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Intersection of Ideas

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 3, March/April 2013
pp. 28-29 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0050

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If they don’t have an early class, contemporary poets get the kids off to school, listen to NPR, set a coffee cup down by the computer, and write a poem subtly evoking their sensitivity. This rude stereotype doesn’t fit Phil Fried. He may speak of himself, but as the intersection of the religious/scientific/philosophic ideas he likes to think about.

Early/Late from Salmon Poetry, the Irish publisher, is a milestone for Fried—a new and selected verse offering nineteen fresh poems plus selections from his previous books: Mutual Trespasses (1988), Quantum Genesis (1997), with— also from Salmon—Big Men Speaking to Little Men (2006) and Cohort (2009). A.R. Ammons called Quantum Genesis “a major new testament.” Marilyn Hacker and D. Nurkse have praised the recent work. Like Barry Bonds, Fried has become more productive with the passage of time.

The new poems, subtitled “The Emanation Crunch,” fuse religious, often biblical language with the syntax, idioms, and something close to the actual forms and legal and financial documents of current affairs. The “Notes” at the end cite “various corporate documents,” plus Julian of Norwich, the Nag Hammadi Gospels, Calvin’s Institutes, Villon, the Brandbucket Website—you name it.

These eccentric juxtapositions work in many ways. On the first reading, you think satire, then see that two worlds are being held up to simultaneously deconstruct and illuminate each other. “Bits” describes the digital reduction of data and the loss of faith in The Market, the financial industry, a god worshipped at many altars, which, in its abstraction, ubiquity, and complexity truly has a kind of supernatural power:

But I could not believe the world’s vast systems and risks were

contained in this kernel, the mighty but finite quantities bound

for the infinitesimal infinity….

…Now, the frantic trading but

ever diminishing, cries and curses at the atomic verge.

The spirit, a mysterious force, omnipotent, then absent, has deserted us: “And we know not our God…which is the heavenly treasury…conferring courage to invest and lend.”

One hundred years ago, Picasso and Braque made collages by pasting bits of oilcloth or newspaper on their canvases; the Waste Land was an early verbal collage; William Burroughs did his cut-ups a half century ago, and the New Yorker regularly prints understated pastiches by John Ashbery. Everyone’s collage is different. Fried uses contrasting dictions that embody conceptual oppositions to make allusive yet autonomous verbal structures. In an interview, he compares two dictions with tectonic plates. When they rub against each other, there is a tremor that is poetry. Similarly, in Unoriginal Genius, Marjorie Perloff quotes Walter Benjamin on the “‘doubling’ function of citation:” “it summons the word by its name, wrenches it destructively from its context, but precisely calls it back to its origin…only where they [origin and destruction] interpenetrate—in citation—is language consummated.”

In the same interview, Fried refers to the “intractable language that surrounds us: advertising, military jargon,” as “dirty language.” A style able to move easily from “dirty language” to gravitas seems valuable. And Fried is good at this, knitting the language of business and theology so that they oscillate between the bland masks of institutional speech, and the more august emotions associated with the sacred:

For you, trapped in this middling region of meager returns,

the Partnership offers a chance to reinvest your dole of

dimness in the exalted infinite Light.

Not every poem wins the lottery. Show business doesn’t quite work as “dirty language,” and “Chorus Line,” in which the musical of that name provides a stage where Sun Tzu, Von Clausewitz, and General Petraeus do shtick, was one I didn’t get.

All this recalls Frederic Jameson’s discussion of pastiche in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). For Jameson, pastiche, a—if not the—signature postmodern style, was a decline from the great individual styles of modernism, “the cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion,” “the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language.” And certainly, a poet who juxtaposes Calvin or Julian of Norwich with corporate documents seems vulnerable to Jameson’s charge, but these...

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