Book Review

In Frank Paino’s long-awaited poetry collection, Obscura, readers are treated to a feast of visceral and utterly haunting poems that interact with each other as artifacts in a museum whose collections span centuries and topics. These poems all have an eye on the oddity of life, the larger story at the heart of ourselves that continually haunts us. The opening poem, “The End of All Flight,” for example, acts as an invitation into the archeology of humanity’s darker impulses seen through the lens of myth, with an attention drawn to three birds:

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.

It is suitable that Obscura begins with a reference to Genesis, given the heavy biblical overtures throughout the collection. From the book’s outset, there’s a clear establishment of momentum, of faith and sound, and the poem ends with the lines “the end of all flight is a falling”—which gives readers a real sense for where Paino intends to carry them: Come, descend into this hell.

In every sense, Obscura is an immersive experience. Paino has a continual focus on space in his poems, as in the space found within a topic, how deep he can go and how vivid he can make it for readers. And Paino isn’t shy about pointing blame, either. For example, “If There Is Such a Thing as Mercy,” a poem on the last living passenger pigeon, he takes a hard look at humanity’s impacts on the natural world:

But that was before a century of settlers came,
insatiable for food and sport and the cruel amusement
of boys with rakes heaved through the feathered flurry,
before a single round of buckshot would tumble
a dozen or more from the wing-thick cloud
without the trouble of taking aim

In Obscura, the epigraphs for many poems are peculiar, which adds to the intrigue of the whole. One example is in “Falling” where the epigraph details a hotel owner who would send living animals over the Niagara Falls as a way of attracting more customers. Paino paints an urgent picture for readers: “to watch this ‘reverse Noah’s ark’ carry her startled / freight over the lip of eternity.” In this poem, and in many throughout the collection, Paino ties humanity’s treatment of animals to biblical themes, as if to ask readers what we as humans mean when we say godly or godliness, implying perhaps that having power over anything is a kind of evil, a reference to the horrors we’ve done with such power.

Another example of a curious epigraph appears in “Plunder,” which opens with an invitation to a Victorian mummy unwrapping party. Paino takes account of the troubling situation, offering these chilling and darkly humorous words that stand alone as a stanza: “Silence and a laugh. / Silence and a shiver.”

There is a musicality in Paino’s poetry, the dance of resonant line after resonant line, each word carefully chosen and earned. It is this precision that showcases Paino’s talent as a poet. And Paino may even offer, to some poets, a lesson in craft. Each poem is so exquisite in its dexterity. Take the alliteration in “Hell’s Gate”: “The swift sizzle / of a match spark on the hay-tindered floor / of the forward hold—heavy hinges swung / toward the hasp”—the interaction between sound and meaning is to me the sweetest and most meaningful of music.

In Paino’s recurring examination of history—the obscure that we hold and don’t—Paino excavates what meaning we create behind our acts of living, what haunts us at the furthest edges of all we carry. He takes readers by the hand and leads them deep into the caves of themselves, shining a light upon the darkness, through the fog of life, to question the why of all things. Indeed, there is an utter darkness throughout the whole of Obscura, in coming to grips with mortality as in “Armageddon,” “Edison’s Last Breath,” or “Laika” which holds, perhaps, a key message of the collection:

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—

In this poem, the ideas of “myth” and “faith” collide. These two terms hold similar definitions, yet are also different in that their usage gives away what the speaker’s own viewpoint is on truth. Paino questions what sacrifice really means in “Laika,” as it depends on what is sacrificed and who is doing the sacrificing—indeed, there could be more madness than valiancy.

Obscura becomes, at its heart, an exploration of humanity’s dark recesses, and what we as humans today can do to move beyond it. Paino excavates the facts of this life on earth so filled with a storied past, and the book seems to culminate in the poem “To Lucifer,” which I don’t want to give away, so I’ll let the opening lines where Paino speaks directly to Satan, suffice:

And you, most beautiful of all god’s
angels, formed from the first rib
of sunlight to break the black
breathlessness of space—
what are we to make of your falling

Indeed, fallenness permeates the whole of the collection. But fallenness in Obscura is more centered upon humanity than it is on angels and demons, making the collection an interrogation of the body. There is a comfort in pleasure because of its shortness, an odd consolation against the haunt of eternity—and even eternity is just a face in the mirror that’s not a face so much as it is a collision of preceding faces.

Thus, I found myself asking: How do we progress beyond suffering? How do we heal and make lighter the load of living?

These are questions that beat in the dark heart of Obscura. For example, “Something About Her Mouth That Makes Us Want To . . .” contains at its start an epigraph that describes how the visage of CPR training dolls have been modeled from the face of an actual drowned young woman from the 1880s. It is interesting to consider then, as Paino does in the poem, whether this choice was made with perverted sexual intention or as an innocent teaching tool to truly better the world.

In the book’s final poem, “Swallow,” Paino continues this exploration of what meaning the body may offer:

We passed an hour or more amongst the wreckage of
so much flesh. Long enough to remind me
why I don’t have faith in any god. Long enough
to make the lovers who moved ahead of us press
so close I knew their night would end sooner
than most in the comfort of their rumpled bed.
What better salve for sadness than such bliss?

Indeed, a salve for sadness is bliss. And how do we seek it? How do we make of ourselves, and what’s around us, a comfort? The beauty in Obscura is not that it offers any clear answers; the beauty lies, instead, in the timeless questions Paino poses, leaving us, as readers, to construct our own answers, to look with clarity at our own reckoning.

About the Reviewer

Daniel Lassell is the author of Spit (Michigan State University Press, July 2021), winner of the 2020 Wheelbarrow Books Emerging Poetry Prize selected by Gabrielle Calvocoressi, as well as a chapbook, Ad Spot (April 2021), from Ethel Zine & Micro Press. His recent poetry appears in the Southern Humanities Review, River Styx, Birmingham Poetry Review, The Pinch, and Prairie Schooner. Growing up, he raised llamas and alpacas on a farm in Kentucky. Today, he lives with his family in Colorado. Visit his website at