"At over a hundred pages and tackling many serious subjects--family relationships, love, aging, death, as well as the representation of women in classical myths, the Old Testament and literature--Alice Friman's seventh full-length collection could be overwhelming and cumbersome. But Friman, a consummate story-teller, adept at self-deprecation and mischief, has written a book that is as disarmingly funny as it is penetrating and powerful.
These poems unearth deep seams of questioning that take the reader by surprise. Many have a conversational, jovial tone, and seem to beckon us into an amusing story or anecdote, but you never quite end up where you thought you were being taken. We are left upturned in a whole other plane and following a different train of thought.
"Once Upon A Time" is ostensibly a funny story about a woman who changes out of a pink blouse during a rest break on a coach trip, resulting in everyone on the trip searching for the woman in the pink blouse, including herself. For some poets, this conceit would be enough. But for Friman it is only the beginning. We learn that the woman is searching for herself not metaphorically, like "Thoreau deep in Walden Woods,/ seeing himself in the soaring of a hawk", but
actually, the way, startled, you glimpse
in a passing mirror yourself as a stranger:
an old lady wearing hurt on her face
like an abandoned child.
We have gone beyond the neat boundary of the 'searching for yourself' conceit and into a very different landscape and tone: unsettling, without the scaffolding of humour to support us. Reality is pulled taut here; the woman has no pretension to finding herself, metaphorically, but her brutally bleak self-revelation is no less dramatic.
Many of the poems in this collection strip away literary artifice, intent on exposing the nuts and bolts of the writing process itself. In "The Hike" the speaker is open in declaring her struggle at capturing the sound of thrushes singing. In "Ars Poetica in a Tilted Chair," the speaker describes being a poet as similar to being a chicken:
wing-clipped, cooped up, scratching at dirt.
A silly, flailing about without a head
and hooked on rubbing words together--
my pebbles in a crop.
In this magic trick of a poem, the speaker has an idea for a piece while in the dental hygienist's chair and proceeds to talk us through the idea for her poem, complete with literary references and jokes, while simultaneously keeping a conversation going with the hygienist, and before we know it, the poem is over and she's written it before our eyes. With disarming transparency, she unpacks and discards any poetic loftiness, in a tone that is modest and genuinely funny. Yet it is also a poem of startling resonance, meticulously crafted, balanced, measured and honed. There is an exquisite bounce and flow between the idea of pebbles, words, treasure, birds, teeth. It is funny and light but deeply packed with meaning, and while the speaker may be self-effacing, there is no self-doubt here, only a superb power and control over her medium.
The poems in this collection that seem to lay bare their process and question their position in the world, that are self-deprecatory and jovial, are paradoxically the ones that shimmer with a self-belief that is contagious and inspiring. It is the strength, perhaps, of someone who has had, possibly, to fight to feel comfortable in the poetry world. One imagines Friman has encountered, over the years, more than a few misogynist poet-types she so calmly and blisteringly fells in "The Poet."
Friman frequently refers, Austin-like, to the Reader in her poems ("Reader, you may ask.....", or "Reader, lest I sound out of joint"). There's a refreshing clarity about the relationship between audience and writer. The poet offers herself as accessible, someone we could talk to and learn from. And while this is of course all part of the storytelling style, it comes across as sincere, as generosity on the part of Friman, who wants us to be comfortable and at ease with her poems.
Not all of the poems in the collection have this storytelling or conversational register. There are several powerful lyrics, pared down and resonant. "In an August Mirror" is an extraordinary poem. In slow and steady paces, the heat of late summer is built up word by word, line by line. The poem has a deep, steady rhythm, like a funeral march, underscored by heavy rhyme and repetition:
Now is the time of ironweed, knotweed,
thistle and heavy heat--simmering and brutal.
Now is the time of no time when all days
rise in the oven the same and go forth in single file.
The controlled starkness of the poem's form, in pared down couplets, complements the parched landscape, the relentless monotony of the heat. But from this sweltering heat-scape we are not offered imagery of the barren, spent husk. Instead of desiccation we are offered something more powerful and vivid. From the "fields buggy depths":
the incessant cry of insatiability, the jittery song
of last chance, last chance. Each note, a letter
of the earth's alphabet. Each note, another stitch
knit into the scarf.
The poem ends with the declaration, like a laminated epiphany rising from the ashes of this landscape: "I know who I am. I know with whom I belong."
This collection is rich with poems where nature or extreme weather (storms, rain, the changing seasons) are the catalyst for epiphanic moments, unlatching revelations of the self. "High Country, First Night" is an elegy to memory, time and the workings of the mind. Waking the morning after a heavy rainstorm, the speaker finds parallels between the way our minds work and the way nature keeps time:
lugging its luggage of leaves through seasons
the way the mind drags its baggage
through nights' endless terminals,
struggling to catch up while preserving
what it has. The way oak keeps its leaves
These nature poems claim a symbiosis between our life and the natural world, suggesting parallels between the passing of the seasons and the passing of our time on earth: the cry of "last chance, last chance" in "In an August Mirror"; the whisper of "remember me, remember me" in "Baring the Inevitable"; the voice screaming "Hold on, hold on" in "L is for Leaves." The speaker lets us take intellectual and emotional comfort from such parallels, but there is no room for sentimentalism. The poem "November Trees" starkly declares of the forest trees:
In all their grace
and terrible nakedness they symbolize
nothing. They are beyond us.
How can we bear it?
The relationship with nature throughout the collection is one of contracting and relaxing, grasping hard and letting go, the poet's honest, clear vision embracing fully what nature offers, but no more than that.
And while the birds in "The Hike" may have been illusive, her poem "Drawing the Triangle" perfectly captures the hawk, which "reels exquisite,/ circling down" outside her window, and unlatches its exquisite perspective:
...I watch the hawk, the hawk
the mouse, the mouse (poor thing)
the haven that's not there. It's here.
You're looking at it.
In the end it is not nature but the poem itself, the process of writing it, the words on the page, that makes sense of it all, that can offer us haven.
- Alice Allen, Review of Bloodweather. Alice Allen grew up in Jersey in the Channel Islands and lives in the UK. She has an MPhil in Creative Writing from the University of South Wales and a degree in English from Cambridge University. Her debut collection, Daylight of Seagulls, was published by The High Window press in 2019.
"Blood Weather is an essential collection. . . . Friman sees the blood pumping beneath the skin . . . ."
- Gary Kerley, rev. of Blood Weather in GR2, The Georgia Review online
"Among Alice Friman's many great gifts is the ability to stare unflinchingly at the dark complexities of family, nature, civilization, and art that form the groundwork of our narratives of self, and to report back in her stately yet exceedingly practical voice on the difficult beauty she discovers there. This is a brave and honest book, a wise and forthright declaration of power, understanding, and what it means to love "
- Sidney Wade, on Blood Weather
"In her stunning new volume of poems, Blood Weather, Alice Friman explores—with unflinching precision and generosity of spirit—the autumnal wants and understandings that bind us, divide us, gift us to the great unknown. Here the dead, however buried, are kissed and so transformed into the vital summons to live more mindful, grateful, and awake, consecrated in the blood coursing through the loving eye. A deeply moving book."
- Bruce Bond, on Blood Weather
"The poems in Blood Weather take tragic themes, painful memories, and the stormy weather of human nature as their focus, but Alice Friman maintains a grounded perspective with her resilient intelligence and mighty wit. These survival skills register as a form of courage and an indicator of her implicit and unquenchable self-respect."
- Margaret Gibson, on Blood Weather