My Brother Is Getting Arrested Again
It’s not difficult to identify the fascination of Daisy Fried’s poetry — especially since she leaves clues everywhere:
you know in the fairy tale
the girl who was so good she spat jewels
when she talked, and the other who wasn’t
and so spat toads, snakes, salamanders?
It’s not true. There was only one girl and
what came out of her mouth was an iguana,
and its lewd toes were spangled with emeralds.
(“The Drunkard’s Bar”)
The speaker in her Christopher Smart update “Jubilate South Philly: City 14” says she knows “just how to sneer to get a boy to like” her. When basic economics nudge her from a cupcake of a job as “counterperson / at Miss Julie’s Sweet Shoppe” and her boss kisses her off with “I feel like you’re saying to me ‘fuck you Julie’,” she responds in kind: “Fuck you, sugar.” She recounts bratty episodes from childhood and grown-up life, records inadvertent insults both given and received, airs the dirty laundry of family and love. Her Thanksgiving dinner comes with venison stuffing and she describes Petrouchka as “a dance more often / played than performed”; at the state fair she gawks at a sow batters itself against the walls of its pen and at the playground she looks on as a hawk “unzips the little squirrel suit, probes into the hot mess.”
Daisy Fried’s poems are filled with life.
Life, as in pregnant teenagers, ambiguous infections, best enemies who become lifelong friends, bad cousins sneaking out of family gatherings, neighbors who may or may not be beating each other. Living, as in being grounded, protesting, crying at movies, stealing milk crates.
These are fine subjects, excellent motivation, it may be objected, but poems are made of words, and what in the above can only be said in poetry, and not, say, in a one-woman show, radio essays or short stories, besides that jeweled iguana, I mean?
cutting their eyes sideways, inhaling air
smoky and clean, the light dim and constant
no excuse for this feeling
of intoxication—but tiny branches
press up against the window, no leaves
but they are gold, are they green, what the sun
does to them, the shadow,
and you, love
I don’t mean to make this personal, but
I am sure of that. You and city and life
and home and history and shopping
like a bunch of cars
getting backed up on a turnpike
one of those massive fog pileups
cars spanking off one another’s bumpers
they make you laugh
till you’re coughing with it, eyes leaking
(“Some Loud Men, Some Women”)
If she has a fondness for lacerations and collisions, as this passage shows she’s also a good sun-worshipper — in “Go to Your Room” the light “gaps into the room” and again at the end, “blasts the curtains open like legs.” And in another poem (a nod to Jonathan Richman called “Pablo Picasso Was Never Called an Asshole”), her cue to leave comes at “the hour the sun’s colors began to mix in the river.”
When Ezra Pound declared that poetry should be at least as well-written as prose, who told him it was okay to stop there. If there was once consensus about what makes good prose, it’s long gone. Besides, black-and-white-thinking and impossible standards are bad for you, and with lyrical essays, creative non-fiction and other hippogriffs running around, who has the psychic candlepower to sweat the distinctions.
Sophie was a Socialist. “Communist,” Aunt Leah says,
tilting her recliner. “I was the Socialist. Sophie went
to the Peekskill Robeson concert with the Negro painter.”
She blows smoke-ribbons up past her eye. “They got
beat up, mobs, cops, nightsticks. I gave them tea–
they came over after. The painter’s head was sticky
with blood.” Leah exhales nostril-smoke at her chest.
“I laughed at them. ‘What did you expect?’ I said.”
(“Aunt Leah, Aunt Sophie and the Negro Painter”)
When they come up with prose even half as spiky and direct and anything like as free of convention and cliché as Fried’s journalistic verse, I will be among the first to express my relief.
The painter Jane Freilicher once remarked of her friend John Ashbery that he appeared to have “stepped in the fame shit.” This seems to be the case also with Fried, who is on a prize-winning streak, having claimed the Pew Fellowship, the Hodder Fellowship, the Agnes Lynch Starrett prize, the Pushcart, Ploughshares’ Cohen Award, and most recently the Grace Hazard Conkling Writer-in-Residence at Smith College. Bully for her. And may her well-deserved good fortune stop no one from sneaking a look at her work; who couldn’t use the feeling of being alive you’ll find there?