Review of The Book of the Rotten Daughter by Marilyn Kallet, Prairie Schooner 82.2 (2008): 171-73. Forthcoming.
 

From "TELL IT ANOTHER WAY" Review of The Book of the Rotten Daughter. Alice Friman. BkMk Press: University of Missouri-Kansas City. 91 pp.

We love our beginnings. We covet, in America, the West because of its myths of second chances. We love our New Year’s Eve—we can make all sorts of promises, feel a sense of possibility, a way of leaving past missteps behind. Beginnings mean an open world, a chance to remake, to reinvent. We can peel off the wrapper and be made whole again. We can trot out our clichés—fresh start, clean break, clean slate—and have a renewed sense of innocence. Alice Friman’s new collection, The Book of the Rotten Daughter, defies that push for that epiphanic rebirth, our love for beginnings, and in fact, the author’s own desire for that renewal.

Alice Friman returns to the more personal subject matter of her Inverted Fire, but the poems of The Book of the Rotten Daughter are more disturbing, reject the metaphor of, as Friman writes about in "Drought," spring. Spring, for Friman, is a trickster and represents rebirth, which is not a possibility within the book, though, poems like "Snow" and "The Sound" recognize the allure. In "The Sound," the poet fights "[a]nother urge / to reinvent" and acknowledges that she has altered the parents of her past through art: "I remember you as I’ve written / now how you were." The desire to undo, to forget, to recreate or simply to freeze time is present in the poems: "It’s beginnings we want ("Remembering in Lilac and Heart-Shaped Leaves"). In fact, we never get to those beginnings because in the act of proving it to herself, Friman demonstrates the fragility of such desires and blows apart the romance. The parents’ relationship within the poems exhibits this impossibility of finding the beginning, the innocence. The parents in the poems never stop or start—their emotions and hurts cycle, occurring even after death, as in "Letter to My Sister": "The tug of war / goes on between them."

The idea of rebirth does tie to a central theme across the poems, which is storytelling (perhaps another trickster). The poems’ telling fights against the possibility of rebirth by seeking the truth, and goes, as in the initial poem of the collection, against that prettiness of spring. "The Dream of the Rotten Daughter" sets up this opposition by retelling the past as "a Halloween story." Storytelling or writing is a way of "retelling"—the important part is to retell more realistically, to be harder in the telling, rather than romanticize the players. But the poet remonstrates herself, and in a kind of humorous command from "The Dream of the Rotten Daughter," Friman says "(speak truth, oh rotten one)." Friman uses the aside, rebuking herself, pushing the writing and the memory toward truth and away from the romanticized, even nostalgic version of the past.

The cycle of the father continues not only in the emotional injury that lives on as described in the poems, but also through Friman’s placement of her work. As the subject of the poems that begin each of the first two sections, the father haunts the book, overshadowing all that happens. It is not often that you see a book so meticulously and brilliantly arranged. The poems become important not only in and of themselves but through their juxtaposition. Friman’s crisp language and subject matter interplay among poems, and the poems begin a rich dialogue, making meaning across the pages and titles, so rather than just reading a single poem, gathering meaning, then moving on to the next and the next, etc., the reader recognizes the intelligence of the book as a whole. For instance, "Drought" appearing after poems about the dying/dead father and his lack of love/affection for the speaker makes "Drought" not just about aging, but also about lack of love, a dearth of emotion, and a metaphor for the relationship between mother and father and father and daughter. The poems link like the themes do, a kind of daisy-chain crown, and Friman’s poems talk to one another and to the reader, telling us how to read the next poem or even the ones that come before. "Snow," a lovely, quiet love poem, is also a cleansing, a putting away of the family, and an attempt to quiet the pain present in the first few poems of the collection. Following that forgetting comes "Remembering in Lilac and Heart-Shaped Leaves," a poem which demonstrates our desire for births rather than deaths; however, in true Friman fashion, the poem prefaces several poems about loneliness, death and disease, allowing no denial for reader or writer of the inevitable: "Finally the body wants its worm."

The final section of the book pulls away from the personal and becomes an elegy. The first poem of this section, "Final Instructions," is centered and justified and lies like an open grave on the page. The poem, which gives instructions for the speaker’s burial:

When I die I want to be buried
with sweet potatoes candied or
sautéed with apples & cinnamon
or a pile of mashed on a plate
with drumstick or chop & don’t
forget sweet & sour with short
ribs & plums in an all-day pot
ike Grandma made to be dug up
like Pharaoh wrapped & radiant. . . .

Alice Friman has grit. Her use of the imperative throughout the book could be seen as an invitation, but with Friman, it is command, and the muscularity of the poems backs her up. Her unflinching gaze at the past can be encapsulated within the line, "Tell it another way," which works not only as Friman urging herself toward truth but also toward what all writers strive for: a connection between writer and reader. She wants to capture in words, as clearly as possible, the emotional truth of a situation, and of the past. As the title of this review implies, Friman’s commands are equal opportunity and address both poet and her readers—pulling, pushing and prodding us with her exact language, and pulling, pushing and prodding herself for language and for story. These poems are not easy, either in the telling or in the idea—Friman reaches for ways to retell, to communicate to her readers, and she doesn’t allow the poem to merely lie on the page but has it, like the father in the dream, reach out for us." –- Katie Chaple, Chattahoochee Review, Spring / Summer 2007

These poems are so moving that they encouraged me to connect them into a story, versus to review them as individual poems. I think it’s because through story, I felt I could more fully enter this daughter’s life. That is, I wanted a story that I could inhabit. Where I could exist to hug this daughter and whisper to her: No, not rotten. Not rotten at all. –- Beatriz Tabios, Galatea Resurrects #8

A poet whose work shows the patina gained over many years of practice is Alice Friman. We know her as professor emerita at the University of Indianapolis, now a resident of Georgia and poetry editor of Arts & Letters. Her latest book, "The Book of the Rotten Daughter" (BkMk Press, $13.95), tells it like she really means it. As Friman writes in "Eyesore": "There are two kinds of not seeing - / when you can't or when you don't."

Friman sees clearly, sharing the painful, sometimes humorous, images of an aging body - our mother's, or our own, in "In an Angry Vein": "Last night, I dreamed again - / adult potty chairs and corridors, cottage cheese and peaches on a tray." Friman writes that she seeks beginnings, but is learning a lot about where it ends. –- Sara Sanderson, The Indianapolis Star from Books Section: Words to Savor - Six Sparkling Collections of Poetry Will Feed Your Mind and Soul. April 23, 2006

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