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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 251-253

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Book Review

The Old Man Who Swam Away and Left Only His Wet Feet

The Old Man Who Swam Away and Left Only His Wet Feet by Gene Frumkin. Albuquerque: La Alameda Press, 1998. 144 pages, paper $14.

J. B. Bryan at La Alameda Press turns out books praised for their design as well as their content. He adopts unusual palettes for the covers and spine, places photographs and illustrations strategically to illuminate the works, and most often prints the books in a six-by-eight-inch trim size. In this format--which brings [End Page 251] together the hand, eye, and poem--collections by such poets as Joseph Somoza and Carol Moldaw stand out on the bookshelf.

It was a surprise, therefore, when I received The Old Man Who Swam Away and Left Only His Wet Feet, Gene Frumkin's new collection, printed in a trim size of seven and a half inches by nine. Opening to the first poem, "The Perfection of Summer Thunderstorms," made it clear why the larger pages were necessary. Within thirty lines, the poet has used ten different indentions--a complex typography reflecting how thoughts and images are staged within the poems. As a matter of logistics, it would have been awkward, if not impossible, to constrain the sheer ranginess of his metaphors on smaller pages.

It's appropriate to start with matters of physicality when discussing Frumkin's work because his poems, although propelled by philosophical rumination more often than not, are grounded in images of the material world. Tables and chairs become the "cranky furniture" of a relationship, and stars constellate into "the church of broken glass scattered/across the heavens"; elsewhere, "the alphabet of olives" resides on the tongue of a priest. Born in New York City, raised in Los Angeles before World War II, and a resident of Albuquerque since 1966, Frumkin first spoke Yiddish, then English. He grew up as a poet in the age of imagery, when Robert Bly was promoting, through his magazine The Sixties, the idea that images were the primary poetic device to survive translation from one language to another. Rhyme and meter might fail to make the leap, but imagery could be understood from culture to culture. Frumkin once admitted, in his preface to an astonishing earlier volume, Comma in the Ear--a 140-page narrative poem in three voices--that he suspects Yiddish and English "have been engaged in a subliminal wrestling match for a long time." Perhaps it is only natural that he should invest his ideas so thoroughly in physical corollaries.

The seventy poems in The Old Man Who Swam Away and Left Only His Wet Feet are drawn from three decades of work and two earlier collections and include twenty-one new poems. The thirteen pieces from Dostoevsky & Other Nature Poems, a volume published by a small press in California in 1972 and reprinted in full in 1989 in the first issue of Manoa, are curiously indeterminate, as if the poet is waiting for something to happen. It's apparent that he's living in the Rio Grande Valley, but there's an ex-wife in Los Angeles--their love a memory in letters that appear to him as "faded mirrors." His "mind is a fragment of desert/where all detritus is baked anew," and it's obvious he's dealing with a personal diaspora, wrestling with the devil who "devours the elm leaves/and penetrates the closed eyelids."

Although I've known Frumkin and his work since the late 1960s and own several of his books, I've never seen a copy of his 1985 collection, A Lover's Quarrel with America--a good reason for him to have included thirty-six of its poems here. The poet is now more comfortable in the skin of his locality, and the matters of philosophy have shifted from contemplation of Godot and Duchamp to the way the "capsized umbrella" of upended tree roots, like an "undertow of objects," shows us how "Everything...


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