‘My Fault’ by Leora Fridman
“my new pledge / is / I will matter // without being fuel”
Leora Fridman’s My Fault plays with bordering tensions: submission and sacrifice, blame and guilt, the land we live on versus what we feel we actually own. Fridman’s deft language, often transparently frank, subtly intimates that which waits underneath what’s told. There’s a digesting and reclaiming of the faults of the self as well as those of the earth—not just our collective responsibilities for global warming or labor exploitation, but also the man-made fractures along which natural events occur. The sense of this is how things are (is it?) running through the collection reads intimate and weighty at once.
Fridman catalogues responses ranging from resentment to resignation to acceptance, either half-feigned or half-masochistic, all signified with respect to the title. “My fault,” like “my bad,” communicates an apology for something small—or an insincerity and resentment at having to apologize at all—which feels apt, as these poems play with what people think or do when asked to excuse, apologize, erase, or take responsibility for something they feel is at best only partially their fault. Take, for example, “Proving a Bird,” speaking to how certain people (like women) must apologize for, well, being around. It begins with ways the speaker is obedient to what is often asked of women—to be submissive, yet also wary and defensive of men other than their designated father, husband, or boyfriend keepers:
is no wild
to strange men.
The tension between submission and aggression, civility and fear, will be familiar to any woman who has walked down a street alone. As will the anxious frustration in the following lines:
on a grey
The first question feels rhetorical. The speaker knows: no walk will protect me except not walking at all. The following two sustain that rhetoric and infuse anger: do I really have to apologize for my own existence? So, when next the speaker “prov[es herself] a bird”, we understand that she feels a small, fragile thing at the mercy of more powerful forces. It also puts her at odds with her first declarations about herself: birds are wild things. They neither speak, mumble, nor beg. They fly, not walk. The speaker has moved from a grey street to “playing lamely / at the feet / of the sun.” In a sense, she’s overturning all the things she’s supposed to be or have done. She’s turning into something else entirely—a position that may be as weak, or weaker, than her previous one—rather than apologize for walking around as herself. It’s a submission couched within a middle finger. A similar move starts the poem “To the Recent Sea:”
I say lift me:
I am a motherfucking load.
Here, an aggressive confidence interrupts the traditionally submissive request to be carried. Reading this voice as female complicates things further, a doubled interruption of the idea that women should be dainty and that asking to be picked up is submission rather than command. Again, Fridman plays with these elements of not-quite-refusal, not-quite-acceptance of frailty or submission, leaping back and forth across the fault lines of power and gender roles.
Later poems play on a larger scale of what makes us culpable, or what that even means, exactly. In “Labor,” the speaker considers how the actions of modern industrialized life—commuting to work, wearing clothes made in factories, buying food grown far away—put others at risk: “as you sleep more children keep working.” One’s own selfish and important causes become implicated, as in this address to a woman in the workplace:
but these, young lady, are the days we have been given.
We must not get side-swiped by more assertive men.
Responsibility to the global world—to somehow, as an individual, fight income inequality and labor exploitation—fights with the immediate responsibility to uphold and advance one’s sex by the ordinary means (e.g., commuting, buying the right clothes, and generally participating in a modern life predicated on unsavory practices). Without absolving the self of blame, the speaker’s layering of responsibility contends with the muddy waters of assigning guilt in a globalized world.
The most palpable focus of blame comes, fittingly, in the apocalyptic “Fault,” which begins:
we all keep on walking
so that we can look small
This sentence could speak to exercise, to wanting to be thinner and smaller, but it also engages the image of a walker receding into the distance from the perspective of a person standing still. Both actions bolster the self-belief that we are rather small and powerless in the face of the largeness of the world:
no fault is our fault
just fractures in the land
Thus we tell ourselves that our relative powerlessness, compared with the earth’s uncontrollable, elemental fault lines, makes us blameless. Until the “neon / signs that thunk ashore” suggest that our kind of society may have crumbled before us. Yet there’s a lovely way the language resists and supports this narrative at the same time, asking both questions—have we been here before? and is it even up to us to avoid being here again?—by repeating the following pair of couplets below at the beginning and the end of the poem:
we preserve seaweed
sustain an easy lore
proclaimed innocent on one score
The collection proceeds to underscore and challenge that individual powerlessness. In “My Dispersing Sorry,” the speaker sets out to change her place as a cog in the great machine:
my new pledge
I will matter
without being fuel
But this assertion of, perhaps, self-care soon disintegrates under scrutiny of the self’s lack of importance—“I am no middle America / no quietly crucial selection”—and, paradoxically, the promise that the self may be made more relevant when “available for freight.” There’s a resignation there, at becoming (and staying) fuel for the larger machines of culture and politics whether or not we believe in them. And, after much exploration of the meta-boundaries of gender and guilt, the poem “Cultivation” discusses the real-life limits of putting down roots:
the way we people
know it’s risky to own land:
my father said, we are frightened of real estate,
it’s what they can take from us
This is one of the few poems in the collection where the speaker seems to be a solid person—with a father, linked to the world I live in as a reader—as opposed to a sort of floating ethos. However, there’s a sense that even this speaker refuses to be tied into a solid role, as when she says “don’t plant here” or admits:
is a reason
The speaker tells us that this quality of being insubstantial, neither here nor there, is an inherited trait from her ancestors who kept moving out of fear. There’s no way for her to be solid, she’s saying. And that’s a way of life. Probably because I, as a person, tend to collapse other narratives into my own, this poem feels like a declaration of how to live as a woman amongst the shifting expectations and those that refuse to budge one inch.
Fridman’s My Fault explores the edges of different worlds: a woman’s, a we people’s, and a modern person’s. These apologies dance on the boundary between grudging acceptance and escape, its vows torn in the balance between different allegiances and guilts. Even owning land makes one vulnerable. It has faults; it can be taken away. Yet the ways in which the selves in My Fault assign and subvert blame give rise to a kind of unlikely solace. In fact, there’s some dark pleasure in realizing one’s limited perspective, and power, and yielding to it.