Review of Jeff Friedman’s Pretenders

PretendersReviewed by Ewa Chrusciel

At first I am drawn to an inscription from Zbigniew Herbert’s most anthologized Polish poem: “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito”:

Go where the others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

Herbert’s poem is comprised of existential imperatives: you were saved not in order to live / you have little time you must give testimony. It proclaims the value of heroism and dignity. It calls the reader to stand up for truth in defense of the persecuted. In the times of the Communist Regime in Poland, Herbert’s poem became a manifesto, contesting the newspeak and propaganda of Communist ideology.

In “Envoy,” Herbert states: repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends. Herbert often wrote fables, parables, and mini tales. Jeff Friedman’s Pretenders also revolves around fables, parables, and mini-tales. However, Friedman recasts his tales to question the validity of borders and human identity.

The first poem in the collection, “Mud”, seems to be in disjunction with Herbert’s message, as the protagonist of the poem is not a hero but mud! Can mud proclaim the value of heroism and dignity, as Herbert’s “Envoy” does? We read: “mud drove our convoy;” “mud said its prayers;” “mud baked our bread.” Yet, the syntactical repetitions of the activities performed by mud impose order amidst semantic chaos. Friedman puts a provocative spin on the themes from the book of Genesis, in which we humans are creatures chiseled by God out of mud. Further, in the New Testament, Christ throws a bit of mud in the eyes of the blind man and heals his blindness. In Friedman’s iconoclastic world, however, Mud is the Creator and the Savior.

Yet in the next poem “After the Flood,” it is a human who regains agency over mud and water. The creation myth weaves through the contemporary tale of Vermont flooding. Water then swirls into “Galicia”, the next poem in Friedman’s collection. In its longing for the past, this poem—where “the elephant scratches the ear of flea and pigs wallow in broken clouds”, evokes both Zagajewski’s famous poem “To go to Lvov” and Andre Breton’s surreal poem ”Free Union.” Like these two poems, “Galicia” is made of paratactical magic realism repetitions that form the incantatory rhythm. It speaks of the desire for heaven-like land of our ancestors or our childhood. Of course, the imagination of the poet exceeds the reality. I happen to come from Galicia in Poland and I do not see “forests flickering with diamonds or the piano benches hopping while the count prays for rain” when I visit old Galician cities every summer. Yet, when I am here in USA, I partake in Friedman’s wild dream of Galicia. “I hum to the earth where my ancestors lie” and “I ride against the Cossacks, waving my saber” (“Galicia”). I wonder then: what is this longing in us that only the Infinite can match?

The more we delve into Friedman’s book, the more the topoi of the book, as well as its architectural themes, emerge: Noah’s flood (paired with VT flooding), Genesis, Judaism, the intersection of human and animal realms, evil (as a dictatorship or serpent or a broker), metamorphosis, fables. Interesting patterns also emerge: mud in the opening poem in the collection is replaced by the serpent at the end of Part 1 and then becomes the salt in Part 4 of the collection; the dictators reappear in various manifestations. The themes create a consistent patchwork of intertextuality. The allusions to Herbert and the Bible are brined in a pinch of salt, and further seasoned with dark humor and fabulism. They become deliberately preposterous, and sometimes pastiche-like. Ovid-esque transformations flow into each other by sudden curves and twists, at doubled speed. In “Bear Fight” one minute you are a bear, then human, then bear, and then your beloved is a bear. These extravagant and hyperbolic transformations question human and animal identity, as well as the identity of non-animate objects. In “Pill,” for example, the father addresses the blue pill as his son. The son responds: “if you swallow me, I won’t be your son anymore [….] If you swallow me, I’ll clomp around inside you like an elephant.” But the father swallows the son after which he is “eager to climb the Alps.” In both of these poems, whimsical transformations and the dark humor evoke both the fatalism of Greek myths, as well as Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” in which Gregor Samsa turns into a gigantic insect. As in Kafka, Friedman’s use of comedy serves to delve into very painful experiences of human isolation, inadequacy and guilt. It also reminds me of Miłosz’s poem Ars Poetica:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

Friedman reawakes primeval questions such as: “Who am I” (Family History, The Y Chromosome, Tea); “Who do I become, when I am given a name or nationality?” (Day of Atonement, The Names); “Can I remain the same person?” (Crossing a Border, Pretenders); or “Can I preserve my identity” (Sitting Shiva, Tea). Once again, my mind drifts back to one of Szymborska’s line: “We only know ourselves to the extent that we have been tested.”

As in in Kafka, and Miłosz, Friedman’s poems give witness to human experience of structural disproportion, as our needs and desires are incommensurable to all that we can generate by our own strength. We are torn between the fortresses we created and the attraction towards the other. Our desire is like a giant in the “solitary field” (Giacomo Leopardi “Il Pensiero Dominante”) [The Dominant Thought].

Amidst the incantatory poems based on repetitions referring to the predicament of postmodern man, the condition of spiritual exile or refuge, I also encounter playful, light and humorous poems such as “Of Chickadees and Chickpeas” or “What I Learned from the Animals.” I love the pacing of Friedman’s book; his gentle balancing between light and dark; serious and playful.

There are also magnificent prose poems in this collection which evoke fables in the vein of Kafka mostly, but which also go back to the tradition of Aesop and La Fontaine. The morals in these fables are more implicit than explicit. Nor can we expect easy closure from Friedman’s fables. They end in medias res, as if they actually kept going on as we turn the page. To go back to the poem “Bear Fight,” the transformation from human to bear never really ends, as if Friedman wanted in the end to question the ideas of borders by inhabiting liminal spaces of human emotions. In a haunting poem “Spreading the Son” in which the son is ash, the activity of spreading never ends, except in the end the father also turns into continually spreading molecules and particles. The ending image is that of “salt spreading everywhere like a desert.” In this poem Friedman skillfully replaces the metaphors, which are forceful and certain about reality with similes, which, as Ted Kooser suggests in his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual, lack authority and imply skepticism about the perception of reality (126). Thanks to similes, the images coexist and spread without the end onto the omnipresent desert that knows neither limits nor borders.

In Friedman’s book, there is also an imminent presence of evil, combined with the inability to name it or contest it. The dark Somebody “breaks the door”; “smashes the bottle”; “tosses a bomb in the burning bush.” Friedman asks an old, yet always pertinent, question: Unde Malum? By refusing to define the evil, he positions suffering also in liminal indefinable spaces, reformulating and complicating the question of good and evil through an amalgamation of sacred and profane. In a sense, evil remains a mystery whose origin is beyond the poet’s ken.

What does this depth and absence of ontology have to do with Herbert’s Envoy, looming over this book? Herbert also addresses the mystery of evil in his poems, “a pendulum from suffering to suffering” (Mr Cogito and Imagination”). And yet Friedman does not just simply echo or commemorate the Polish poet. Instead, he transforms Herbert’s message: The imperative “Go”, in Friedman’s pen becomes rather ironic: “Give something back” (in Philanthropist”) or “Give up” (in “Give it up”). In this manner, Friedman mourns over the lack of heroes who simply keep going “upright among those who are on their knees/ among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust;” who simply go because only in this way will you be admitted to the company of cold skulls/ to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland/ the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes (Herbert “Envoy of Mr. Cogito”).

If I could, I would transform Friedman into a Polish poet with Polish citizenship for being faithful to Polish poets; for the great poems in his new collection; for defending “the kingdom without a limit.”


– Ewa Chrusciel

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