From poet Alice Friman, I have learned many things about the arts, including the domestic arts—how to iron a silk skirt, for example, among other housewifely confidences. Equally likely to share wise advice or a comfortably dirty joke, on the page or in person, Friman is good company, earthy company in the concrete, literal sense of being at ease with the physical earth and its accoutrements. Friman sometimes expresses exasperation with the physical world, using the intimate, even gossipy tones with which one might dismiss a frustrating family member: in “The Birthmark,” for example, she calls the moon a “naked rock in borrowed clothes.” Yet Friman’s exasperation originates in familiarity, in closeness, not in distance from visceral experience. Friman’s poems give the impression of a writer comfortable working with her hands—she’s no airy fumbler—and on her pages we meet speakers accomplishing the day’s ordinary needs, such as “whomping up / a mess of vittles,” as the speaker’s son jokes in “How It Is.” If you were wrapping a package in a room full of poets, struggling to get the bow right, Alice Friman is the one you would intuitively know to gesture toward with your chin, requesting council and a steady hand.
To enter a poet’s stanza is to walk into a room (stanza’s Italian derivative) built by that poet. Guests entering Friman’s stanzas are invited to enjoy designs characterized by her specific and comforting species of competence: Friman attends to the day’s physical demands alongside its spiritual ones. Her stanzas balance and juxtapose physical and metaphysical forces as they collide and diverge—air and earth, mind and body, desire and loss—so that we see how these forces pull on each other, orbit each other, crash together, blow apart, then do it all again. On Friman’s pages, we meet the body in thought. Her multi-layered design sense creates a multi-layered vocal tone one recognizes anywhere it appears, like a familiar melody played in many places. Ever a celebrator, a jovial host, she is never a fluttering one: at Friman’s poetic parties for the page, one enjoys a billowy welcome spiked with briny appetizers.
Friman is a celebratory writer of odes to Beauty with a capital B, and she deals in The Big Subjects. To borrow a gag from Marilyn Hacker, most of Friman’s work, too, engages Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. Yet in her approach to her elevated subjects, Friman is a pragmatist with the, poetically speaking, broken nose and crooked smile to prove it. Therefore, Friman’s understanding of Beauty incorporates its threat; as she described in our recent interview, “There is something in ‘beauty’ that’s a little terrifying . . . beauty isn’t necessarily pretty. They aren’t synonyms for each other. Pretty is pleasing; beauty shakes you up.” Thus, she says, “I strive usually . . . to undercut myself in order to, hopefully, raise ‘pretty’ to a degree of ‘beauty’ . . . sometimes it means a quick switch from lyricism to starkness.” We experience this “quick switch” tactic working on us throughout her poems in the Summer 2011 Georgia Review. Friman’s salty bon mots enhance her celebrations by reminding us of what those celebrations are in spite of, or in addition to—disappointment, betrayal, grief, plain stupidity. In other words, Friman reminds us what the stakes are.
The briny flavor circulating within Friman’s poetic interiors is, for me, exemplified by a bit in “Sonic Boom,” from her collection The Book of the Rotten Daughter (BkMk Press, 2006): “I come from a family of Russians / stubborn as stumps. Crabby, but we live.” There is something of resignation in “Crabby, but we live,” but also a lively variety of self-deprecating humor, and something pugnacious besides. This is one of those small, crisp bites circulating on platters within all of Friman’s stanzas that ground the poet’s flights of lyric celebration. This tinge of bitter in the vocal tone allows me to trust Friman’s tender moments as well as her flights of fancy, for every balloon must have its ballast: something heavy must be dropped in order for the poem to go soaring, and it could whomp on someone’s head. At first, it might seem unwise to trust a poet who is as like as not to drop a sandbag (or an olive pit?) on your noggin, but it’s Friman’s honesty in the acknowledgment of existing threat that allows me to trust that she’s not holding knives I can’t see.
