Magazine article Tikkun

A Tribute

Magazine article Tikkun

A Tribute

Article excerpt

Robert Friend is fond of quoting A. E. Housman's remark that fame was a mattress between himself and the hard ground, and in recent years, the line even crops up in his poems, although altered, so that what stands, or rather lies, between the poet and the hard ground is not necessarily fame, but any form of intellectual pursuit, and, by implication, the very act of writing.

Now it seems especially appropriate to borrow and expand upon Housman's metaphor when speaking of Friend's verse, for Friend is preeminently a poet of desire, a "peeker through a bedroom shutter," who has become increasingly bold in portraying, not without humor, the darker, lustful side of love. But what I'd like to demonstrate briefly is how, in The Next Room, Friend repeatedly explores the possibility and desirability of bedding down alone in the narrowest of beds:

Sleeping alone for many years I dreamed of two in a big wide bed, but now that you lie warm by my side I dream of a single narrow bed cool and white where I can lie alone all night. ("Sleeping Alone")

Wit, brevity, and unadorned natural speech rhythms keep this little poem afloat. Its abbreviated form-recalling Sappho's "I Sleep Alone"-belies the quality, the honesty, of its emotion.

Of course, wit has been Friend's trademark all along-wit, elegance, and a lambent iambic line. Take, for example, "The Hunchback," first published in Somewhere Lower Down:

Within the house of mirrors amazedly he sits and studies in the mirrors how well his hunchback fits. He picks up his book of riddles and tumbles his game of blocks. How many tears in an onion? How many springs in clocks?

Flies turn to bones of amber when the spider spins itself, and he sighs into the cobwebs and the clock signs on the shelf.

He reads his growing shadow, and walks the endless round along the edge of the mirror sea where a hunchless ghost lies drowned.

The poem enchants, with its mirrors and riddles and its careful knit of masculine and feminine rhymes. Its wistful tone hints at larger truths which remain enigmatic, just beyond reach. And as with many of Friend's poems leading up to The Next Room, "The Hunchback" displays an essential division, or doubleness: of self and shadow, essence and appearance, "a mirror brimming/with my emptiness/a body falling/through the bodiless dark," as Friend writes in "The Practice of Absence. …

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