Lillian Elaine Wilson
Alice Friman's new book of poems, Vinculum, is forthcoming from LSU Press in 2011. She is the author of eight collections of poetry, most recently The Book of the Rotten Daughter from BkMk Press released in April 2006, and Zoo (Arkansas, 1999), winner of the Ezra Pound Poetry Award from Truman State University and the Sheila Margaret Motton Prize from the New England Poetry Club. Her poems appear in Poetry, The Georgia Review, Boulevard, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, and Shenandoah, which awarded Friman the 2001 James Boatwright III Prize for Poetry. She's received fellowships from the Indiana Arts Commission and the Arts Council of Indianapolis and has been awarded residencies at many colonies, including MacDowell and Yaddo. She was named Writer in Residence at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in 2003-04. Friman is the winner of three prizes from Poetry Society of America and in 2001-02 was named to the Georgia Poetry Circuit. Professor Emerita at the University of Indianapolis, she now lives in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she is Poet-in-Residence at Georgia College & State University.
Alice Friman on writing:
To me writing poetry is the great permission. I started writing seriously in my forties, and except for the Iowa workshop, I had never heard of such a thing as an MFA program. If I had, what would I have done with such information—what with the husband, the three kids, the ironing. You know that picture. So I was never introduced to all the things you shouldn't do. Since it’s been quite a few years since I was in my forties, I've seen no end of no-nos come and go, so many you can't do thats turn into of course you can, I figured I was right all along, and there are some things you shouldn't pay attention to. The important thing is to write.
I write for the muse. Does that sound old fashioned? As I tell my classes, there are no muses for basketball, but, by heaven, there are four, count them, four muses for poetry—Euterpe, Polyhymnia, Calliope, and Erato. Five if you count Thalia, who doubled in comedy and pastoral poetry. And whichever one is called up when I first touch pen to paper, I tell you, she is one tough cookie. Fifty drafts? Four months for eight lines? The muse grants permission all right: say whatever, write whatever, just make sure when it's done you've hammered out something original and honest.
Alice Friman has entrusted this issue of Innisfree with a generous selection of her poems:
MRS. BEASLEY'S SUPPER
"Woman Sees Jesus in Microwave Oven"
She never considered herself
worthy. But there He was—
no bigger than a dashboard doll
riding the revolving plate.
Redeemer. Pin of the pinwheel.
The groaning axis of this world
lit up and acquiescent
as the potato He sat on—
all eyes shooting out His love.
Fixed to His purpose
under last week's gravy-
spattering of stars, He spun
in slow motion, weeping out
her guilt, unknotting then knotting
the long thread of her shame
into the hair shirt of His Passion.
She crumpled at the knee.
What did she care of wattage
or rebate from Sears?
She pressed both hands to the glass.
He pressed His to His heart
the way He must have in the womb,
lighting the dark squeeze
of infinite space. Homunculus.
Bullion. Fishhook of God
zapped in the humming electrons
of the two million years it took
to make Him. And the eighty years
of pink rollers and patience
it took to bring Him home.
Born blind and spun dizzy,
we stumble into empty space,
clutching the paper tail of the donkey,
groping for connection, then hoot
at where the others end up—
dangled from a lampshade
or out the door. Another headline
for laughs at the checkout.
Another ballerina twirling
on a jewel box, one more joke,
one more rubber chicken from God.
and all fluttery—Mrs. Beasley
put on her best blue dress,
popped a paper daisy in a vase,
then fished out the bottle of Muscatel
to savor a sip with her chop
and baked potato. Who's not blessed?
published in Boulevard
Today I started looking for my soul.
Yesterday it was my keys. Last week,
my brain which I couldn't find, it being out
looking for me, now that I'm getting so old.
First I thought my soul would have gone
back to Greece where she grew so tall and straight,
she thought she was a column. Or back to camp,
being forever twelve and underdeveloped.
Perhaps, being careless, I left her during the 70s
in bed with God knows whom. Or could be
I buried her with my mother—my head not being right—
but that was my heart.
So I went to where I know
I saw her last. Radio City Music Hall.
