Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Daisy Fried had just been accepted into an MFA program when, eight years ago, she learned that she had been named a Pew Fellow in the Arts. Since one requirement of the Pew is that its recipients not be students, Fried bagged the program and seems to have discovered since then that, even with just her Swarthmore BA, she can at least cobble together the high-end of an adjuncting career, teaching at the many colleges that dot Philadelphia’s Main Line, one year at Princeton as a Hodder fellow, & now as the Grace Hazard Conkling Writer-in-Residence at Smith College.

The long-term result of all this is that Fried looks, for about one-quarter of one second, like your standard-issue School of Quietude (SoQ) poet, but without all the rough edges sanded down to a smooth finish. Her favored mode is the dramatic monolog, often (tho not always) in the persona of herself. Her work is strong in narrative cohesion, with sharply defined figures. Her ear is turned toward dialect, as distinct from the sound of language as such. In the SoQ scheme of the world, Fried tells stories as distinct from writing sonnets.

Yet once you get beyond the one-quarter-of-a-second impression, you start to realize that this is the real deal, not unlike the way Wendell Berry is the real deal. Fried would almost certainly be writing just like this even if no School of whatever had ever existed. Which of course is exactly how it ought to be. And why Daisy Fried is going to have one helluva career. She is precisely the kind of poet that dozens, if not hundreds, of other poets wish they were, and have gone to grad school to try to become. Fried is going to make them all look like pale copies.

Her second book, My Brother is Getting Arrested Again, just out from University of Pittsburgh Press, is filled with poems startling in their vividness, their intelligence & their execution. Here is “Shooting Kinesha”:

“I hate what I come from,” says my cousin Shoshana,
22, jawing per always, feather earrings tangling
in her light brown hair. Shoshana hangs on to Kinesha,
her kid, to stop her running off. Our cousin Deb’s
wedding just got out; we’re standing at the bottom
of the wedding hall steps. “White people
don’t have culture, except what they stole
from our African brothers.” Shoshana’s
wearing black, per always, me too, her in leather,
me in acetate-velour. “Weddings, U-G-H.”
Shoshana spells out ugh like it’s spelled
in books. “I hope yours was cooler than this.”
I nod. I always nod at Shoshana, whatever she says.
Shoshana checks, rechecks her watch, watching
for her boyfriend.
I’m waiting for my husband too.
I’ve been a pain in the ass to him all morning.
Shoshana sips cheap
California champagne
to hide her upset feelings. Kinesha breaks loose,
veers close to the street and parked cars and traffic,
thrashes her lace anklets and buckle shoes
into a crowd of part-white pigeons.

London I only hung out with Jamaicans,”
Shoshana says. “People gave me looks on the bus.
Ouch.” She detangles an earring. “Once I ripped
an earlobe on these. Anyway, I want you to meet
my boyfriend. He’s cool, he’s sticking by me.
He says he knew he could when I wouldn’t
dime him out after they caught me with his pot
in the
Kingston airport. Kinesha’s his. He’s
the only guy I’ve loved since, you know, Ken?”
Ken’s the one who died beside her
of an overdose in the Motel 6 in
the time she was 16 and stole her dad’s Beamer
to run away. “You heard?” Of course I did,
in this family. “Kinesha’s Kinesha
to remember him,” she says. “I still miss him.”
I nod. I poke Kinesha’s belly, her nose.
“U-G-H,” says Kinesha, annoyed. I’m bad with kids.
“I’m teaching her to assert herself,” Shoshana says.
Her wrist-chains jangle. I twist my wedding ring.
An organ somewhere plays “Ode to Joy.”

Here comes the third bad cousin, Christina,
scruff-haired in the pale-pink prom dress
the bride her sister made her wear. $90,000
per year doing something with websites and she
can’t even keep her hair in order. “Isn’t it awful?”
Christina says, “What do I look like, Gwyneth Paltrow?
You guys look swell.” She’s good with kids:
Kinesha slams herself for a hug into Christina’s
legs. Christina and Kinesha kiss. She says
“Did you like my PowerPoint presentation
on the bride’s life? Did you think it was funny?
Go play with the pigeons.” She puts Kinesha down.
“Deb wanted a poem, but don’t you hate poems?
Was it wrong of me to start with an Eminem quote?”
Kinesha shouts, staggers, stamps at the pigeons;
jaded, they hardly move, only jump-start
halfhearted when Kinesha brandishes
her one-armed naked Barbie above her head,
then turns Barbie into a gun, shoots
at the pigeons. “I feel like we should be
sneaking around back with cigarettes
like we used to, remember?” says Christina.
“Too bad we don’t smoke anymore.”

