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Strange Fruit And Stranger Dreams In The Deep South

Steve Stern's most recent book is called The Book of Mischief.

I'm about to make insane claims for a book, so the skeptics among you can stop reading now. It's called The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You — an outrageous title, I know. Plus, it's an epic poem, over 500 almost entirely unpunctuated pages in its original edition. Are you still with me? Then trust me, it's like no other book in our literature.

Its author, Frank Stanford, has been celebrated in song and story since his death in 1978. His life was a legend he was not above exploiting: He was abandoned as a baby and educated by monks ("When the rest of you / were being children / I became a monk / to my own listing imagination."); he was devilishly handsome; adored by women; and dead by his own hand before he was 30. In his short life, he distilled the reckless energies of his childhood into an immense, wonderstruck mythology; he poured his vision into countless poems and especially into the colossal cauldron of The Battlefield, where it overflowed.

Francis, the book's adolescent narrator, is clairvoyant and fearless: "I will open my mouth in parables," he boasts. "I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world." But the boasts, somewhere between Beowulf's and Davy Crockett's, are as tongue-in-cheek as they are in earnest. By the same token, his quest for justice, vengeance and love is as farcical in the daylight world as it is heroic in the realm of his dreams. It's a young man's book, and as his friend poet C.D. Wright says, "If you're not young and crazy, it may be too late."

Francis' exploits are wild, hilarious and sublime, mixing picaresque antics with an otherworldly music. In one episode, he's bound by horse thieves in a boat full of snakes and rescued by a lunatic cousin of Ernest Hemingway's old fisherman; in another he's seduced by a bereaved mother who performs cunning tricks with an electric toothbrush.

Steve Stern is also the author of <em>The Wedding Jester</em>. He teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York.
/ Sabrina Jones
Sabrina Jones
Steve Stern is also the author of The Wedding Jester. He teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York.

Stanford spent his childhood summers in river camps along the levees that his adoptive father was building, and The Battlefield's cast of characters — with names like Tickle Willey, Baby Gauge and Born-in-the-Camp-With-Six-Toes — is largely inspired by his black friends of those days. The book's dialect, like its conscience, is derived from Francis' identification with the Southern black experience.

A land surveyor by trade, Frank Stanford never bothered to distinguish between the haunted landscape of his mind and the one he ranged about on Earth. When Francis travels with Freedom Riders through the civil rights-era South — through clouds of dirt dobbers and snake doctors, under trees still hung with strange fruit — the bus he rides is also a ship of death upon which he's stowed away.

The logic of the book is a kind of dream logic, cockeyed and ecstatic, and its narrator is on the kind of journey from which no traveler returns. "All of this is magic against death," declares Francis, which is as good a definition of the book's intent as any. Savagely beautiful, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You is like a great Southern gothic fun house illuminated by lightning. Exploring its mysteries makes you feel not only intensely alive but compelled to for God's sake do something about it.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Annalisa Quinn.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Stern