I'm six, my feet barely brushing the floor,
and the Rockettes start shuffling out, long-
legged and perfect as paper-dolls kicking up
down in a wave. One body with seventy-two knees
chugging like pistons going back in a forever mirror,
same as in Coney Island’s Fun House or on Mama's can
of Dutch Cleanser. And my heart flexed in me, a sail,
and I swear I saw it flying out of my chest
spiriting away my giddy soul, ears plugged and tied
to the mast: I can't hear you I can't hear you.
published in Ploughshares
and appears in Best American Poetry 2009
It must have been October, right after
the annual hanging of the winter drapes
and the ceremonial unrolling of the rug
from its summer sleep behind the sofa.
Gone were the slipcovers, leaving
the upholstery stripped down to warm
arms again, and the little living room
transformed into a mother hug of all
she labored for—the luxury of bastion
and snug, the thick stability of thick
pile, purchased with how many
on-her-knees hours of scour and rag.
The whir of the sewing machine at night,
and all those stretched nickels.
My sister would say this never happened,
or if it did, it wasn't this way, or if it was,
I never cried, or if I did, how could I—
so young—know what was to cry about.
A room like that, in the Snow White
haven of the dwarves' house, and I
no more than four, rowing a cardboard
box across the rug, its flowered sea
lapping at my hands that were my oars.
When suddenly, there was my father
dancing to the radio or some crazy song
of his own making, flapping his arms
and yawping like a great enchanted
gull of happiness having nothing to do
with me. Or her. And I saw as through
the glass layers of the sea what he'd
been before I came in my little boat
riding its vast engines of responsibility,
dragging him under, changing him into
someone other than the drowned beloved
I'd be trying to make it up to all my life.
published in Prairie Schooner
VISITING THE TERRITORIES
Come, brush the clay
from what's left of your good suit
and lie down here with me.
In the splinters
of what you are, in the marrow's residue,
surely there are traces of your bride.
Don't be afraid. Make believe I'm asking
you to dance. You always loved to dance.
Show 'em how it’s done in Brooklyn, you'd say,
whirling me out to the ends of your fingers,
pulling me back.
Now I'm pulling you
back, not to redraw the lines or rummage
in the ragbag of our forever after,
but because I need you. Come.
Our first apartment, a high-rise called
The Dakota, remember? A big joke
for two New York City big shots like us
who couldn't find the Dakotas on a map
if we had to. Birdland, that we knew, Basie,
Embers East, Oscar Peterson, and Dinah un-
dressing the blues in pink. Dizzy, healing
the world with his horn, holding the whole
damn ball in his cheeks. Who'd not reconvene
his dust to remember that?
Come. Apt. 4-C.
Five-and-ten store dishes and all we own—
a mattress, Scrabble, and a window fan
rattling its dark inklings. Maybe if you lay
down next to me the artless bones, I could find
the true history of the Dakotas before the broken
treaties, the Badlands, and what happened next.
published in The Gettysburg Review
Do not look at me again like that: between us
is too stripped down to the bare wire of what we were.
The look, umbilical—that cord I thought discarded
in some hospital bin fifty years ago come November.
How strange to find it once more between us,
still beating and so palpable we could
cross over and enter into each other again,
seeing our old selves through new, first eyes.
Plucked from a drumroll of autumns, that one
was ours—autumn of my twenty-third year, autumn
of your final fattening, taking up all the room,
worrying the thinning walls. The rope that seethed
from me to you and back again—our two-
way street—and you, little fish, hanging on
past your lease in a time of narrowing dark,
which you can't possibly remember, but do.
And it comes to me: that look must be what love is,
which is why we'll not speak of it nor hunt it down
in each other's eyes again, for you're too worldly
to admit, without wincing, what happened happened.
And I, too conscious of my failed attempts
to fire into language what's beyond words, could not
bear it. Which leaves me holding the bag once more
of foolish thoughts. I know, I know, the universe
has neither edge nor center nor crown, but I want
to think that past Andromeda and out beyond
a million swirling disks of unnamed stars, that cord
we knew, that ghost of an eye-beam floating between us,
arcs in space, lit up like the George Washington Bridge
pulsing with traffic, even after both stanchions are gone.
published in The Georgia Review
SEEING IT THROUGH
Presto the magician
drops his handkerchief
and amazingly I'm looking down
seventy years. Down
as from the top of a winding stair
vertigoing to the bottom
where the child struggles to mount
crawling on her knees that first step.
