Shining Rock Poetry Anthology

A Retrospective Essay on Her Work

by Alice Friman

 

"For a woman to write a poem"


For a woman to write a poem
is loaves and fishes,
leprous skin come clean.

Did you think it was Grace?
A dove through the kitchen window
hanging a golden fleece
in the refrigerator?

If Grace,
it's Grace self-given.
Self-crowned.
Tight. With thorns.

Poems wind their legs around my throat,
slide to the bottom of my chest
where they sit, brass-legged and silent.
Only between things does one come out:
stubborn as a weed through a crack
or guilty as a blood spot on the sheets. 



This is an early poem, written almost forty years ago. But perhaps it's as good a place as any to start talking about my work and its trajectory, because I think the piece still holds up, points the way. Poems are little miracles, not necessarily because of their individual worth, but the simple fact of their having been written at all. I started writing poems because I loved the process--getting lost in an image or idea and the subsequent struggle to put words on it and bring it to the surface. There was no MFA program, no class assignment, nothing to pull the poems out of me, only the push to do it. That that push has never left me after all these years, I count as miracle too.
 

      ***
 

I taught for many years at the University of Indianapolis--American Literature, Poetry, Composition, the works. Surely over a thousand students have passed through these hands. The following is also an early poem. It references a young woman I saw walking the halls one day. She was obviously suffering from anorexia--so thin you could plainly see the veins under her skin. I noticed that as she walked, everyone turned away as if they couldn't bear to look, so skeletal she was. Much to my shock and horror, I realized that I was doing the same thing. I came to find out that her name was Angela Jewell. I was struck by how that name fit her, so naked of flesh, so seemingly unworldly. 


"Angel Jewell"
 

        I give you the end of a golden string
        Only wind it in a ball,
        It will lead you in at Heaven's gate
        Built in Jerusalem's wall.
    --Blake

Was it the fatal perfection of her name
that sent her among us, so thin
the veins showed in her finger tips?
Skin drawn tight as cellophane
was window on a painting we couldn't bear to see.
Her eyes were blue, too large.  Her hair
a cirrus cloud.  She lived on air.

What had she to do with what we were--
jostling our corn-fed shoulders, hefting
our packs, our books, our good red laughs?
And of the attentive earth--
the slant barn roof,
the Holstein's swaying bag,
the worm-churned dirt that works the seed,
wraps the root and pushes out the food--
what had she to do with that?
From the beginning she was heaven's freight.

We must have known before she left.
Why didn't we gather then
to press in her pocket as she passed
or in her hand, a note on onionskin
or other weightless thing--the way they stuff
the cracks in Jerusalem's ancient wall
with wailing or a plea?


The poem was published in Poetry, my first acceptance into that venerable rag. I remember the day the acceptance came. It felt as if I had died and gone to heaven and that Angel Jewell had taken me there, which indeed she had.

 

     ***

 

Of course, one writes poems about the family. Indeed, one of my books, The Book of the Rotten Daughter, is all family poems, about my mother's and father's deaths for the most part and the seven and more years I spent living their dying. The most difficult years of my life. But here's a piece, "Letter to the Children," about my three kids, but probably more revealing about me. It won a prize from The Poetry Society of America which is, of course nice, but, more important, was a cathartic experience to write, forcing me to put into language the way I view life. That sounds rather grand I know, but the poem is about autumn, the time I was born, the time of year all three of my children were born. The most beautiful time of the year and the saddest.

 

"Letter to the Children"


In the new cold of late September
the prongs of Queen Anne's lace that held
their doilies up like jewels
rise then stiffen, crushing toward center,
making wooden enclosures to die in
like the ones the Celts built to hold their enemies
then set aflame.  The goldenrod leans,
licks at their cages.  And all that's left of daisies
are burnt-out eyes.

I walk these back fields
past the swish of cattails in their silver
grasses, the old ones
showing the woolly lining of their suede jackets
while the thistle, dried to gray,
bends her trembling head
and spills her seed.

It is the time--the great lying-in of Autumn--
and I am walking its wards.
And I remembr it was now, late September
then on into the deep gully of fall--when the hackberry
groans and the black oak strains in its sockets, the winds
pushing in the long forest corridors--
that I too was born and gave birth.

And you are all Autumn's children, all
given to sadness amid great stirrings,
for you were rocked to sleep in the knowledge
of loss and saw in the reflection outside your window,
beyond the bars of your reach, your own face
beckoning from the burning promise
that little by little disappeared.  What can I give you
for your birthdays this year, you who are the match
and the flaming jewel, whose birthright consumes itself
in the face of your desire?

If you were here with me now
walking down this day's death,
I would try to show you two things: how the last light
plays itself out over the thistle's labors,
over the wild cherry heavy with fruit, as if comfort
lay in what it had made.  And how that black bird
with flame at his shoulders
teeters for balance on a swaying weed.

 


The poem boils down to the question of how to live this life, this gift of life replete with the knowledge of our inevitable dying: autumn its annual signature falling around us. How to live, surrounded by this incredible beauty that doesn't last, but to work--make something, put something in the world that wasn't here before--and like the black bird, "teeter for balance on a swaying weed." Sad, yes, but I think realistic.

