A while ago, The Economist reported on recent research on happiness. The perhaps surprising conclusion was that "beyond middle age, people get happier as they get older" ("The Joy of Growing Older," December 18-21, 2010). The studies might have told a different story had they taken into account Alice Friman's fourth book of poems, The Book of the Rotten Daughter (2006), whose poems meditate obsessively on endings and loss: on disease and drought, dying parents and missing friends, summer's and century's end, lost "dazzle" and "final pages." The poems are intelligent, honest, and beautifully articulated, but, as Nelson Algren used to say, they "cut in a little close."
On her website, Friman remarks that, for her, poetry "offered me a rope, not a rope to pull me out of life, but a rope to lower me more deeply in it. To go down under the glittering surface and come up with the news of what I found there." Busily sprinkling glitter over my own increasingly erratic joie de vivre, I was chary when her fifth collection, Vinculum, arrived about following Friman down once more, but the news she delivers is again worth the pain. The passage of five years has not rendered Friman slaphappy, though she is, in these forty-three poems, more playful and humorous as she spelunks again the caves of endings, aging, and loss. The humor is that of someone who knows that mournful melodies are preferable to remaining on the banal if glittering surface and far preferable to finding oneself unmiserably dead, like Friman's mother in her coffin, indifferent to "the rabbi's hired / platitudes, the pink lipstick / she wouldn't be caught dead in" ("Talking to the Eternal Light").
Repeatedly, these poems take Friman into the woods where the season is often autumn, symbol of endings and diminishment but also emblematic of a last, sensuous burst of "juice and fondle" ("Working in Metal"). Here, last leaves clinging to their branches or the leafless trees hibernating [End Page 173] through winter teach lessons in holding on, in "seeing it through," as the collection's proem has it. Here is how "Silent Movie" finds hope beyond autumn's mists and mellow fruitfulness:
The towering beech, the naked poplarspeak the language of lips and the mossthat covers them. If the trees sleep nowin this storage locker of the cold,if they seem aloof and alien strange,it doesn't mean that beneath the bark,or underground where roots tangleand hold, they've forgotten their promiseof smolder and juice. Look at them.
Nature teaches that if "What's imperishable is perishable / piece by piece," it also "lives because it dies" ("Working in Metal"):
Look out the window.The curtain rises, and stage left—see?Spring enters singing forsythia, that ariaof yellow . . .("Waiting")
But what of us, climbing the "winding stair" toward the banister's finial ("Seeing It Through")? Not all of nature's lessons redound to our comfort: a new spring may be forever around the corner, but this doesn't mean we will forever go a-maying.
Friman finds such messages everywhere—in a hiking trail slick with ladybugs, a dogwood drooping in the Georgia heat, woods "deep as Dante's Error" ("Ars Poetica in Green"), the arctic cod whose flesh is a "bundle of white flakes packed / tight as a parachute" ("The Mythological Cod"). A dead moth provides an object lesson: a certain number of days is all we have ("The Color of Ineffable"). Or consider "Permanent Press," which finds Friman recalling someone loved "four wars" and "nine recessions" ago. Asking who the two of them were back during the Kennedy administration, she answers, "Forget it. Are you still alive? The rest is gibberish" ("Permanent Press"). One might call this "whistling in the dark," like the humor deployed when she equates her search for her soul—left possibly back in the seventies "in bed with God knows whom" —with a search for misplaced keys ("Getting Serious"). Her searching, however, is anything but glib or self-delusional, and just as nature leads Friman inescapably...