Among the poems featured in the latest Georgia Review, Friman’s pugnaciousness is most immediately apparent in “How It Is,” a poem of natural cycles—their beauty, but also the cruelty of their inevitability. “Late October, / and the pitiless drift / begins in earnest,” the poem begins, yet that “pitiless drift” is preceded by a frenzy of fertility. The speaker’s mimosa, which endured “death fingering the leaves / all summer,” still “plumped its pods, spending / all July squeezing them out, / going about its business, as did / the slash pine and loblolly, spraying pollen—coating / windows, cars, filling every / idle slit with sperm.” Affection and exasperation vie for prominence in this depiction; the speaker seems resigned to, even amused by, the lack of dignity afforded by the compulsory cycles of desire and death. Happily, Friman isn’t the sort of poet to tell us what to do with our own resignation, but neither does she leave us blowing in the breeze with no direction at all; she settles on a middle approach, offering, “Who am I to write the user’s manual / for a life, except to say, / Look at trees, dug in and defiant. / Be like the river. Stick out your tongue.” This tongue image sets a mocking child among the defiant trees, but also shows a fevered child saying “aah” for the doctor. Here, the rascal’s mischief rides with the understanding that mischief is, partly, a response to lack of control over rules—in this case, the incontrovertible rules of mortality. Friman’s whistling is a whistling past the graveyard.
The note of resignation when responding to the natural world’s spectacular shows is quieter in “Red Camellia,” but ever present: it’s woven into the image fabric of the piece. The poem begins, “The bush has reaped her reward: / she cannot hold up her arms.” By “arms,” the poet indicates the camellia’s branches, here personified as human arms, but also the bush’s arms as in her armaments, her weapons. Thereafter, the lines are suffused with martial diction. We encounter the camellia’s arms in a “salute” during a spring season that is “primed,” as a gun ready to fire. Images of imprisonment also catch our attention: “the wasp tending its cells” precedes an image of the camellia waiting “all year / locked in her thin verticals / for the sun’s first hot speech.” Desire, or at least the biological imperative to reproduce, is figured throughout this lush poem, full though it is of “lascivious plumpings,” as a prison in a war zone. So, when we arrive at the speaker’s direct address to the beloved—“Love, I want to talk camellia talk”—it feels fitting that this conversation must happen “quick, before summer’s endless / conscription in a green uniform— / that stifling march into fall.” Meanwhile, the lover is implored to “juice me up red and barbarous: / a phalanx of redcoats, a four-alarm fire.” So even as the speaker says, warmly, “I’m tired of pork roasts and ease / in an easy chair,” we know that when she’s asking her lover to “Bring me one more / season. A reason. Bring it in your hands,” what she’s asking for is no idyll, but the lived experience of passion, with its tirades and restraints. If we were looking for this poem’s kindred spirit in popular love songs, we’d be better off listening to Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” than Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight.”
Even the most somber poem of this trio, “The Birthmark,” throws sparks of Friman’s characteristic insouciance into the heartfelt mix. Set during the small hours in a bedroom where the speaker is watching her husband sleep, “The Birthmark” turns around its apostrophe to the moon. This address begins romantically (Romantically) enough: “Come, I say to the moon, meet the new / Endymion . . .” But the poem proceeds directly to the contemporary shepherd’s snoring, the lover’s insomnia beside him, the daily grind of making syllabi and grading papers. The speaker acknowledges her fall from the vatic poet’s more elevated role: “Forgive us,” she asks the moon, “We serve a shabbier world.” But knowing that “we serve a shabbier world,” that we are “crabby,” that our passions imprison us and do harm to our beloveds, that our most basic tasks are a little silly, does not diminish the felt power of our needs, or the scale and power of the world in which those needs often go unmet. As Friman says in “How It Is,” “What does life mean / but itself? Ask the sea. / You’ll get a wet slap back- / handed across your mouth. / Ask the tiger. I dare you.” Yet Friman seems to be delighted by, and delights us with, her daring, bringing dangerous creatures into the comfortable rooms she’s designed, where we meet both her artistry and her recognition that all artistry must go the way of the camellia’s blooms before the sun’s “hot speech.” Friman’s work serves up both “the tedium of suffering” and the incontrovertible urge to address the moon in the presence of one’s beloved, asking her to “Shine on him nonetheless.”