And I want to say Wait
I'll come down
carry you up
for I need you here
now that the banister is nearing
its finial and I can see
the rituals of the sky
speeding up through the almost
Honey hair and the sunsuit
Mother made from a scrap. Come.
If I hold you high, you can touch
the glass. Let the last contact
be a baby's hand. Why not?
All things come around
replete with rage and rattle.
published in Poetry
In January, she drove
to the end point of the earth, rented
a room with no television, no phone.
She wanted only to walk by the sea,
to find in that old shine and display
the key chain back on its familiar hook.
She hadn't counted on a storm
wanting her naked, tugging at her clothes.
She hadn't counted on the tides, fresh
from tsunami, still in an iron frenzy
sicced on by the winds. She pushed on.
Gulls lined up, intent as paparazzi
waiting for news, then rose in one
great hoop and cry reporting to the sea.
What was to fear, having sifted through
the lost beaches of childhood so long,
each shell, each bawk bawk matching
a twin in the red pail of her memory?
The sky sneered in contempt,
rammed a fist of wind into her back.
Never mind beaches of the past—swells
off Montauk, the racing waters south of Piraeus
where foam is ermine and all the world of wet
royal and electric. Here was stagger, wind-
bloat and fury driving the sands before it
like ghosts of beasts fleeing on their bellies,
a howling anger pushing them down.
Gray bone in a gray soup.
Who could find her? No light
shafted these clouds, no Bernini burst
of promise and dove. The horizon's fog
cementing up its one red eye.
A woman stands facing the sea, holding on
to all she has, and the sea, struggling
to heave itself up, teeters on its watery legs,
and with a roar and a suck
tries to take it all back. Gulls
blink their yellow eyes. They know
what they know: Here, where each cry
slaps a wet mockery back in her face,
where the winds' mounting displeasure
sledgehammers down to crack open the sea,
here is the interior of a stone: a boulder
split inside out and alive: her old dead mother
thrashing in anger, spitting in her chains.
published in Subtropics
The lawn rolled back like a rug
in thick jellyrolls of sod
to be rolled back, flat again
as if nothing had happened.
What happened was dust, sealing
off one more job. I tell you,
there's no getting rid of it.
Beat your carpet back to thread.
Mop a floor, wash rocks. It waits—
pale and timid lullabyes
of fluff collecting themselves
in the dark, under your bed,
along baseboards. Bits of you,
yes, your skin, your hair, making
wee dollies with your name stored
in the sweeper bag, starting
another each time you throw
one out. Behind you, listen—
linty breath. There's no escape.
Fly to Rio, book a cruise.
Dust follows. No no, you say.
Tonight belongs to thunder,
to rain sloshing in, blinding
as car wash. Tomorrow's sun
promising a clean green world
bright as varnished lettuce. Oh?
Will it pass the white-glove test?
There's reason for the shiver
down the horse's rump. Slap it.
Watch the dust rise. See him run.
published in The Southern Review
from Lady with an Ermine
Czartoryski Museum, Krakow
Leonardo was convinced
sperm came down from the brain
through a channel in the spine.
So much for genius. I say
sperm, like any seed, travels up,
makes an explosion in the brain
leaving a scent of crushed flowers
in the memory. On such a trellis
true love might climb. On such
a shaky stair, many a bad apple
rotten to the core is persuaded
to polish himself up before rising,
sleek and feverish as a column
of mercury in a tube.
whose smile is older than the rocks,
she knew. And Cecilia Gallerani,
seventeen and paramour to Sforza
the lecher, usurper, Duke of Milan.
See how she catches the light
full in the face then beams it back
like truth itself. And look
how she holds the ermine—
Sforza's emblem—how she lets it
tread her arm, claws unleashed,
and she not flinching. This is
no inert female sitting pretty
for her picture.
expectant, listening to someone
over Leonardo's hunched shoulder,
maybe Sforza himself who follows
her scent up and down corridors
in case he needs her, yes,
to check his arithmetic, polish up
his correspondence. Later when
he's pricked to marry someone else,
he'll set her up for life: estate,
gardens, the works. Cecilia Magnificat
But she doesn't know that yet, does she—
stroking his little white weasel,
patting its head?
published in Ekphrasis
Ogle, grin, kiss me blue
then finish up. Tomorrow
the door closes and locks. Never
mind the shadow beneath my pillow,
never mind the taste of salt
you complain of left in the mouth.
