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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics


Review of Jeff Friedman's Third Book of Poetry



Friedman’s poems commonly use a jazzy, two- or three-beat line 
that propels the narrative through a syntax complex enough to produce 
vivid enjambments and lengthy sentences unfolding down the page. 
The resultant brief narratives have the vividness and dynamics 
of lyric and the self-propulsion of good fiction . . . .

In his third collection, Taking Down the Angel, Jeff Friedman continues his exploration and critique of the autobiographical mode of lyric-narrative poetry.  Friedman's poems commonly use a jazzy, two- or three-beat line that propels the narrative through a syntax complex enough to produce vivid enjambments and lengthy sentences unfolding down the page.  The resultant brief narratives have the vividness and dynamics of lyric and the self-propulsion of good fiction, satisfying Pound's injunction that "poetry be at least as well written as prose."
     Friedman's primary subject, continued from his second book, Scattering the Ashes, is a bildungsroman-like exploration of self-development through early schooling, work experience, sexual awakening, and a gradual realization of the humanity of parents.  Leavening this domestic matter are several wrenching poems on biblical subjects that contextualize the apparently personal poems in a larger world of myth and Judaic heritage.  By amplifying the strength of the individual poems and generating an archetypal resonance, these Old Testament poems help give the collection greater weight than most contemporary poetry collections.
     The autobiographical poems, like most of Friedman's work, are characterized by dramatically depicted situations enlivened with careful attention to literal detail and figurative opportunities, as in the opening of "Miss Strong and I":

          When Miss Strong caught me
          during our forty-five minute naptime
          reading a Superboy comic
          she took it away from me and tore
          it apart without hesitation
          the way a tall skinny man
          I had seen on Ed Sullivan
          ripped in half a Southern Bell
          White pages with his hands
          and then held out both halves to the audience.

     The poetry is in the details — "Southern Bell, / White pages" — and in the humor of the association, but also, and more subtly, in the flex of the lines through the syntax, the relentless enjambment that underscores assonance (manSullivanhandshalves) and dramatic emphasis (naptimecomictore).  "Miss Strong and I" is a small masterpiece of comic denouement, and illustrates Friedman's gift for depicting the rueful, regretful, slapstick, and shameful moments of life.
     "Joseph," on the other hand, a free verse poem, typifies the grimmer Old Testament ethos of tragedy and psychological devastation Friedman detects underlying ordinary modern lives.

          I felt the desert enter me
          through the pupils of my eyes, my mouth,
          the pores of my skin.
          I grew heavy with sand
          and heat.

          I thought they might leave me to die
          and the hyenas would rip me
          apart with their powerful jaws
          and the great birds swirling
          at the sun would come down

          to feed on my intestines
          and liver.

     The sufferings of Joseph are as much psychological as physical; eventually he would redeem himself through worldly success, but in this poem he remains suspended between rejection by his brothers and triumph in Egypt.  It is this state of uncertainly and apparent failure that interests Friedman, not Joseph's eventual victory.  Egypt, even before Joseph gets there, is "salt-hard, bitter, seared  / in the fires of my dreaming."  The cruelty of his brothers has embittered even his future success.  Friedman knows that nothing can compensate for this disconnection between Joseph and his family, and this awareness lingers as we read Friedman's poems about his own family, his teachers, co-workers, and childhood friends, all the people whose words, attitudes, acceptance or rejection of him would shadow his future.
     This influx of Old Testament severity into contemporary concerns becomes explicit in "In the Kingdom of My Palm," Friedman's grim elegy for his mother.  Here the old and new worlds mingle, and the tragic vision that propels so many of the ancient stories engenders an archetypal tonality of suffering and loss grounded in expression, in the word:

          From far away
          my mother calls out to me,
          a thread of voice
          that floats through air

          words breathed
          in the darkness.
          Near death
          she sits in a room

          with all her things
          and calls out to me
          with her hands curled
          like irises . . .

     The voice here is not the one of poems like "Miss Strong and I," but of "Joseph," "The Bitterness of the Prophet," and "Jacob," harrowing narratives that implicitly rebuke the Old Testament god for creating such an agonized world.  As "Vigil," Friedman's penultimate poem, warns,

          You must go deeper
          into sleep to bury your fear
          for soon we must rise like breath
          into the bright brutal world
          that never meant to do us
          any good. 

     Some years ago a critic referred to the "often grim task of reading a new book of poetry."  No one reading Taking Down the Angel will find it a grim task, despite its tragic undertones.  Friedman's book is as readable as a novel, but funnier, craftier, starker, and more intelligent than all but the very best prose fiction.  With a few of our other strong contemporaries, Friedman is reclaiming narrative.  He is answering Robert Lowell's call for verse with "no conflict of form and content" and "that kind of human richness in rather simple descriptive language" associated with the greatest short stories and novels, but adding to it a mythical-religious resonance less concentrated genres can't achieve.

Friedman, Jeff. Taking Down the Angel.  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2003. ISBN: 0-8874838-4-4  $12.95 

© by William Doreski


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