Is there any more hopeful and heartening life story in American poetry than that of Frank Lima? Born in 1939 in Spanish Harlem to a pair of monstrously unstable alcoholics, he survived their hallucinatory abuses (incest, beatings, razor slashes) and became a dedicated delinquent, started running with a club called the Young Demons (“We were into guns, drugs and territory”), was first arrested in junior high (“a gun”), arrested again (“a gun, etc.”), lost friends, found dope, spent time in jail, then rehab,
And finallyThe mad houses:These were the walls of insomniaWhere Dante became incontinent and feeble,Twirling his eighteen inch Asian penis;Where God sat in an antique electric chairPreaching the gospel of a heaven made of iron;Where doctors and lawyersBurned their faces with lighted cigarettes;Where human excrement was soapAnd patients removed imaginary wires from their throats;Where the clouds of heaven could be bought for a blow job.
There, terrifyingly, is where the poem ends. The life, happily, doesn’t end there with it. Into that hell came the painter Sherman Drexler, regular of the infamous Cedar Tavern, student of Motherwell’s, friend of the de Koonings and the New York School poets, who found the young Frank Lima at a drug treatment facility on an island in the East River and fed him poems by François Villon, Tristan Corbière, Robert Lowell, and William Carlos Williams. Lima seems to have come already to poetry, but was, like Williams in his youth, writing strained pastiches of the British Romantics. Drexler urged him to “write like you talk,” and so he did:
I see window-peoplehanging out of gooey-stick slipssweatingstrangebelow-the-button drawerscrouched junkies in hallwayswith monkey backseating cellophane bananason a g-stringwaitingfor that last bustSpics with cock-combhair frontsear-gulping mambo musiceye-lapping pepperican flowercrotches
Lima’s early work is keyed-up, authoritative, heartsick, dope-sick, documentary, and visionary, all at once. It is, for my money, better than just about all the poetry of ghetto life that came out of American cities in the sixties and seventies. And if this were all he achieved as an artist—arresting street scenes; frank and ugly self-portraits (“pistoled out of the house / after I’d beat you out of your / carfare & lunch money / for my morning fix”); a young man’s love poems, racy and funny and tender and raw; memories of childhood rendered with awful clarity—it would be more than enough. But he was too serious an artist to keep plowing the same field. (“I did not want to become an Icon of ghetto repetition,” he told the poet and translator Guillermo Parra.) The work changed; so too the life. Sherman Drexler took Lima’s poems to Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, they finagled him a scholarship to Adelphi on Long Island, and he was off. From there, he earned an MFA at Columbia, was befriended by great artists, worked as a chef in the Kennedy White House, taught at the New York Restaurant School, had a family, and wrote some of the most engaging, affecting, intimate, mysterious, and transformative poetry I know:
Patchouliit’s only that I think of youas a wagonor a mule with legs thatpoint to the starsor a soft languagewaiting to stroke a mirrorin a swampeveryday is a new instrumentlavishly completedlike a part-time canethe language of night is a prosperous sheetfull of delicate assumptionsthe language of night is fragilelike a warm net full of rumorsI want to give you a box of signaturesthat include all my perfect moments
Constitutionally averse as he was to categorization (“I do not align my lifestyle or work with the second generation New York School. . . . I do not want to be a ‘Latino’ poet. . . . Art is much bigger than that. My poetry is much bigger than that”), Lima’s work is marked by its influences but seems always set apart from them. He is a surrealist without a program, an oracular New York School poet, a kid from the barrio who believed that “Our culture is much richer and classier than glorifying El Barrio.” There is something vast and accomplished in his poetry that is not incompatible with a certain awkwardness, a hard-won innocence. It’s hard to explain, but easy to love:
PostcardYou must forgive me, it is my new life in the fog.My errors disappear like magic from their own exhaustion,and I want to forget the furniture of complicated women.Well, the history of the sun moves farther into the west;below the mountains you can see the stones in a bottle ofbrandy that breaks in the heart of the ocean. —Frank
Frank Lima died last October at 74, and to little in the way of public mourning: a few tributes around the internet; his bio on the Poetry Foundation website belatedly updated; an obituary in the paid section of the New York Times. Thus always to poets, I suppose, but it seems especially ungenerous for one of Lima’s caliber, not to speak of his coterie—loved and admired as he was byAllen Ginsberg, David Shapiro, Ron Padgett, Joseph Ceravolo, and their like. Then again, all that quiet wasn’tvery different from his reception in life. One of his great champions, Guillermo Parra again, notes Lima’s “marginal, semi-invisible position within the New York School.”Not one of his books is in print, much less the fat, fantastical Collected Poems we need.
Until that time, I return as always to the poems uncollected. I never met him, but that doesn’t make me sad. Lima’s generous spirit emanates from his work, rejecting bitterness, seeking only life and more life. I return, too, to the images of Frank Lima on his Inventory: New & Selected Poems (Hard Press, 1997). On the cover is Elaine de Kooning’s bruise-colored portrait of the artist as a young man with a hangover. (“In my efforts to recuperate, I began drinking with Elaine. She began to paint me as I recovered.”) A lean, big-shouldered kid, he hunches darkly on the corner of a bed or a box, cuffs hiked up to reveal his skinny calves and long, pointy shoes. Light and air billow into the room through unseen windows, but they scarcely touch him. An incontrovertible haze of reds and yellows gathers around his head. He stares wearily, droop-eyed, back at the viewer. He is the saddest young man in the world. He collapses everything around him—light, air, color, breath, talk—into himself like a dying star.
On the back jacket, his author photo is that of a middle-aged man with a mustache, a hint of pudge on his frame. He wears, hilariously, a bow tie with jeans, his hands cupping something unknowable (nothing?). He smiles at them in bemused delight. His face says:
I am a fine French chef!
I wear a bow tie with jeans!
There is something amazing in my cupped hands!