Without you I am sponged clean.
The basin water splashes clear.
Despite what you murmur,
you've not doomed the tight poppy
that is my life. Orange is the true color
of the storm. A wind is coming
high-pitched and terrible. Be afraid.
2. The Children
Little snail, and you, mama's plump bone
asleep in the terrible shadows.
Poppies of my love. To cut, to taste
the salty spurt, oh, what blizzard burns
in the doomed glass? You stir.
Hush, don't be afraid. I am clear
as the water splashed on the washing stone.
Kiss me. Kiss me in your sleep.
(Lock shut my heart) Listen,
my wine glass is on the table.
When you wake stir the rim to singing.
I've left a song for you about heroes.
Dragon's teeth and orange fire.
Come. The poppy burns
in the glass. I am not afraid.
Do not murmur like the broom
on the stones or threaten high-pitched
from the shadows of my sleep. The snail
winds in the terrible lock. My wine
tastes of salt. The hero storms in, splashes
in the basin water next to my bed,
sits on the edge, grins, spurts his filthiness.
Come, finish me. I have had enough.
My pillow smells of oranges.
The mop in the corner, tight and clean
as a burnt bone. I am ready.
Father, what was I
but the moody poppy of your house,
a mop or bony broom singing
in the corner? I sent you back
your true treasure, cut up, piece by
splashing piece to burn in the pyre for
the murmuring crowd. Kiss him for me.
The filth, the terrible treasure, I keep
beneath the washing stone where the snail's
slime has turned the gold to orange.
Now there is too much to clean.
My heart plumps with shadows.
I'll not speak with you again.
The storm has come. The finish
terrible as your truth. I have cleaned up
my table, my wine glass, the splashed
stones. I have twisted the mop.
There is no grin in me. I am done.
I have taken my cut treasures
wrapped tight in their pillowcases.
See how I'm kissed by their blood.
I leave you your treasures: The burnt bone
of your new life and the locked-up secret
you tricked me for. I left my shadow
murmuring in the orange tree. My wash water
in the basin for you to drink.
published in Subtropics
Small as a bocci ball, dark
green and striped, the latest
in Kroger's arsenal of seven
a day and rich in lycopene,
but thirty years ago you were it—
karpúzi—and I'm tap tapping
my head, pantomiming your
new name, Karpúzi, for stupid,
for melonhead, for how could you
when by witness of moon-melt
and star, we crossed hearts in
sign language/love language,
the inky sea pounding out my
deposition: I'll return in a year,
steal the money if I have to.
What kind of sieve lets go of that?
Not the blushing bougainvillea
eavesdropping by the bus station
when I left, or the shrieks
of pipers and black-backed gulls
egging on the tides, or the wet
silver slapping of a morning
catch, and the cracked split-
nailed hands struggling the hook
out of the mouth, Greek
filling the air like falling flakes
of Scrabble, happiness tiles
to make the words that would
have kept you waiting. Even now,
given a morning's clean and
breaking hour, it all comes back
as I did. And you, gone on
with your life, opening your big
dumb arms, wading right into it.
published in New Letters
At high altitudes the heart rises
to throat level, clanging for service.
The body—#1 customer—needs oxygen,
the red blood cells scurrying like beaten
serfs not delivering fast enough: supply
and demand, that old saw.
struggling to make love under six blankets,
my heart banging so hard it threatened
to knock me out of bed, and you
in socks, ski hat, and four sweaters, fighting
for breath? When relating our story, paring
it down for parties,
let's leave those parts
out. Say we went to South America
for pre-columbian art and Machu Picchu.
Mention the giant condors, yes, but not how
they floated up from Colca Canyon
like human souls circling in great flakes
nor how I cried, reaching to bridge
the unbridgeable gap. Say that one shivering
night we visited a thermal pool, but not
how slippery as twins tumbling in the womb,
we sloshed together under Andean stars.
