Louisiana State University Press
105 Page; Print, $17.95
The View from Saturn, Alice Friman’s sixth collection of poems, demonstrates a poetic vision that can, at one moment, zoom out to catch a glimpse of the second largest planet in our solar system and, at another, zoom in to a fetal hand the size of a decimal point. It is through this controlled transposition of perspectives that Friman allows her readers to not only see the world with a more focused lens but also read it anew with an imaginative mind. The poems of this collection touch on the cosmic, the quotidian, and the volatility of life in between—that precarious space we inescapably occupy—through an adept and delicate crafting of words that Friman has, like constellations, “clicked into place.”
The book begins with two epigraphs, the first of which quotes from John Keats’s “Hyperion” (1818) and the second of which simply reads, “What then must we do?”—the title of the Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 nonfiction work in which he discusses various issues pressing Russian society at the time. This question, in particular, serves as a fitting preamble to Friman’s poems because it is a question that not only elicits a multitude of answers but also gives rise to yet more questions. Many of the poems in The View from Saturn dwell on questions that hang on the mind—Friman prefers the more corporeal term brain—that ceaselessly thinks. There are those questions to which the answers are so obvious that they need not even be said and those questions to which the answers are so beyond our knowing that it is silly to even attempt them. But this does not eliminate such questions, nor does it alleviate the brain’s want of answers—however correct, contrived, or cathartic they might be.
When did it start, this insatiable want? Friman’s first poem, “Tracing Back,” with its retrospective vision, is all too aware of “the innocent pull of words, that belly crawl of language” which alludes to Eve succumbing to the serpent’s sweet talk in the Garden of Eden. Such words would trigger and extend not only her own curiosity, but that of all other Eves after her; such words would be, as Friman puts it:
…the keyto what she didn’t know yetbut would be looking forin all her troubled incarnations.
The five sections of the book that follow offer an asynchronous chronicle of this endless pursuit of the not-yet-known through the voices of Eve’s “troubled incarnations”: a daughter, mother, granddaughter, and even Cleo from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1606). In a sense, the poems of The View from Saturn are attempts to address Tolstoy’s question in the epigraph. Friman’s clever and meditative mode of contemplation, paired with an acute sense of desperation—a desire for explanations–thrusts her readers into the singular spaces her poems invite them to inhabit.
In the poem that opens section I, “The Brain,” Friman seems to acknowledge the impressive abilities of the human brain in the first stanza, but in the second, she implies that such abilities do no good when it comes to “re- / reading Aristotle’s Ethics, remembering where I left my keys.” So many of these poems seem to put their faith in the mind’s capacity to see, remember, and comprehend—to think its way through life—at the same time that they renounce such a faith. For example, in “How It Is” Friman does not pretend to “write the user’s manual / for a life” but offers instead a rhetorical question (posed perhaps to the reader, perhaps to herself): “What does life mean / but itself?” This oversimplification of the meaning of life may ostensibly provide the kind of conciliatory logic necessary to survive the day’s suffering, but in the last stanza, Friman asks, “What’s to lose / when what’s to lose is everything?” Is this the voice of daring or dejection? Friman does not grant easy answers.
As much as The View from Saturn is...