Obscura by Frank Paino ISBN: 978-1-949039-07-8 Orison Books 2020 — 81 pages
The first bird was a serpent, green in a tree that dripped apples red as an opened vein, though death, at that time, was only a rumor the blades of sawgrass whispered when combed by the wind’s shrill fingers.
That is the first stanza of the opening poem “The End of All Flight,” the opening poem from Obscura, Frank Paino’s new book. It sets up what is to come: the last line of the poem is “the end of all flight is a falling.” It’s the first of thirty-five poems that are at times breathtakingly beautiful in their language, music, and imagery, yet also dark, heart-wrenching. This book is deeply moving. like no other you have read. After two successful poetry books published by Cleveland State University Press, followed by twenty years of silence, Frank Paino is back with a book that will feed his ardent fans and impress those unfamiliar with his work. Paino’s new book covers several themes: retellings of religious stories based on Catholic saints and biblical stories such as the Cephalophores, Adam and Eve, and Lucifer; ekphrastic poems about photos, sculptures and paintings, such as Vermeer’s “The Astronomer,” and odd, often dark moments in history, from the story of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, to Harriet Westbrook Shelley’s suicide, to Thomas Edison’s last breath captured in a vial. Perhaps the most powerful theme in Obscura is humankind’s inhumanity toward animals, and its consequences—certainly a part of our “falling.” “Cephalophores” tells the story of beheaded saints who rose and walked, “sometimes for miles, / sometimes singing— / until they finally lay down / forever, faces cradled / in the cups of their upturned palms.” Today they are remembered on church windows, in paintings, or as statues on pedestals. Paino says that after four decades they still haunt his sleep, and he wishes he could conjure one up:
I would let them do as they wished with me. Whatever it might take. Anything. Anything at all.
That’s only the second poem. The two following that were so powerfully heartbreaking that I had to set the book aside briefly to contemplate. What makes the impact all the greater is that the stories are based on real people and incidents. “If There Is Such a Thing As Mercy” is about Martha, the last passenger pigeon. Martha is finishing her life in a Cincinnati Zoo cage, where visitors throw sand to wake her from perhaps remembering the great days of delivering messages—before settlers killed them for sport and food, and the amusement of boys “with rakes heaved through the feathered flurry," before poisoned corn and “sulfur burned to choke back each last breath,” until only Martha was left. Even her death is a dishonorable invasion:
And after they found you unyielding and still in the bottom of your cage, came the indignities of ice and scrutiny, of scalpels to release your bowels and the alchemist’s exquisite taxidermy that brought you back to strange half-life, poised on a slender branch to keep, forever, your solitary watch.
Other poems capture this cruelty to animals as well. In “Mercy,” the captain of his ship, unable to sail on a quiet sea and with supplies and fresh water dwindling, makes the decision to throw the horses overboard. First, after a handful of barley, he forces his favorite mare. She “vanishes / in a sickle of sunlight and salt spray only to break / the surface a moment after, blowing the great trumpets / of her lungs.” Then go the rest:
water churning sorrel, bay, dappled grey, until pink veins of blood from brine-singed throats stain the sea like a tincture.
In “Falling,” William Forsyth of the Pavilion Hotel, Niagara Falls, entertains over 15,000 revelers in a “reverse Noah’s ark” by chaining animals to a schooner and sending them over the cataract to their deaths on the rocks below. Afterward, the revelers go back to Forsyth’s hotel for candlelight dining, sex, and sleep that “takes on a dead weight / . . . a tug that will / at last give way to a terrible, ceaseless falling.” Another important animal story is that of “Laika,” the dog sent into space on Sputnik II in 1957. She was a stray roaming the street for three years, a survivor who, despite being quiet and charming, becomes, under the hands of Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky, a wasted victim sent into space where “she burned up from the inside.” From the beginning, the scientists knew they could not bring her back. As Paino says:
And there’s no faith to be placed
in the weary myth of sacrifice; no way to make right
the trust that was betrayed-- the muzzle and mad tongue of it--
how she was thrust into weightlessness into the useless memory of the man
who spoke softly.
And there is much more to come including an invitation to cocktails, dinner, and the unwrapping of a mummy; the embalming of Rosalia Lombardo in Palermo, Sicily; Maria Callas’ tapeworm to keep her thin; the Sokushinbutsu monks whose practice is so severe that they pray themselves into mummies; the execution of Mata Hari, and more. These poems are unflinching in their examination of these moments, many of which are now lost to history—so many examples of sorrow, disappointment, cruelty, and grief. Yet Paino writes with beauty and empathy. He finds the way to honor the victims, to tell their stories, to move us in ways we will not forget. These poems reflect on humankind, the fallen, and they will linger and maybe forever change how we view a dark fact of life.
Maryfrances Wagner's most recent books include The Silence of Red Glass (Bob Woodley Memorial Press, 2018), and The Immigrants' New Camera (Spartan Press, 2018). Poems have appeared in New Letters, Midwest Quarterly, Laurel Review, Natural Bridge, Voices in Italian Americana, Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry (Penguin Books), Literature Across Cultures (Pearson / Longman), Bearing Witness, The Dream Book, An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women (American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation), among others. She is the recipient of a Thorpe Menn Book Award for Literary Excellence and served as Missouri's Individual Artist of the Year for 2020. She edits I-70 Review and lives in Independence, Missouri.