Anna Kirk reviews
by Philip Fried
The New York poet Philip Fried has been editing The Manhattan Review since he founded it back in 1980, so is well-used to reading through vast swathes of poetry by various poets from various countries and then compiling his selection in an interesting and appealing way for readers. It must be a very different business compiling a book of one’s own work however; sifting through past collections, making old poems sit coherently with both each other and the more recently written. Yet the construction of Early/Late proves successful. It is comprised of selected poems from his previous four collections: Mutual Trespasses (1988), Quantum Genesis (1997), Big Men Speaking to Little Men (2006), and Cohort (2009), opening with a series of new poems entitled The Emanation Crunch.
Being new to Fried’s work (which, having read this extensive volume, seems absurd to me now), my first impression of him came from his most recent poems. The Emanation Crunch is high concept poetry and unvaried in theme. It is a reaction to the current economic crisis and the modern technological world, with Fried absorbing and engaging with the corporate slogans and advertising lingo that has become so common and integrated in our everyday language. These poems read like memos and statements sent down from big businesses, ‘Our mission: to work as instruments of financial faith by/restoring credible options for the global marketplace’ (‘From the Mortality Desk’). Yet Fried interweaves this faceless and all-too-recognisable rhetoric with biblical language. He plays with the idea of heaven being like a business, with all its hierarchy and doctrines. ‘Celestial, Inc’ is addressed to a worker laid off due to a downsizing: ‘I wish/you every success in your post-salvation existence’. The comparison of heaven and profitable companies is also present in earlier collections, with angels being represented as ‘the vice presidents of creation,/promoted and promoted but only so high…/exposed by the slash of the heavenly accountant (‘The Angels Laugh’). Fried draws out the humour in this recurring idea, imagining the room service in ‘Heavenly Enterprises’ as being ‘run by the Four Prophets, Izzy, Jerry, Zeke and Mike’, and creating a twitter account for God, each stanza of ‘Following Him on Twitter’ being around 140 characters long and written in a self-consciously biblical language.
Along with a wry humour, there is a musicality to Fried’s words. He riffs on Villon’s ‘Ballade des dames du temps jadis’ (which was, of course, originally set to music) in his own ‘Ballade (of the Brands of Future Times)’. He replaces the names of famous women with names of brands, and repeats the refrain ‘Where is the imminent blizzard of brandable names’ in this formally constructed poem with its ubi sunt motif and appropriately hymn-like quality. It questions a higher power, projecting investors with an omniscience and omnipotence akin to God’s. Song is used in a different, yet just as experimental, way in ‘Karaoke’, which uses Frank Sinatra’s classic ‘My Way’ as the structure for a poem about Einstein:
‘…As I face the final curtain
I sing with the Theory of Everything, minus one:
I do it my way.’
The selection from Mutual Trespasses is in a freer style than the new poems, and the language is refreshing following the highly stylised specialist lexicon. It is unusual yet beautiful, such as in ‘On Genesis’:
‘…God was urging the phloem to outlive empires,
and simultaneously He was wheedling
the unborn spirit of the truculent flea
to nurse its grudges in a wingless body’
Fried knows the power of individual words, and explores this in ‘The Good Book’, which sees God reading the dictionary definition of ‘God’: ‘No picture/but just above are photos/of a “gnu” and a “goatee”’. In the dictionary, God becomes just ‘the rattle of a word/radiant and small’. Yet He presides over the whole of Fried’s work; the vulnerable deity that Fried creates at any rate. In the poem ‘Little God’ from Quantum Genesis, the voice of the poem asserts that ‘the purpose of a god/is never to answer’. It is Fried who has the voice, the power of the word. He boldly uses it, whether it is to take on the persona of God in various unusual situations (such as having crackers with Grandma in her parlour, or sitting in his bathtub, or making bouillabaisse) or if it is to create a poem in the voice of a snowflea. ‘My voice’s fingers pluck you out of nothing’ ends ‘Contemporary Prayer’. This can be applied to poetry itself, using the poet’s voice to create something out of nothing.
It is the penultimate section Big Men Speaking to Little Men in which the title poem for the whole collection of selected works is found. Early/Late was written in response to 9/11, yet uses Amsterdam as a city blueprint with its bridges and canals. Throughout the whole of Big Men…, Fried’s phrases run like water along canals, with a freedom of movement that takes the reader to his childhood, to Maine, to the d’Orsay, to the Place de Vosges, to Spring Lake… Fried may be from New York, in the centre of ‘Panic Boulevard, Turmoil Plaza, Faltering Bridge’ (‘Father They Value as the Dawn’), but he, like O’Hara, and in the spirit of the New York School, can walk to places much farther afield with the reader - in the mind, in memory and imagination – and document with lyricism the immediacy of moments:
‘…A door like the sideways lid
to a music box has opened
on the melody of teaspooned laughter
(‘Indian Summer at Spring Lake’)
Fried ends the selected poems with a sonnet series that appears in the collection Cohort. In his notes he explains that it is the 13th century Italian poet Giacomo da Lentini who is credited with inventing the sonnet. Da Lentini was also a notary involved in legal proceedings, so it is no surprise that debate and argument should be integral to the form. He incorporates both in these sonnets, writing of the modern world using this age-old and traditional poetic form, and self-consciously so: ‘I set up the motherboard circuits for these sonnets’ (‘Son Net’). Again, the idea of voice is drawn out and explored, most notably in ‘The Oral Tradition’, in which Fried sets down in italics:
‘…I search out a motif, to mend the story
that holds the world together by word of mouth.’
If that is not the role of a poet, I don’t know what is. The corporate language that saturates sections of his work is orally spread throughout our metropolitan lives, inescapable and unrelenting. Fried uses this cleverly, creating admirable, though-provoking poems. However, I think it is in his less tricksy, less high-concept works, with their freer phrasing and imaginative yet true observations, where his motifs are most mending, and most beautiful to speak aloud, to pass on by word of mouth.
Anna Kirk lives and works in London, and is currently studying for an MA in Poetry at Royal Holloway.