Frank Paino, Poet

1994 cleveland arts prize for Literature

Like the young Keats and Shelley, whose work inspired Frank Paino to begin writing poems in the mid-1980s while still an undergraduate at Baldwin-Wallace College near Cleveland, Paino (pronounced Pye-EE-no) found a compelling and powerfully authentic voice early. Within only three or four years, at the same age at which John Keats was writing “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to Autumn,” Paino’s work was beginning to turn up in anthologies of strong new American writing like The Pushcart Prize XV: Best of the Small Presses (1990) and New American Poets of the 90s (1991) and such nationally respected journals as The Iowa Review, Spoon River Quarterly, Crazyhorse, and the Missouri Review, where “Horse Latitudes” won the prestigious Tom McAfee Discovery Feature in poetry (1991).

When Paino’s first collection, The Rapture of Matter, was published by the Cleveland State University Poetry Center in 1991, poet Paula Rankin wrote that it was “almost impossible, reading these poems, to believe they are the ingredients of a first book. So wise, so full of experience and concrete details, they hook us, as few early poems do, into sitting up half the night, rereading. There is no doubt in my mind that Paino is already one of America’s best poets.” Paino’s work was subsequently included in the important anthology American Poetry: The Next Generation, edited by Gerald Costanzo and Jim Daniels (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2000).

With good reason. Novelist Roger Weingarten has spoken of a “riveting narrative gift” and “hellbent . . . gattling-gun ear” and poet Richard Jackson has noted Paino’s “infinitely tender hand.” The citation accompanying the Cleveland Arts Prize, awarded in 1992, recognized not only a distinctive voice, but an impressive “command of the poet’s craft.” However, it was Paino’s poetic vision that drew the most enthusiastic praise. “In an age in which ancient myths and traditional formulations of great spiritual truths have lost, for many, their power to convince and to persuade,” read the award, “you have shown us in the powerful and vivid language of your poems that we still long for truths that do not pale in the light of what we know, or deny that hard-won knowledge.”

A decision to reject a Catholic upbringing that taught, Paino said in a documentary video made for the Arts Prize ceremony, “that you can’t be both spiritual and sexual” had led to a vigorous re-exploration of the religious imagery of that traditionfrom Saint Sebastian thicketed with arrows to “Saint Theresa’s Ecstasy.” In Paino’s second collection, Out of Eden (1997), the poet brings the same sensibility to portraits of such anti-saints as Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, Isadora Duncan and Virginia Woolf, while a Cleveland teacher perishing in the 1908 Collinwood School Fire experiences a Pentecost-like revelation of the meaning of her life. “We / will never turn back toward any paradise where there / is no fire,” writes the poet in “Desire,” “and we have nothing, nothing to lose.” 

Variously described as “passionate,” “edgy,” “fervent,” “seductive” and “heretical,” Paino’s best poems are sublime collisions of the erotic and the spiritual, the poignancy of death and the redemptive power of the human spirit. Poems like “What the Heart Tells Us” and “The Wisdom of the Body” reconfirm for us that our bodies, and all living things, are holy; that love is rooted in our sense of our own impermanence and the loveliness of the finite; and that love, whatever form it takes, is beautiful.

Several of Paino’s most affecting poems deal with the ultimate mystery: death. Several concern the painful death from cancer in 1990 of the poet’s father, Francesco (Frank) Paino, an eminent and well-loved physician who had been instrumental in establishing both the intensive care unit and cardiac surgery program at Fairview General Hospital on Cleveland's southwest side. “The Truth” pictures him, unhooked finally from life support, seeming to “hesitate between two / worlds, the way a child learning to swim glances from / a parent’s hand to the pool’s blue-green shimmer, then back / again . . . as if, already, he were looking back / at us from some vast distance.”

In another poem, Paino suddenly recalls him shoveling out the driveway on a snowy morning, “the muted / huff of metal striking snow like a gasp . . . .” It is in the earnestness of our lives in their brevity, the poet seems to be saying, and the way we touch one another, that we can find our redemption.

—Dennis Dooley


 

Pieta

So much for the angel with a voice like fat spoons of wild honey. So much for the dove who opened his coral beak against the tender flesh of her right ear and brought forth

a globe of blood, bright and heavy as a pomegranate seed. It is not only gods and men who fall in love

with flight. And she was not afraid, only tired of the petty
arguments of virgins who hugged the slim air between their hips and dreamed of being chosen while she yanked

the tails of lizards which clung to the well’s cracked sides those eternal, fiery afternoons. What else would she

 



have said to the angel whose name sounded like a sigh, or somewhere succulent and cool, when he pressed his dusky face
against the plane of her breast and plucked, as if it were

a stringed instrument, the shredded hem of her favorite dress? Thirty-three years she spent in silence, her husband

caressing satiny chests of sweet cedar in his workshop, her strange son perfecting illusions beneath the olives’ leathery leaveswater to wine, wine to blood hooked from his

own thick veins, while she listened to the hot wind murmur never across the dusty floor, each moment strung together



like whispered threats which lead to this. A mother. A son in the cradle of her arms, and broken. Fiat. Not what she’d meant at all. There is no word she knows to take it back.

Whatever he tried to tell her, weight sagging against iron nails, was burned away by the sour sponge pressed to his

parched mouth, those lips which once asked, Who is my mother? like any rebellious son. Now she must let the falling dark undo his furrowed back, glimmer of unclothed ribs, the useless,

pale curve of his sex. There is no way to say the word strangled in the clotted mouths of his wrists. No way to form



the phrase his shattered bones write against her thigh. This is not what she’d meant at all. And the young soldiers who fought over the tunic she wove for him by candlelight,

left it, after all, a small pool of shadow like a dog at her
feet. The space where his body once was filling with night.

Out of Eden
(Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1997)

Cleveland Arts Prize
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