 

       ***

 

Talking about death, here's a piece that may hint as to my thoughts during those seven years I spoke of before, years of my parents' declines and deaths. As you can see, the following poem begins with a sort of joke--my argument with Shakespeare. Hamlet, in his famous soliloquy "To be or not to be" is pondering suicide. I guess what I'm saying is, to be or not to be is not the most important question. After all, "not to be" is inevitable, suicide or no. I'm more interested in the steps involved, the choices one has to make while watching the dissipation of a loved one: in other words, the dying, the diapers.
 

"Diapers for My Father"


Pads or pull-ons--that
is the question.  Whether to buy
pads dangled from straps
fastened with buttons or Velcro--
pads rising like a bully's cup
stiff as pommel with stickum backs
to stick in briefs.  Or, dear God,
the whole thing rubberized,
size 38 in apple green, with
or without elastic leg.  Or the kind,
I swear, with an inside pocket
to tuck a penis in--little resume
in a folder.  Old mole, weeping
his one eye out at the tunnel's end

The clerk is nothing but patience
practiced with sympathy.
Her eyes soak up everything.
In ten minutes she's my cotton batting,
my triple panel, triple shield--my Depends
against the hour of the mop: skeleton
with a sponge mouth dry as a grinning brick
waiting in the closet.

She carries my choices to the register,
sighing the floor with each step.
I follow, absorbed away to nothing.

How could Hamlet know what flesh is heir to?
Ask Claudius, panicky in his theft,
hiding in the garden where it all began
or behind the arras, stuffing furbelows
from Gertrude's old court dress into his codpiece.
Or better, ask Ophelia, daughter too
of a foolish, mean-mouthed father,
who launched herself like a boat of blotters
only to be pulled babbling under the runaway stream.



    ***

 

There were many poems written during that period; how else could I have stayed sane? I was with my mother every day during her last five years, watching her turn inward, turn to stone. Writing is how a poet handles grief, and how a poet mourns. After all, poetry is the great permission: everything is grist for the mill, straw for the fire. Even the things, especially the things, that hurt the most.

 

"Footnote"


Maybe after,
from your bed of "ease at last"

you'll give your child
a something.  A tap-tap

tapped by your own hand.
A message, by fair or foul means,

sneaked out through your wrap-
around of roots.  And I, eyes up

and straining
under that nipple-rooting tree

the way others stood
under the sacred oak in Dodona,

god-drunk on leaves grown fat
on rain, taken in easy

as mother's milk.
But what exorcist, deliverer

of comfort, dare translate for me
when from your tongue

of sullen silence
perfected in the grave

there comes
a heave of earth, a groan

of roots dragging themselves out,
the branches

huddled inside their writhing
sleeves of gibberish: the leaves

gone mad
with your struggle not to say,

not to tell your child,
pure and simple, she was good enough.



   ***

 Looking back over the years, I note that there are poems I can't believe I wrote. Here's one I'm especially proud of, because when I began it, I didn't see how I could possibly find the language to put into words the amorphous feelings I remember having when I was so young, surely no more than four. We lived in a small apartment in New York City at the height of the Depression. Money was scarce, luxuries few if any, yet with the change of each season, Mother managed to redecorate the little living room, cool for summer, a bastion of warmth for winter. And so we enter the poem...

 

"Depression Glass"


It must have been October, right after
the annual hanging of the winter drapes
and the ceremonial unrolling of the rug
from its summer sleep behind the sofa. 
Gone were the slipcovers, leaving
the upholstery stripped down to warm
arms again, and the little living room
transformed into a mother hug of all
she labored for--the luxury of bastion
and snug, the thick stability of thick
pile, purchased with how many
on-her-knees hours of scour and rag.
The whir of the sewing machine at night,
and all those stretched nickels.

My sister would say this never happened,
or if it did, it wasn't this way, or if it was,
I never cried, or if I did, how could I--
so young--know what was to cry about.
               
A room like that, in the Snow White
haven of the dwarves' house, and I
no more than four, rowing a cardboard
box across the rug, its flowered sea
lapping at my hands that were my oars.
When suddenly, there was my father
dancing to the radio or some crazy song
of his own making, flapping his arms
and yawping like a great enchanted
gull of happiness having nothing to do
with me. Or her. And I saw as through
the glass layers of the sea what he'd
been before I came in my little boat
grinding its vast engines of responsibility,
dragging him under, changing him into
someone other than the drowned beloved
I'd be trying to make it up to all my life.
 

How to make real the flash of insight I had when I was four and the wave of guilt that  washed over me? I remember when writing it, telling myself, "Don't think about

the how and the why of it: just make yourself be there again: four years old in your little cardboard boat, and write what you see." And surprisingly, when I did that, the end came fast, perfect and fast as if it had been there all along, fully formed for over sixty years, waiting and ready to be born. Over the years, I've told that to many a class: just write what you see, that's all you have to do. The emotions, the underlying "meanings" are all there buried in the scene before you, whether in actuality or what's seen in your mind's eye.
 

