Poetries of Affirmation
Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice
By Daisy Fried
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013, 75 pp., $15.95, paperback
By Robin Becker
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014, 67 pp., $15.95, paperback
Reviewed by Alicia Ostriker
When Daisy Fried’s Women’s Poetry isn’t making me laugh out loud it’s making me cry. The book’s opening poem, “Torment,” is a seven-page, tongue-in-cheek account in loose blank verse of some “gorgeously exhausted,” privileged Princeton seniors returning from failed Wall Street interviews. Brianna with her “interview hair” announcing, “My mom will go crazy/ Deutsche bank didn’t offer,” needs one of the narrator’s “self-pity tissues.” Justin “grabs a Norton Anthology/ out of his five-hundred-dollar briefcase,” can’t speak a sentence without “fuck” in it (as in “Fuck. / What are we supposed to read for tomorrow?”), and has written a seven-page poem improbably entitled “Torment.” As for the pregnant narrator, she wishes she could hate her students, wishes she could like them, is pissed off by them, sympathetic to them, and has her own problems:
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.
One of Fried’s strengths is her command of speech patterns high and low. Another is her command of the squabbling schools of lit-crit. The book’s final section, “Ask the Poetess,” is a hilarious double send-up of the poetry business and of advice columns. All women poets are aware that “poetess” is code for “drippy, sentimental, female poet.” Here, however, “the Poetess” explains in her column that in the interest of equality she “applies the term poetess to men and women, good poetesses and bad.” Who is her favorite poetess? The infamous Charles Bukowski, in his stained undershirt waving a beercan in a poem called “The Slob.” Here is the first of a round of Q and As:
DEAR POETESS—I graduated from [Name of Famous Writing School deleted] In 1986. Ever since my doctor switched me from Prozac to Zoloft, I feel compelled to write poems attacking the linguistic hegemony of the bourgeois ruling class, sometimes using Google searches to generate strings of jargon and nonsense. Help! What should I do?—A Student
DEAR POETESS—I graduated from [Name of Famous Writing School deleted] in 1999. Ever since my doctor switched me from Zoloft to Prozac, I feel tempted to write first-person poems about my first-person memories of my grandmother, a marvelous woman of ropey hands and gnarled wisdom. Help! What should I do?—A STUDENT.
DEAR STUDENTS, CLASSES 1986 AND 1999—Aren’t you missing hyphens from your signatures? Shouldn’t that be A-Student? Did the Poetess Ezra Pound say, “Make it new enough so your teacher will give you an A?”....I advise you to go back to school, and, this time around, flunk a couple of classes. If you can—it won’t be easy—flunk out. It may change your life.—LOVE THE POETESS.
If Fried is pitch perfect as a parodist, her snappy, racy, energized style has tender uses as well. Throughout Women’s Poetry she looks with a journalist’s and a mother’s eye at the world, from Paris (where Henry Kissinger is being helped into a limo) to Rome (where neo-Fascists demonstrate and gypsies are removed from public squares), to the turnpike, to marriage and talkative baby, to dead friends, to mother and sister, to a walk in the forest at Fontainebleau. Her thumbnail portraits of individuals consistently make you feel you know and care about them:
2004, Blanca the Gypsy
rubbing against men, rubbing against women
at the no-name Caffé with red plastic chairs.
Her name can’t be Blanca, everybody calls her Blanca.
She cadges money and cigarettes, kisses my hair,
steals my colored pencils. Litle bird nose,
pretty smile, pain in the ass.
When Rome’s gypsies are loaded onto vans to be shipped back to Romania and their camps are bulldozed, Fried remarks “We’ll never see Blanca again,” and “A stench of casual outdoor shitting remains.” No stench, here, of sentimentality or political correctness, but we know where the poet’s affections lie.
Some of these poems are several pages long and worth every sharp word, some are tiny, and you wish they were longer. Several take place in cars, with the poet mumbling to herself, “Brushing away the poison pill” of guilt for making a student almost cry, or seeing a tire torn from an eighteen-wheeler “clinging to the back wheel rim/ coming loose, whapping, slapping,/ whacking the ground, like a wife/ pounding her pillow, alone all night.” Or in a public space,
On a Metro platform, a crazy woman banging her head against a pillar—
what do you do, just look away?
Bad things happening make you feel alive.
I hail anyone who tells that truth. Fried can nail whatever she bumps into with nonstop precision, force, and humanity, in the indecorous American language that is one of our culture’s great gifts to literature. Women’s Poetry is her third book, and she is at the top of her form.
