Blog | Poetry

Frank Lima, 1939–2013

March 26, 2014

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 finally
The mad houses:                      
These were the walls of insomnia
Where Dante became incontinent and feeble,
Twirling his eighteen inch Asian penis;
Where God sat in an antique electric chair
Preaching the gospel of a heaven made of iron;
Where doctors and lawyers
Burned their faces with lighted cigarettes;
Where human excrement was soap
And 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-people
 hanging out of gooey-stick slips
     sweating
     strange
 below-the-button drawers 
      crouched junkies in hallways
 with monkey backs
    eating cellophane bananas
     on a g-string
      waiting
     for that last bust
     Spics with cock-comb
    hair fronts
   ear-gulping mambo music
   eye-lapping pepperican flower
    crotches

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:

Patchouli
 
it’s only that I think of you
as a wagon
or a mule with legs that
point to the stars
 
or a soft language
waiting to stroke a mirror
in a swamp
 
everyday is a new instrument
lavishly completed
like a part-time cane
 
the language of night is a prosperous sheet
full of delicate assumptions
 
the language of night is fragile
like a warm net full of rumors
 
I want to give you a box of signatures
that 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:

Postcard
 
You 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 of
brandy 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!

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Comments

This intelligent and deep article is an important first step toward readers rediscovering Frank Lima's poetry. Alvardo touches on the life and the work's best qualites wtih accuracy and passion and avoids the popularity contest metrics that guide too much criticism these days.

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