     ***
 

Eleven years ago I won a residency at Bernheim Forest & Arboretum in Kentucky. My charge was to write about trees. I went for a month, and then returned many times. Who knew I'd fall in love with trees? Each section of my book, Vinculum, opens with a tree poem. Here's one I particularly like.

 

"Silent Movie"

  Bernheim Forest

One afternoon of rain and suddenly
creeks rise, babbling in the forest--
back-up singers for the silence.
A missed cue.  It's November now,
the trees, bare.  A light piano of chirp
and scurry is more than enough.  Trees
make eloquent speech just by how
they stand or lean in graceful habit.
Or in the case of the sycamore, gleam
like polished marble in the sun.

The towering beech, the naked poplar
speak the language of lips and the moss
that covers them.  If the trees sleep now
in this storage locker of the cold,
if they seem aloof and alien strange,
it doesn't mean that beneath the bark,
or underground where roots tangle
and hold, they've forgotten their promise
of smolder and juice.  Look at them.
Valentino looked like that--waiting, still.
  

    ***

Of course this essay wouldn't be complete without talking about love. What can I say? I am a hopeless romantic. Blame it on the old songs or the bottomless hunger I seem to have been born with. Whatever it is, it's good for poetry. For all I know, maybe all poems are about love. Desire, yearning--ah, my topic! Here are a few poems that explore the theme.

 

"Permanent Press"


When I think of that summer, it opens
like a pleat in cloth: lake, tree, out-
blooming itself.  What deep delicious
yardage of suffering:  the virginal
July we defended, all the while itching
willful and goatish.  Five hundred larks
rising from the fields and all I could do
was stare at the scar on your arm--
the gold embroidery I longed to touch.
          
What difference that time and pharmacology
delivered too late?  I loved you then
in the old way of longing.  Four wars,
nine recessions, ten presidents:  patches.
Each year another July flings her ribboned
hat into the ring, another summer trying to
duplicate ours.  Who were we on that park
bench that defies being folded and put away?
Forget it.  Are you still alive?  The rest is gibberish. 

And these last two love poems that are written to my husband: my "sweet young thing" who has been my champion all these years.

 

"Snow"


Let us speak of love and weather
subtracting nothing.
Let us put your mother and mine
away for a while.  Your dying father,
my dead one.
   Let us watch
from our bedroom window how a slow
falling snow crowns all nakedness in ermine.
Do not look at me yet.  Your face is flushed,
your eyes too love-soaked, too blue.
Outside is white on black
and still.  The sky, deaf with stillness.

Don't let it frighten you.
Hush.  There's time enough for that.
Be content for now to watch the maples
fill with snow, how they spread themselves,
each naked limb making itself accessible.



"Red Camellia"


The bush has reaped her reward:
she cannot hold up her arms. A salute
to her location at the corner of the house
where the sun is beguiled to stop all day,
and the wasp tending its cells under
the shed roof swoons at the riot of red
multiplying in its compound eyes.                                                
                                     
March has finally given way,
and spring in Georgia, primed
with lascivious plumpings,
has sent word: we've little time. 
The camellia has waited all year
locked in her thin verticals
for the sun's first hot speech. 
Now she answers--one voice
blowing from two-hundred mouths.

Love, I want to talk camellia talk,
quick, before summer's endless
conscription in a green uniform--
that stifling march into fall. 
Speak to me. Be my sun, my day star. 
Look into my eyes until I'm lost to sight,
then juice me up red and barbarous:
a phalanx of redcoats, a four-alarm fire. 
I'm tired of pork roasts and ease
in an easy chair. Bring me one more
season. A reason. Bring it in your hands.




Where the poems were first published:

"For a woman to write a poem" was first published as the opening poem in my first full-length book: Reporting from Corinth, Barnwood Press, 1984.

"Angel Jewell" was first published in Poetry and reprinted in Inverted Fire, BkMk Press, 1997.

"Letter to the Children" won the Cecil Hemley Memorial Award from Poetry Society of America and was published in Poetry Review (UK) and reprinted in Inverted Fire, BkMk Press, 1997.

"Diapers for My Father" was first published in The Ohio Review and reprinted in Zoo,  University of Arkansas Press, 1999.

"Footnote" was first published in New Letters and reprinted in The Book of the Rotten Daughter, BkMk Press, 2006.

"Depression Glass" was first published in Prairie Schooner and reprinted in Vinculum, Louisiana State University Press, 2011.

"Silent Movie" was first published in The Georgia Review and reprinted in Vinculum,  Louisiana State University Press, 2011.

"Permanent Press" was first published in Poetry and reprinted in Vinculum, Louisiana State University Press, 2011.

"Snow" was first published in The Georgia Review and reprinted in The Book of the Rotten Daughter, BkMk Press, 2006.

"Red Camellia" was first published in The Georgia Review and reprinted in The View from Saturn, Louisiana State University Press, 2014.
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