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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Jeff Friedman's Fourth Book of Poetry




The poet delicately balances the fantastic and the banal,
the ordinary and the magical.  Friedman is writing poems
that are fully realized by the details of grief or displacement.

It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that Jeff Friedman is a master ventriloquist and Black Threads, his fourth collection of poetry, an anthology of entwined yet disharmonic voices.  Many poems in Black Threads are from the perspectives of mythic figures, family members and strays of all kinds.  These poems entrust themselves to the reader like confidences whispered in a willing ear.  In describing impediments impossible for people to overcome — the entropy they endure and call their lives — Friedman displays a political consciousness that takes as its subject those who live among “the alien corn” (as in the poem “Miriam”), the exiles who can’t speak the native tongue, longing for home.  Friedman’s poetry gives them voice. 
    The collection begins with “The Golem in the Suburbs,” in which the legendary golem,

        from the dust, from four letters
        of the alphabet repeated in the right

        sequence seven times
        from the secret names of God…

is described like any teenage boy spawned by an uncaring father, roaming a housing development.  This golem, however, has killed his maker and the loneliness of the monstrous is conveyed in unadorned details:

        I stumble through the suburbs, looking
        for someone I can talk to, but no one
        comes out of the silent wood houses.

    The poet delicately balances the fantastic and the banal, the ordinary and the magical.  Friedman is writing poems that are fully realized by the details of grief or displacement.  The poet blesses his characters, as Coleridge described it, “unawares” — unbidden and unthanked but with a deep understanding.  These people — “Dorothy / who still drives, but only to the synagogue for free lunches.” (“Clocks”); the salesman “thumbing through / a thumb-size version of the Testament and marking in red the passages he would use to make his sales pitch to the goyim,” (“The Long Heat Wave”); and the fallen angel, who speaks the language of his new home,  “in the streets or in the stores, but only / with great effort, and …they mocked him” (“The Surviving Angel”) — are members of the silent majority — to use Nixon’s famous phrase not to refer to obdurate conservatives but to the stolidly suffering.  The unwilling survivors.
    Faithful readers may recognize characters from Friedman’s other books, A Record-Breaking Heatwave, Scattering the Ashes and Taking Down the Angels: the lonely sister dancing in her room, the angels, the long-suffering mother and aggressive yet diminutive (and diminishing) father.  Here they are portrayed with a heightened, even breathless attention as this imagined life taps a rueful lyricism and longing for beauty.  Like good fiction, these poems have a strong sense, not only of place, as so many poems do, but of character; mother, father, sister, even the poet himself becomes a persona — an adolescent longing for release of any kind, a frustrated lover, a mournful son.  For them, tarring a roof becomes an act of faith because it attests to a belief that they will still be around for a little while longer.  (“Buying Another Year”)  Which is not to say that the poems in Black Threads are solemn or pompous or overly concerned with the victimage of the working classes.  Many of these poems are masterpieces of musical facility.  The whimsical “Blessing for the Hats” is matched in the fanciful temporal structure of such poems as “Folding Fan,” that describes many actions all taking place at the same time:

        …For a moment, everything
        holds still—my mother at the window,
        my sister with her leg cocked,
        ready to stomp down on the floor,
        my uncle’s lips puckered against the air,
        the silver chimes hooked above the window,
        long tubes glinting—and then
        my father arrives—suit rustling—
        swift s a mailman and noisy as traffic,
        with gifts for everyone and crumpled
        dollar bills dropping out o this pockets.

An excess of activity builds to the breaking point then pauses — everything goes still — until the father arrives home.  The effect is of a breath held and released.  It is worth noting that the character of the poet’s father is here as mythical as those in other persona poems: Noah or the Gollum or Jacob or Lot’s wife.  He is the man with big dreams and big cars and a wallet increasingly empty of cash.  His tragedy is the core heartbreak underlying the book as he folds under the weight of the American Dream.  Friedman shows us that there are fallen angels of many kinds, all of them estranged through conception or misconception, thrown to earth by mysterious and unfriendly forces into factories, hot suburbs, and apocalyptic cityscapes.
    Whatever comfort is possible in this book comes from Nature.  In moments of surprise or grief, the poet turns to, for instance, a bat that is very nearly human:

        …he is no more
        than a mouse who clings to the rafters,
        a mammal who squeezes his eyes
        shut against the light, trying
        to get a little sleep.
                    [“Watching the Bat”]

A bat which “quivers / like a dark ear picking up every / word we say…waiting for me to call it a night.”  (“Night of the Bat”)  In these two poems, the poet uses clichéd phrases in unusual contexts, but he cannot hide his profound respect for nature beneath a city boy’s nonchalance.  Here Nature is, to cite Coleridge again, “the one life”; that is, in Black Threads “each thing has a life of its own and we are all one life.”  Often Friedman turns to descriptions of nature to cap or redeem the tragedy of a loss of innocence.  As in the poems discussed earlier, the act of description, of re-creation, becomes an act of prayer or blessing.  Poems like “Nuevo Loredo,” “Watching the Bat," and “New Car,” mourn what is lost: family, a city, a way of life, and nature itself.  Others, such as “Outside” and “The Promised Land,” are paeans to coming death — they read as love poems to death in that death offers release from life-in-death.  This love — almost morbidly sensual — is in its most extreme in “Hymn to Your Tongue” and in the beautiful couplets that close “The Surviving Angel”:

        Now he remembered
        The sound of striped bees hitting the windows

        And the great sighs of angels
        Stretching their long, feathery limbs after love.

    The poems in Black Threads are brilliant interior monologues, as engrossing as listening in on the secret thoughts in our neighbors' minds.  We can only hope that Friedman’s next book contains some longer narratives, extended poems in which the characters begin to speak to each other.

Friedman, Jeff. Black Threads. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2007. ISBN: 0887484603  $14.95


© by Celia Bland


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