Barrow Street Press
September 2022, Paperback, 112 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1736607565

The cover of “Frank Dark”, painted by the author who is also a visual artist, is a portrait of a man’s face with the image of a fish superimposed upon it with the wall-eye of the fish covering the man’s right eye, which has a haunting effect as well as sharpening the focus.  It appears as though the man is appropriating the fish’s sight but the dark pupil surrounded by yellow also creates the corona of a solar eclipse.  And throughout “Frank Dark” we appropriate the sight of the author and experience his “seeing” and “not seeing”. 

Indeed, Massimilla’s sight and life were threatened as he explains in “What You Don’t Want to See”:  “An aneurysm, say, a vessel ballooning/behind the optic nerve; if not/for prompt surgery//I wouldn’t be writing this…”  In denial of his condition: “The front sac//of the organ drained/of fluid, I fixed the car brakes/instead of going to see//a doctor.  My instinct was/to try to push my eye up/back into the//skull”.  A harrowing experience: “leaving just the hook/of hurt…/vitreous stalactite.”  Yet, because of his talents, we are brought into those critical moments in his life: “reading about suicide//makes print on/the paper break down: cracked poetry, out of focus,//the double i in the page – /corner just two snaked incisions”.  

The book is replete with experiences of mental and physical crises, death and ghosts.  Many themes resonate with the cover exploring sight/vision, the eye, the sea, the shore, and harbors.  Imagery of light/lightning, the moon, lamps, clock, and swans recur throughout the book. The poems also display a sort of PTSD in the aftermath of near death experiences that he explores and shares with the reader.

These recalled episodes of loss, health crises, and suicide attempts are difficult material to write because of the emotionally charged content.  In some of the poems this difficulty is transmitted in shortened lines, surprising syntax and frequent enjambments which cause a sort of stuttering, a sharpness that requires the reader to slow down and live each recounted trauma empathically.  In some poems the rhythm dances; in others it is an engorged river ready to sweep everything away.

Part IV of the book contains the title poem “Frank Dark” and starts a series of poems that imply a Dantesque Inferno journey.  The first line of the poem: “Because you do not see” referring to his illness, aneurysm and near-death experience but this is also directed to the reader not “seeing”, not comprehending the “Impenetrable confirmation/That will not touch the truly human/Wronged, dirty-star, light dispossessed”.  In the next stanza “At least to what I love, I know/A crack of blue glare in the woods” opens the journey into the woods, the unknown, the darkened corners, the mystery.  Bravely he says: “Nothing I say matters… I could give you goat water now”.  Then: “Melting into words, savagery/I tell you//And ache too deep for Dog…”  In the journey through the life’s crises, we will encounter the unthinkable, unsayable but the important thing is that we become vulnerable, open to what we encounter and acknowledge it: “Where you emerge from no mist/No false choice of sunlight to slip/Into mind, where the death-weather persists…”

In the next poem “Dark Spot, Midnight, Midtown” a Beatrice emerges: “…under celestial exits/in a lone hotel that only…//a woman/on a leopard coverlet re-poses/…Linked and lacquered at her window//her face steeled//in flashes of many marquees…”  And: “her breaks with the past/in dark spots where the way was lost,//where parting propellers, or horses/and sabers cracked through…”  A galloping rhythm carries through the dismal, eerie scene.  She is rejected but persists: “Even this night cannot frame me, she thinks/its windows lit up like her teeth.”  Several places in the poem she is illuminated in flashes; even ignored she finds the way forward is inward, contemplative on her leopard coverlet.