Or how nose-bleeding or heart-pounding
and laboring for breath,
we reached for each other. Practice the lesson
of the body in distress: The heart knows
how much leeway it has before demanding
its due. Waiting in line for the xerox calls for
giveaways of more supple truths: cartilage, Love,
published in Shenandoah
April in Georgia and the dogwood
droops peevish. Ten in the morning,
95 in the shade, and the pond—
where a friend swears he once saw
a beaver slap his tail—gags on mud.
But weather or not, new shoots
of kudzu inching across the ground
look for a sapling to mount, while
birds, as if demented, keep up
their eggy songs of love. Funny
how wooing goes on no matter what.
Or where. Just yesterday, never
mind the UV rays taking advantage
of peepholes in the ozone, we walked
our flesh outside—me with my droop
and advancing state of crepiness, and he,
formerly known as sweet young thing,
bifocaled now and balding. Think old—
Adam and his girl come home
lugging their baggage and their deaths
but still hand-in-hand courageous
despite their once-upon-a-time bitter
dish of apple crumble, only to face
on their return to nakedness
the white oak's shudder and groan,
the April poplar turning away its leaves.
Damn sun suckers! Little Puritans!
Maybe in November, when light's
absence squeezes the day from both ends
and all last-ditch efforts of October's
in-your-face glitterings are flattened underfoot,
those leaves will look back, not on their spring
but on their final frippery, and what smug
joy it was. That defiance. That withering HA!
published in The Georgia Review
And who was I
with my New York cawfee,
sticking in r's where they're not
or erasing them, as in Hedder Gablah
or Emmer—guess who—Bovary? So I kept
my face still, not wanting to be impolite
in case I hadn't heard correctly, but then
he said it again—Far Tar.
He was talking about its steps
being so slicked with ladybugs,
the rangers had to post Keep Off,
so dangerous they were, and what
a shame, because this Far Tar was
the forest's most popular attraction.
But by then, not grasping what mystery
he was going on about, I was gone,
slipped down the slide of Far Tar
and into the pitch of it. A tar baby
"pitched past pitch of grief," as Hopkins said,
and beyond sense.
How far is Far Tar?
How many miles of asphalt does it take
to get there? Imagine a road
of good intentions, stretching farther,
further than Dorothy's yellow brick
and tar black to boot. A road of no
return and less traveled by, but not
paved with grief or the sludge of sin
from Dante's fifth bolgia, but just
going on and on, zigzagging mountains,
canyons, and herds of wild horses,
then up and down and across the frozen
steppes slippery with history thundering
across the Russias.
And what's too
Far Tar? Hawthorne's Major Molineux
tarred and feathered beyond recognition.
That's Far Tar. Or what about
the British sailor lost to the opium dens
of Shanghai then dumped in the Whangpoo
whose venerable carp still haunt
the spot of his sinking—his last breath,
bubbles clinging to the weeds? So far
from afternoon tea, from Mother
and the playing fields, the mushy peas
of home, and brussel sprouts. I call that
a far Tar. A cold Tar.
Coal tar, obtained
from a distillation of bituminous coal,
used for the "heartbreak of psoriasis"
or explosives. Get that stuff over you
and that's Far Tar. Or go to North Carolina,
where the Tar River rising in the north
flows a fair and far 215 miles south.
But that's wrong, a misnaming
if there ever was one, for Graves says
tar means west, Ægean for the dying sun
grateful for a west to crawl into each night
on bloody knees. If so, Far Tar
is a synonym for tar doubled—Tartar.
Not a sauce for fish, but for a west
beyond the West, beyond the beyond
and over the edge, where the grinding gates
of Tartarus open for us all.
Who'd have thought
this man manning the desk at the visitor's center
was a historian of such magnitude?
To speak of Far Tar and know it
for what it is—Argus-eyed and
foreboding, as if it rose in the midst
of the forest, tall as a fire tower,
to remind us of the long climb
and the steps made slick with ladybugs
who seem more and more like us, forgetting
the fiery house and the smell of children burning.
published in The Gettysburg Review
Additional information, poems, and essays by Alice Friman, can be read on her website at www.alicefriman.com.