Pretenders by Jeff Friedman, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2014, 127 pp., $16.95, paperback
Each poem in Jeff Friedman’s sixth collection, Pretenders, delights with its linguistic and imaginative invention. The opening poem, “Mud,” sets the tone for the work that follows. From the mysterious first lines—“Out of the river, mud climbed/broken embankments, crooked staircases/gleaming hulls, the corpses of cows/ the skulls of cares” (1-4)—through the more nurturing mid-section—“Mud baked our bread. / It spoke a thousand tongues/translated our deepest needs into simple sentences” (12-14)—“Mud” displays Friedman’s characteristic piling on of images so engaging it’s easy to lose track of the somber subtext culminating in the closing line: “When we looked up, even the sun was mud” (25).
Friedman’s wry persona offers us surreal prose poems, parables, sardonic commentary on sex and human frailty, political critique. In “Our Dictator,” for example, a larger than life character who “waves/his arms, and tsunamis/blow over the ocean” (13-15) reduces his subjects to comic submission: “When our dictator sneezes, /the whole country says ‘Bless you,’/as everyone dives for cover” (48-50). “Money” indicts our foolish complacency even more directly. Money, personified in this poem, initially headed off to Mexico when the weather turned cool but becomes increasingly sinister as the poem continues: “Some lay like corpses/in the back of a truck/waiting to be shoveled into a pit” (22-24). Meanwhile, clueless, “we typed in new passwords/so no one could steal/the emptiness from our accounts” (33-35). The vivid language of such poems, along with his use of the inclusive first person, “we,” allow Friedman to offer social critique without scolding or haranguing the reader. Even in “Brokers,” one of the more pointed poems in this collection, Friedman lets his imagery carry the message: “If you want to know the future, /ask a broker. They glow with prophecy/like radioactive birds” (1-3).
Friedman subjects his speaker as well as the rest of the world to his droll wit: “ ‘Start without me,’ she says/and removes my hand from her thigh. / ‘I’ll catch up later’ ” (“On Sex” 1-3). However, his poetic strategies adapt themselves to more poignant moments as well. In “Wine” and “Wheels of Fire,” the speaker becomes a sort of magician trying to distract and perhaps rescue dying friends:
When I transformed his dingy room, dark and filthy, into
a garden, when I transformed a snake into a staff and beat
the rock until shiny water flowed from it and the staff
split into flying silverfish, he scoffed. “What’s the point?” he
asked. His skin was sallow and his frail arms hung from his
shoulders. (“Wine” 7-12)
Likewise in “Wait” and “Sitting Shiva,” Friedman turns a tender yet unsentimental gaze on the death of his mother, exposing his own vulnerability. When well-meaning friends bring gifts, food, memories, the speaker says
… Instead, I remembered
nurses in their shiny shoes,
red lines broken on digital monitors.
I remembered her swollen tongue
cracked lips and torn sores.
I remembered a spot of sun
on black wood, earth falling. (“Sitting Shiva” 14-21)
Friedman’s exuberance and gift for associative imagery make the poems seem effortless, but careful attention to and delight in the music of language drive every line, for example: “the yellow knotted/noggins of peonies” (“Failure” (5-6)), or “Now that I’m / a nation of stinks, /a wilderness of fetid flowers/the fete goes on full tilt” (“Breaking the Fast” 14-16). In addition, the poet controls the breakneck pace characteristic of so many of these poems through skillful placement of anaphora and the manipulation of line breaks and sentences. “Story of the World,” for instance, is a thirty-two line poem that begins with one short sentence: “The world’s beautiful with love, /so they say.” The rest of the poem is a single sentence through which the narrative unfolds with perfect clarity due to deft handling of line breaks, and, despite the poem’s prediction of disaster “as the war/explodes on the horizon” (29-30) the ending circles back to the hopeful opening lines: “the world shimmering with/the beauty of love” (31-32). This poem captures the sensibility that pervades Pretenders, an outlook that, while acknowledging the world’s foibles and corruption, cannot help but love and celebrate it at the same time.