“Dark Wood Dressed in Metal” is the next poem and the title recalls the Dante quote: “I found myself in a dark forest, for the right way was lost.”  Again, in the first line we encounter the issue of sight: “Your star-blind uncle/survived his North Sea plunge”.   This recalls his uncle’s harrowing experience in WWII: “hunt for morphine capsules/in a crushed U-boat. But now he sleeps//hooked up to a scuba tank at home.”  Soldiers and sailors were given morphine packets to take in case of injury in the field or on ship.  Now the uncle is oxygen dependent and probably has PTSD from the trauma of war.  Massimilla takes us through other family traumas: mother has chemo; father’s brain “rage of spiders, eaters of love and trust”.  Then: “You yourself are dying… you’ll collapse a lung—like some other/victim ferried alive toward the spillways.”  The journey continues: “mahogany/and translucent as a gondola’s reflection//a poling hand gloved with a shadow.”  The process of disease is overwhelming and costly: “Disease will mean the loss of every branch” and leads to “pewter light, circled by//imperial moths/examining you”.  This gets to the objectification of the body by the medical profession trying to determine the cause and progression of disease, necessary yet alienating. 

“Lowell Harbor” talks of a friend or loved one’s suicide attempt: “I saw you through an oval window/floating, your dress//a moth bobbing in a water glass//you were barely a light-shaft shifting/over the beach to the floor//of the sea”.  The lovely beach scene is disturbed by the figure: “headed out on the sand road, quiet/as light, feline and unreasoning in leaf-shade//…no longer worried by the salt wind.”  A recurring image of clocks/clock faces appears in the last section denoting alarm and thresholds of passage: “on the phosphic dial of the alarm clock –about to sound–/the old arc of teeth.”  This startling image invokes a sense of arrest for the person intent on self-destruction so that: “the sight of a pair of cats licking their back paws/caught you” and somehow pulled this person out of the trance that would lead over that threshold to self-harm.

The poem “In the Clinic After Quasimodo” tenderly sums up where we have been as a society and the writer’s own journey: “After the rain of cherry blossoms/the first flood of plague and panic/the rupture and pulse of protest//another fierce comet burst//…bringing more blindness for us…”  Massimilla watches over the illness of a loved one helpless: “like Jonah/and his berth in the guts of the whale//…They’d suddenly sealed/your throat and chest/in a limbless mannequin of plaster.”  He reaches for the clock again: “with the luminous numbers/spilling watery light/over your fretful sleep”.  The whole world is raw and vulnerable: “the traffic signals bleed bright red/down the abysmal avenue/…I turn my face with yours toward the voice/… to the enormous/gaping of the dead…then the soundless bawl…”  The language throughout this poem is elegant, subdued and the desperation just beneath the surface.  The gut wrenching “soundless bawl” emerges at the end as a punctuation to the “limbless mannequin” and “painkillers on the nightstand”.  The poem hints that even our personal losses are shared and communal as, during the pandemic, we had a glimpse. 

The lyric of “Slow Storm” gathers and then unleashes nature’s ferocity giving the impression of someone stranded out at sea while a storm takes hold: “My aspiration ruined/not even one plank of dock in sight//you won’t wait for the prow unescorted/by dolphins through dead/space–…from our lost islands of thought…half-lights of Tallahassee.”  The intensity builds, becomes more frantic and haunted by “buzzard wing”, “reptile’s-eye-view of living/meat”, and “television/nerve-bank closing down.”  Then: “one shipwrecked washer-/woman wept/her mop-top an incandescent neuron, a star/on the vast floor of emptiness.”  The reader can feel the wind and spray churning and becoming a threat even as the writer’s focused observations astonish: “the quenched asterisk of your eyelashes//no other proof that God saw/just the aqua glimmer of your gaze.”

“Full Cooler” captures an idiosyncratic image of clouds on the horizon that broadens, delights and intrigues: “frozen schools/of mackerel in a faded scuba-/shot. Leafless/spaces blink beyond/faint boats, fog/horns…”  It captures the whole scene of Long Island Sound in a “sideview/mirror cross-/hatch the bleary lunar rim: glint of fish/bones on a dim-/lit plate.”  

The whole collection alternates personal loss with communal experience in stunning images, provocative rhythms, and a compassionate gaze.

About the reviewer: Cheryl Ann Passanisi was born and raised on the central coast of California and went to school at California State University, Long Beach, and University of California, San Francisco where she earned a master’s degree in Nursing. She lives on the San Francisco peninsula and works at a teaching hospital as a nurse practitioner. She is active in local community theater and opera chorus.