Decanting: Selected and New Poems 1967-2017
Lost Horse Press, 2017
It isn’t often that the pace of modern life allows one to read a book of poems straight through, much less a work of selected poems covering 50 years of a poet’s life, but there is distinct pleasure in making time to do exactly that with Stuart Friebert’s new book, Decanting: Selected and New Poems – 1967-2017.
With no page of acknowledgments, introduction by the poet (nor anyone else), and no notes of explanation, the poems in this book speak directly to the reader without mediation – this is me, take it or leave it. Friebert selected the poems himself from his previous eleven books, and a short collection of new poems, and they form a kind of memoir, not of events in the poet’s life, but of the development of a poetic voice in the crucible of 50 years of life and work.
We start with poems from Dreaming of Floods, published in 1969, when Friebert, born in 1931, was thirty-eight. The poems are brief — all but one are half a page or less — and lines are short. The style seems influenced by the surrealism popular among poets of the 1960’s and ‘70’s:
Nothing but ravines, tongues
of snow, where are the roses
of the teacher, the rain animals
through shattered windows…
Overall, the poems in the early books seem less personal, somewhat intellectual and removed from the speaker’s emotional life. Moving through the middle and later books, the poems take up more room on the pages, tell more stories in longer lines, move from surreal imagery to narrative description, and the poems seem more assured than earlier work. The surrealism of earlier poems occasionally shows up in the new work as deliberate flights of dark fancy — as well-constructed deviations of direction into some unknowable place.
WWII is a topic that Friebert returns to in many of his collections – not the combat of the war so much as the emotional and geographical aftermath. He spent an undergraduate year in Germany in 1949-50, a time when the rubble and destruction was still very much a part of the daily scene, and pictures from the concentration camps were still prominent in media around the world, images that find a place in his poems.
He went on to earn a PhD in German Language and Literature. In addition to the eleven books of poems represented in Decanting, he also published three early volumes of poems and one of prose in German, and taught German at Mt. Holyoke, Harvard and Oberlin. He founded Oberlin’s Creative Writing Program and co-founded Field Magazine, the Field Translation Series, and Oberlin Press. Friebert has published eight volumes of translations. Several of his poems in Decanting are dedicated to German or Eastern European poets and writers. Perhaps because of the period, or his strong connections with Europe through his grandparents; and the European flavor of his subjects, Friebert’s work may bring to mind for readers the work of Richard Hugo and connections made in the dust of Europe after WWII. The same straightforward imagery and wry humor can be found in both poets.
There are also many poems across the collection that speak of various periods of Friebert’s boyhood, often bringing us portraits of his friends and family members in poems alternately hilarious, darkly funny, sweet, or poignant. All have the confidence and mastery that characterize his mature voice. In “Marbles in Milwaukee,” a poem that turns shooting marbles into something beautiful and deeper than a children’s game, he makes the “shooter” (a larger marble used to knock other marbles out of play) into a character in the poem, and also brings in a conversation with Borges.
…………………………But it preferred solitude
to the most brilliant games; dressed in its creamy
reds it looked more like a tiny Mars than any real
sight on Earth. When Borges asked me fifty years
later what I remember most liking as a child: Exactly,
he whispered, Tell me exactly, I froze at first. Finally,
he poked me with his cane till I blurted out: Wiping
my shooter coated with dust as clean as I could, Sir.
He tipped his head back, and there was that same
red at the bottom of his eyes sliding into view.
(“Marbles in Milwaukee”)
Another major theme within the collection speaks to the natural world, but not in what most of us think of as “nature poems.” Friebert writes often of nature through the vehicle of poems about fishing and hunting, sometimes with his father or other relatives, sometimes just as metaphor. He comes across as a man who spends time outdoors, observing and aware of the animals – and people — with whom he shares the planet; capturing the beauty as well as the terror and tragedy of being alive.
The one-hundred and forty-two poems in Decanting portray a poet who is a master of his craft, able to breathe life into real or imagined characters, report a vast range of experience, and write in a voice that is by turns exuberant, serious, hilarious, gruff, and tender. Whether you just dip into the poems in this book, or read them all, you will feel yourself well-rewarded for your effort.