Daisy Fried’s third book of poetry, Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice consists of new poems and other work composed since 2007, some of which have already appeared in Poetry Magazine, The American Poetry Review and The Threepenny Review. Fried is one of the most engaging contemporary poets writing today, for she is as thoughtful, witty and wise as the best conversationalists. Yet, like two of her favorite poets, Charles Bukowski and Frank O’Hara, her utter lack of self-consciousness allows her to develop a unique connection with her readers, an intimacy that some poets would cut off their writing hands to replicate.
Fried’s métier is the short to mid-length narrative poem (from 1 to 7 pages) and in my view she is the current owner of the franchise. Probably as well as anyone since Elizabeth Bishop, the Fried narrative poetically describes apparently ordinary events that expose the underlying foibles of human imperfection, including her own, and subtly tease the often conflicting sentiments from their hidden places in the psyche.
Like Bishop, Fried’s best work is framed as autobiographical and centers on personal relationships. The unique vision she brings to the occasion of each poem — whether it be driving on the highway after a fight with a lover, pulling a refrigerator out to liberate her daughter’s toy, summering in Rome during a span of years, or unexpectedly driving her mother from the delivery room — becomes the platform for evoking a surprising array of thoughts and emotions.
The volume’s first poem, “Torment,” was initially published in Poetry and tells of a ride on the “Dinky, the one car commuter train connecting Princeton to the New York line,” in which Fried, then an adjunct professor at Princeton and pregnant, is returning from job interviews in New York and encounters a group of Princeton students coming back from their own interviews on Wall Street. Two of her students, Justin and Brianna, are figured as the spoiled trust-fund children of wealthy families, well above Fried’s economic class (we are advised), and yet, despite their own sense of privilege, they have a mordant self-awareness of their own vulnerability which Fried imbues with a degree of child-like innocence and evokes odd sympathy, even as their barbed condescension toward Fried is intended to ruffle her composure (e.g., “Professor Krugman, he’s a real professor”). When they finally detrain, the students hop in a Mazda coup and foist a cigarette and a can of beer upon Fried as a pretext to offering her a ride home (“Now/you can’t walk home – pregnant, smoking/carrying a beer?”). Her mind reels back to her prenatal yoga class and then:
Brianna: “We always say Krugman’s one of the few
Professors we’d friend on Facebook.
But Daisy, we’d friend you too.” Memory:
Favorite Teachers at our college house parties,
slow-dancing with us, doing lines
in our bathroom. When are they going to grow up,
we said. I wave, walk, drop the cigarette
in the beer, the can in the trashcan, relieved
to be embarrassed, triumphant, sorry. Justin
drives along beside me, Brianna rides shotgun
standing like a surfer on a breaking wave.
Justin – “Fuck” – floors it, roars past me, away. . . .
In “Torment,” Fried summons up a highly complex mixture of emotions through the creation of an ironic field of play that challenges the narrative “I” of each character. This is performed, on one level, by highlighting the differences in each character’s self-manifestation through personality, age, sex and socio-economic status, and on another, by drawing portraiture through narrative time shifts that deepen the evolving realizations of each character. She does this in a virtual masque of interior reflections and apparently unselfconscious dialogues that turn to sudden awareness and revealing characterization, where private histories become nakedly public in that critical time of personal transition (whether entering adulthood by taking the first step on one’s career path, or moving to a new job in a new town, or going from childless adult to parent), and where wistful aspirations for fame and wealth (“summer home in the Hamptons I’m too busy to use”), which are ironically within the grasp of these “children” of privilege, are set against the less glamorous fate that follows from the “responsible” choices that Fried (like most of us) has had to make. Therefore, the “ironic distance between poet and speaker” (which Fried, as teacher, recommends to her creative writing student) is borne out though a maturation of the narrative intelligence by which all characters (even Fried’s alter ego) appear flawed in some way. The paradox of Fried’s final response, “relieved/to be embarrassed, triumphant, sorry” (emphasis mine), by virtue of competing visions of self-awareness, brilliantly renders her conflicting feelings about these relationships and, thus, demonstrates Fried’s considerable narrative gifts at their best.
There are many such master works in this volume, including “Kissinger at the Louvre (Three Drafts),” “This Need Not Be a Comment on Death,” “Il Penseroso: The Fat Lady,” “L’Allegro: Driving Home,” “Elegy” and the ten-part narrative, “Attenti Agli Zingari.” There are also delightful shorter works, for example, “A Snow Woman” (a counterpoint to the Stevens’ poem), “Women’s Poetry” (proving that a woman’s place is behind her Nissan GT-R) and “His Failed Band, 1973.” In every one of these poems there is the trademark Fried voice, sure and recognizable as a close confidante who manages to provide you with a slice of life by the way she fractures the story-line and interlineates her reactions and impressions.
From an artistic point of view, Fried has superseded her two very accomplished books, She Didn’t Mean To Do It and My Brother Is Getting Arrested Again, by expanding the scope and form of her narratives in ways that enable her to establish a point of view that extends beyond the confines of the autobiographical presence within the poem. We see Fried as only one of many individuals being portrayed and are left to make our own judgments about Fried the character and Fried the author.
Lastly, Fried ends this delightful meal of language and spirit with the most delicious of desserts, “Ask the Poetess, An Advice Column” (for the poet-lorn).
For those who like readable, funny, intensely honest poetry, it doesn’t get much better than this.