“Prairie Dogs,” the short opening poem in Robin Becker’s Tiger Heron, took my breath away. Not at first, where it describes how prairie dogs occupied a dog run and a high school field of the poet’s youth, and were vaguely threatening in their almost-humanness. But then the poet and her cousin come across one of them caught and wounded in barbed wire, and when the cousin fails to free the creature using a stick,
he knelt in the trashy
run, his face close to the scrabbler, fingers
plying the greasy, furred gash, the entrails
glazed with flies which might have deterred
someone else, but he sat, now cross-legged,
unwinding the wrecked limb the way the hands
that lifted the boy in Wyoming must have worked.
Reaching that final line, I look back at the poem’s dedication, “in memory of Matthew Shepard (1976-1998),” and it’s an “oh” moment as I remember that Matthew was the Wyoming boy beaten, tortured, tied to a fence, and left to die, because he was gay.
Animals and family are important in Becker’s world. In fact, animals are family. Besides the prairie dogs, I noticed the northern flying squirrel, owls, salamanders, a dog and cat pair (the cat grooming the dog), carpenter bees hollowing out a house in a biting little poem called “Her Lies,” goats, a mare on a lead so slack she thinks she is free, a set of tropical creatures encountered on a vacation in which “the forbidden Caribbean sparkled with sharks,” and numerous dogs, including one who “[l]avishes attention on beloveds/ upon whom she sits and boldly kisses,” and including the melancholy “dog I didn’t want” and, of course, got.
The endearing company of our fellow creatures is part of what makes me feel at home in Becker’s poetry. Her acceptance of natural cycles enriches the intimacy she builds. Many of the poems in Tiger Heron deal with age, aging, dying, the deaths of parents and friends, the ongoing presence of the dead. Yet this is by no means a gloomy book, as the motif of loss is continually leavened by Becker’s exuberant homage to appetite. In a poem called “A Last Go,” the poet’s aging mother, who has spent her life “tuning deprivation/ like a violin,” now “takes the world into her mouth,”
she takes the sour-cream coffee cake and
the rugelach with walnuts and currants.
She wants a pecan raisin loaf, two loaves,
See’s suckers, and mandelbrodt,
And I’ll take her hunger any way I can.
The poet watching her mother eat can see her as a dashing young woman again, and urges,
Go ahead, Ma, try the ginger scones,
The lemon poppy seed cake.
Love and food also go together in an elegy for a hospitable friend, as the poet remembers
beet soup, corn, and nine
of us round the table
pouring and laughing,
as the stories told around the table take on “color and flavor/ before we cook them/ in summer’s brine.” Language again becomes edible in a tenderly humorous poem in which the speaker remembers how her father used to end every sentence with the phrase and so forth, like a “three-syllable glaze” with “the aftertaste of icing.” When he’d say “I had lunch with the boys and so forth,” never supplying details, the “blabbermouth daughter” feels free to add “a buoyancy of pastrami and cole slaw.”
Becker doesn’t, in this book, do much explicit exploring of her Jewishness. But “The Sounds of Yiddish” is a quintessentially shameless and tasty exploration of the word-food connection, as title glides into opening line “splat like matzoh broken and dropped/in the egg-milk mix for matzobrei,” and later lines smack their sibilants:
Yiddish hisses with chicken schmaltz
Sizzling for knishes. Not invited to the luncheon?
Don’t worry; her k’naidelech don’t float.
Just as I find myself remembering the old joke that all Jewish holidays have the same message—“They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat”—Becker rounds off her poem with a light touch for a collective memory of pogroms that weighs many tons:
Yiddish ran from a posse of hazards when
My Bubbe left her shtetl, Russians at her back
And a mongrel, Middle-High German in her mouth.
In a poem addressed to Maxine Kumin, the trailblazing woman poet who has been a mentor and friend to many of us and who still leads us in dedication to things of this earth and to fearless truth-telling, Becker writes, “You never found comfort in doctrine.”
The same may be said of herself. One of my favorite poems here personifies the word “dyke” and offers a mini-autobiography:
I had to hate her;
then I had to hurt her;
the rest of my life,
I ate from her hand.
The poet Stephen Dunn praises Becker for “what may be one of the early twenty-first century’s most difficult accomplishments—to write a credible poetry of affirmation.” Tiger Heron is her seventh book—and yes, it is proudly credible.
Alicia Ostriker's most recent book of poems is The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog (2014). Her most recent set of essays on American poetry is Dancing at the Devil’s Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic (2000).