by Daisy Fried
University of Pittsburgh Press 2013
Reviewed by Melinda Wilson
“whacking the ground, like a wife / pounding her pillow, alone all night.”
Daisy Fried’s new book, Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, begins with a long poem titled “Torment.” The title suggests distress and provocation, and the poem delivers. Its first stanza is a tight fourteen lines and introduces one of several college seniors at the cusp of the “real” world. Panicked, presumably about his future, the student declares, “ ‘I fucked up bad.’” These are the poem’s opening words. The student, named Justin, is returning from a job interview in the financial district of Manhattan. The poem’s speaker, who turns out to be a professor of Justin’s, observes his behavior on the commuter train like a farmhand might watch a foal take its first wobbly steps before it falls, nose first, into piles of shit. The speaker knows Justin is doomed, as we all are, to torment. Like most of the poems in this collection, “Torment” does not avoid reality, and Fried’s language offers a precise and sobering look at the modern world.
The poem’s second and third stanzas reveal that the speaker is pregnant, and she too finds herself interviewing for jobs, adjunct teaching jobs:
The woman interviewer looked at my belly.
“As a new mother would you have time to be
literary mama to your students?” So I could sue
when they don’t hire me for the job I don’t want.
Despite the interviewer’s prejudiced and ignorant questioning, there is no anger evident in the speaker’s voice. Instead, there is an honesty that recognizes the world as flawed and material, a matter-of-fact recognition of how we live steeped in nonsense and bullshit that is often directed, with particular acuteness, at women. Although the poem’s tone might propose enervation, the speaker resists surrender and denial, the easiest of human responses in the face of difficulty. Instead, she insists that despite the midwife’s warnings, her “ankles / are slim.”
These poems are “Women’s Poetry” in that they are poems presenting the reality of a pregnant woman in a treacherous economic and political climate, a woman forced to engage in meditation on responsibility as her unborn child will inherit these problems of the modern world. The poems offer advice in a “fuck it” sort of way, suggesting that we are perhaps all guilty, all in some way responsible for that which plagues us. Take for instance a bit of advice from the book’s final section in which Fried’s speaker runs an advice column titled “Ask the Poetess.” She refers to all poets, both male and female, as poetesses, perhaps a nod to Gloria Steinem’s insistence on the definition of feminist as “anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.” Why shouldn’t we all be called the same thing? We are all poetesses, just as we are all poets. Someone writes in to complain of a professor who lectures with his eyes shut. The poetess responds with a necessarily blunt reality check:
Is your teacher an adjunct with a double-full-time teaching load at $2,500 per class, without health insurance, job security or other benefits? Overworked teachers generally have a talent for teaching while sleeping. I’m surprised you noticed. In my day students universally practiced their own version: listening while sleeping.—LOVE THE POETESS
The reply illustrates a poet in touch with the consciousness of her era, an era in which educators are overworked and underpaid, and artists of most kinds rarely matter in the mainstream. Although there is a sense of disillusionment in the poetess’s advice, she does not sink into bitterness. Instead, she remains a voice for realism, for recognizing the realities of a situation and, rather than ignoring them or attempting to wish them away, meeting them head on.
Fried’s connection to her generation extends beyond the problems of a society that does not seem to value education or cerebral muscle. In another response from the poetess, one geared toward an advice-seeker who wishes to know why “mothers think they’re so special?” since “Anybody can pop a child out” and “Writing a book of poems is much harder,” the poetess recommends treating “the poem as the child and the child as the poem.” To those pitifully reductive comments regarding motherhood, Fried’s poetess gives little regard. Instead, she reminds her readers, “you can’t finish a child or book without making lots of mistakes.” We are all fuck-ups, actually. And there is no universal “harder” or “more worthwhile” when it comes to any act of creation. VIDA’s Dear Fury attests that she “sure as shit knows it’s possible to be a writer and a mother.” The poetess’s sentiment feels consistent. It’s the individual that makes that decision.
Fried explores one of the many “mistakes” a mother might make in her poem “Midnight Feeding,” in which a woman in her underpants with a flashlight in her mouth heads out to her shed to feed a litter of feral kittens. She can’t let them starve or end as a larger animal’s prey. She must protect them, but while she feeds them, the baby monitor she wears sounds with the cries of the speaker’s three month old daughter. “She’ll wait,” the speaker proclaims. Her proclamation is decisive, and yet just a few lines later, she exclaims, “What a bad mom!” It is never clear, however, whether the speaker refers to herself or to “wild La Mamma” cat that “ran off a few weeks ago,” abandoning her babies. The poem expresses the anxieties of motherhood, always trying to provide care and protection and never quite knowing if one is doing the right thing. These anxieties are also present in “A Snow Woman,” in which the speaker “decide[s] again not to get pregnant,” her decision perhaps partially based on the signs of difficulty and trouble that parenthood can bring. Through the window she sees:
The neighbor child’s sandbox still out there,
lid on underneath snow: White barrow
burial for troubled life’s
The lines hint at abandonment, as there is something doleful about a child’s sandbox buried in snow. Fried’s use of the word “still” adds to the downcast effect, yet the poem develops into an imagined “romance,” as the speaker envisions building a snow woman with her neighbors and their child. The child punches the snow woman, and the speaker echoes Wallace Stevens: “One must have a womb of snow, an eye of cold.”
In these poems, Daisy Fried displays an intense and refined attention to the troubles of the present moment. Effectively blending the personal with the more universal, she delves into issues surrounding womanhood, but also she looks at the troubles of humanhood. Often these poems are overtly political. Take “Lyric,” for instance, where Fried’s speaker deals with the very specific problems of the modern moment: “Gas price up again, stink of gouging.” And sporting goods stores that, according to Fried, are really “modernist gun megachurch[es].” Other poems, like “Liberalism,” “Metaphor for Something, or Solving the Credit Crunch” and Attenti Agli Zingari, the long poem that makes up section three of the book, all attend to the political unrest of the age.
The poems in Women’s Poetry take place in a modern wasteland. “Elegy” even alludes to Eliot’s The Waste Land. British literary critic F.R. Leavis insists on a poetry in touch with its time. Leavis believes a poet must be aware of, even one with, his time. The poet’s personal consciousness and the collective consciousness of his/her age must be inseparable, at least in the poetry. Daisy Fried has mastered this, as her poems successfully reflect the contemporary climate. Leavis wrote that T.S. Eliot’s poems “express a modern sensibility, the ways of feeling, the modes of experience, of one fully alive in his own age.” The same can be said of Fried.