Sandra Fees on Stephen Massimilla’s Frank Dark

The cover art of Stephen Massimilla’s newest book, Frank Dark, is a self-portrait. It depicts one human eye and a super-imposed lizard face with one eye. This artwork is especially noteworthy because it is poet’s own painting. With it, he foreshadows the surreal style of the poems within the pages of the book and the themes of seeing and being seen. The collection searches for new ways of seeing amidst personal and societal threats of indifference and loss. 

Drawing from visual art, music, Eastern philosophy, and natural phenomenon, the collection creates a multilayered and, at times, bewildering and unsettling portrayal of the self and the world. Organized into four sections, the 54 poems are written predominately in couplets and tercets with a liberal amount of white space. Their layout on the page is consistent with the themes of the collection, maximizing the visual impact of the poems and inviting the reader to slow their pace and pay closer attention. 

The poem, “What You Don’t Want to See,” offers us a window into the impetus for these poems. Here, we gain an important insight into the poet’s personal experience with darkness. The poet experienced a threat to his eyesight. He developed “an aneurysm . . . a vessel ballooning / behind the optic nerve.” The poem ruminates on the seriousness of the risk. The aneurism not only threatened the poet’s eyesight but also presented a risk to his identity. If it had not been “for prompt surgery / I wouldn’t be writing this / today,” admits Massimilla who relies on his vision as both a visual artist and poet. Without his eyesight, the sense of self would disintegrate, and the poet would be “unable to escape / the dissolving face.”

The opening poem, “Aurora,” encourages a new way of looking, even when the light is sparse, even when things seem most hopeless. Though darkness threatens our ability to envision “other shorelines,” even when the night “is too long with no love,” images can still break through. The northern lights, for example, can “rip ... / that dry screen of night.” Observed from the balcony, the aurora provides glimmers of possibility, and “the chill grants . . . ripples / of light.” There, in the presence of these extraordinary light displays, the poet has

. . . visions of this shoreline other shorelines cannot know,

each rip let loose,

that dry screen of night.


On the balcony I’ll meet the orange air, waking for a sign of prey,

scanning for where I might have

begun in the darkness.

The collection scans the darkness, taking a frank look at our human predicament. “Last Poem” warns that we humans are in trouble. The problem is 

. . . each spot

of life is in trouble, but poised

to show us what untrained 

observers refuse to notice

the ubiquitous, particulate facts

of transit, our unscripted

planet whipping through

the universe, though maybe

that’s taking things

too far.

Untrained observers will miss the opportunity to notice the “unscripted / planet whipping through / the universe.” But those willing to attend to what matters might yet turn things around and bear witness to a cosmological story of light. The poem doesn’t offer an easy remedy, nor are we left on a high note. To do so, we are warned, might be “taking things / too far.”

Despite natural wonders like the northern lights, people are too easily distracted. “Misdirection: A Poem” describes how easily people lapse into “benign indifference.” They are willing to believe in “just about anything.” Things that matter, meanwhile, like poetry, have lost their power to bring inspiration and enjoyment. Not only does poetry fail to provide a “cure for death,” it can’t even produce a “line suitable / for [the] eulogies” of the poets themselves. The trouble, it seems, is that people look in the wrong direction. They ask the wrong questions and fail to “appreciate the actual people who have paid / that price so that others can benefit.” 

The shortest poem in the collection, “Attempt at Bare Geography,” stands out for its brevity and serves as a sort of mantra. 

Our first sound is a cry.


Then it takes too long

to realize we must be quiet to begin

to hear the quiet in our lives


before the quiet beyond our lives begins.

With these five lines, Massimilla calls us to embrace the quiet and listen to our lives. To do so is to begin to rewrite the world. 

Sandra Fees is the author of two chapbooks, The Temporary Vase of Hands (Finishing Line Press, 2017) and Moving, Being Moved (Five Oaks Press, 2017). She lives in southeastern Pennsylvania where she is a Unitarian Universalist minister and past poet laureate of Berks County (2016-2018). Her poems have been published in The Comstock Review, Whale Road Review, Moon City, and Witness, among other journals. Her work was longlisted for the 2021 Frontier Open, and won The Ekphrastic Review’s 2022 Cat Contest. She has been a finalist in Witness’s 2022 Literary Awards, Breakwater’s 2023 Peseroff Prize, and Sweet: A Literary Confection’s 2022 Prize. Her work was also a semifinalist in Nimrod’s 2021 Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize and Crab Creek Review’s 2022 Annual Prize, and received honorable mention in The Common Ground Review’s 2021 Poetry Contest. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In addition to poetry,she writes creative nonfiction with a piece forthcoming in The Citron Review. Her poetry book reviews have been published by Tupelo Quarterly and elsewhere. She is president of Berks Bards, which hosts a local monthly featured reader and open mic series in Reading, Pennsylvania, and a poetry reader for The Common Ground Review. She holds a Master of Arts degree from Syracuse University where she studied creative writing, and Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Lancaster Theological Seminary.