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Alice Friman. The Book of the Rotten Daughter.

Alice Friman. The Book of the Rotten Daughter. BkMk Press.

Alice Friman's latest work offers an impeccably crafted example of the best of contemporary poetry in its fiercest guise. There's not an extra syllable in the collection. Strong emotion is captured in taut lines, unaffected diction, textured sounds. Speaking of her mother, Friman observes: "All her life / she was ammunition / in a girdle" ("Osteoporosis"). This is Friman's way of phrasing Keats's "Beauty is truth / truth beauty"--her unorthodox way of talking about poetry's capacity to shape anger, to wrap the truths of art in images that are witty, domestic, and intimate.

It's no accident that the poet's mother becomes "paper'--the place where poetry lives: "What secret / thinned to a fault line in the bone / betrays her now? / Crumple of paper lost in a bed." This is a more humble version of Yeats's "hammered gold," expressed from a woman's perspective, with empathy, dignity, and sorrow. Through "thinning" away of excess, through the alchemy of poetry, Friman's aging mother is translated into art.

Some of the poetry makes the reader laugh out loud, as in "The Talent Show," which reports on a nursing home event; the reader cheers the riotous slapstick until she is grabbed by the undertow of sadness: "And everyone unwrapped their own wooden spoon / except Armine Bonner, 116B, / who'd not let go of her dolly for anything."

In the lyrical tercets of "The Fall," Friman charts her mother's fall in a sustained metaphor:
    The carpet tilted like the sea.
   And she who never walked on water
   tipped, spun, then toppled--
   a bundle of sticks.
   Pinocchio's old mother
   come apart in her strings. 

The imagery grows wilder as the emotion deepens:
    The way I watched
   you'd think it was Channel 8,
   another trick at the Olympics--
   another triple lutz gone wrong ... 

Friman's work often embodies the aesthetics of the grotesque; if anything, she favors truth more than harmony. Her dry wit lets her approach mortality with a kind of detachment that enables the reader to enjoy the poems while taking stock of mortal troubles. "Dressing the Skeleton" avoids sentimentality about the poet's mother by taking the clinical view:
    If your specimen
   isn't the medical school variety--
   suspended from a hook or neck-locked
   in a standing position--you'll find
   placing it seated in a padded chair
   works best. 

The "it" here depersonalizes the subject, turns mother into object; the readers, like medical students, may seem to observe dispassionately in an effort to grasp the toll of aging and illness. In the last stanza, the poet turns "it" into "mine":
    With mine, I like to finish
   with a touch of moisturizing lipstick
   before I brush out the hair, still lush
   and growing as if it didn't know
   the mind had blown its case and it was time to stop. 

Friman reports clearly on physical demise and the ravages of aging, but against the odds she offers consolation--not immortality or religion, but love, and the repair work of music and image. In "Final Instructions," Friman articulates her own burial rites: "When I die I want to be buried / with sweet potatoes candied or / sauteed with apples & cinnamon ..." The poem is built in a column with no punctuation, no pauses, and no final conclusion at the end. The poet's yearning for reconnection with her mother has staying power and resonance, quieter than Ginsberg's Howl, but no less fierce.

The poems in this collection cover many topics but center on the poet's aging mother and on the death of her difficult father. Yet the love poems and poems about nature are resonant, and the poem in memory of Denise Levertov is a treasure, with line after line of discovery and elation: "all her poems come swooping down / in one last fall and gift ..." Words are "humming together in a sleeve of air."

Alice Friman's poetry sets a standard in its uncompromising look at aging and mortality, its rhythmical insistence and tightness--its coil. The humor and the erotic love notes help the reader to assimilate the more difficult truths. When Friman quotes Yeats she reminds us of another of her influences:
    she understood clap
   your hands and sing
. Spring
   in the garden. Sassy
   and hopeful
   as a yellow school bus
   opening and closing its wheezy door ...
   ("The Empty Garden") 

The only problem with poetry this fresh is that it spoils the reader for anything less. Friman presses her topics for meaning and images but does so with a subtle, almost weightless hand. Music abounds, as does wonder. Friman's eyes are open for the grotesque and for the exquisite. Her tone remains generous, the field of imagery wide.

The poet shows us that even broken things can create beauty in their contrasts:
    December's black-
   white bone-bark schematic
   that snow, like Noah's sheet, rushes in to cover,
   pretending the sinkhole's not there
   or the fallen sparrow broken in a ditch. Look.
   ("Visitation Rights") 

Look indeed. As Cleanth Brooks noted, "At its best, the accuracy, subtlety, and tension of the radical comparison makes modern poetry a richer and more strenuous exercise of the sensibility than the poetry of rumination and reverie which it succeeds."
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Author:Kallet, Marilyn
Publication:Prairie Schooner
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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