Shoshana takes out her Newports, lights up.
I’m remembering we never much liked each other,
only hung together at family gatherings
because we were supposed to be the bad ones.
I hate what I come from. I say “My father
just told me again my poems are ‘too full
of disgusting sex.’ He said ‘Why don’t you
write more like Derek Walcott?’ I’m sick
of him throwing deep-thinking
genius men up at me.” Christina rolls
her eyes, shakes her head, fudges hair tendrils
back into her frizzy twisted updo, vibrates
her lips, blows air out. “Can you tell I’m
drunk already?” she asks. I nod. She shrugs.
“Well, why not, Deb didn’t invite single guys
for me like I asked her. Selfish as always.”

Shoshana checks her watch. “I’m gonna kill him.”
I wish I wanted to kill my husband.
Right now, I hate everything, everybody,
and don’t have a friend in the world
except my husband. It’s true he dislikes me
more and more these days but at least
he likes my poems and hates Derek Walcott.
Kinesha sprays Barbie bullets at everything,
Barbie’s head as bald as her elided crotch.
“I didn’t buy her that racist, sexist doll,”
says Shoshana. Christina and I nod.
“She found my old one. I pulled
all her hair out when I was 14
and shaved my head the first time.”
Kinesha moves away from the settling pigeons,
turns her Barbie gun on us, shoots.
Rat-a-tat-tat. “Ugh, you got me,”
we say, and “BANG!” I say. We turn
our hands into guns, three bad cousins,
Mother, Bridesmaid, and me, Wife-and-Daughter,
for all our different reasons, shooting the child.

An earlier version of this poem appeared in an issue of Ploughshares guest-edited by Campbell McGrath. The one change I can find between the two versions is in the next-to-last line, where Fried has added “and me,” to the version in her book, keeping the narrative clear.

One thing that I like very much about “Shooting Kinesha” is that there is no other poem remotely like it in this book, even tho there are a number of narratives as fully fledged. But that’s true of many of Fried’s poems here. Viz “First Boyfriend, 14,” one of the shortest poems in the book:

New Adam’s apple
destroying his soprano,
he bleats, tucks his chin
down to his neck. Mothballs
in his throat, can’t
figure out where to
put his voice. Harmony
hiccups away. After
choir practice he runs
barefoot, jeans rolled up,
through deep snow on a dare,
naked also to the waist,
mooing like the minotaur.

This poem’s linebreaks are perfect – after the opening sentence, not one of the other three start with the left margin, propelling the reading along all these soft enjambments right up to the final figurative image and the hard bang of that final period. This is critically important because the final word ends on one of the soft consonants, r. A poem like this is Fried’s way of demonstrating that she could be, if she wanted to, an entirely different kind of poet and be just as dazzling. I completely believe it. In another piece, “American Brass,” actually my favorite, the first few stanzas, and especially the first, looked and felt like broken-up prose when I first read the poem:

The percussionist is the only skinny member
of the American high school marching band
playing the
Luxembourg Gardens bandstand
under overspreading horse-chestnut trees.

It really took reading the entire poem – seventeen similar quatrains followed a solitary last line – to understand that this was as formally felt as any stanza in this book, absolutely necessary to the mindset of the work, even shapely in the traditional sense of that word in stanza design.

So hat’s off to the Pew Fellowship folks for coming along at just the right moment in Fried’s career, if that’s what it was. The school Fried had applied to – Temple – wasn’t (and isn’t) one of the programs apt to smooth off anyone’s rough edges. So that would have been a whole other story altogether. I think they would have challenged her & she would have challenged right back. Lets just hope that her natural constituency – which, lets face it, is the School of Quietude¹ – understands just how special Daisy Fried’s poetry is.


¹ Fried has argued with me about this before & may cringe at certain aspects of this review.