Posts Tagged ‘Philip Fried’

Philip Fried and the mendacity of words

Monday, May 4th, 2015

poetryreview2Over the weekend, my occasional correspondent Philip Fried, editor of the Manhattan Review (we’ve written about him here and here and here), dropped me a note. He’s rightly chuffed with the new review that’s just come out for his Interrogating Water (Salmon, 2014), which just appeared in The Poetry Review, journal of the British Poetry Society. In her review, poet Carol Rumens considered Phil’s book alongside Martha Kapos‘s The Likeness (Enitharmon).

I liked the final paragraph the best:

Fried’s poems demonstrate that whatever is made of language is open to contamination, morality included. As the soldiers in ‘Moral Helmets’ are advised, “coming soon is a Moral Positioning System/(MPS) to align your firefight decisions/With four or five of the major world religions”. But, through their heightened awareness of the mendacity of words, the poems find authenticity, and document a vision of morality almost as a superior form of politics. The nuances of Wilfred Owen‘s ‘Draft Preface’ comes to mind. “Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.”

Poetry and torture

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

Book Haven friend Philip Fried of the Manhattan Review has just published a new collection, Interrogating Water and Other Poems, published by Salmon Poetry in Ireland. What could be more fitting, given the publisher, than a poem about water? The title poem has been generating some buzz – it was featured in Verse Daily already here.  Philip’s poetry is intense – not something to hit before you’ve had your morning coffee – and is often based in political events of the day. So is this one. You’ll get a hint of it in the comments he wrote to me about it:

Philip-FriedI like to engage with the intractable language that surrounds us: ad-talk, military jargon, scientific lingo—all of which can be found on the Internet. As in plate tectonics, the resulting collisions—if you are skillful enough—will result in a tremor, and the tremor itself is the poetry. Or, to shift the metaphor in this case, the poetry is in the current that leaps the gap between two apparently opposite poles.

The two poles of language in this poem, of course, are the dry but suggestive text of a home electrolysis experiment and a contrasting, “sublime,” and politically colored description of water as a “non-state actor.” The reader, one hopes, will be prompted to jump the gap, providing the electricity.

The poem is—and I hope this is evident—a meditation on torture, with allusions to the “interrogation” of nature conducted by science and the theme of control. (A kind of water-boarding of water; or, as one reader put it, Art meets Science meets CIA.) As to its origin, I seem to remember being intrigued by the language of the electrolysis experiment, which seemed to call out for a contrasting sublimity. An appealing formal solution was to “package” the sublimity in short lines and brief stanzas.

The Literary Review declared, “In realms between and including the Almighty and actuarial tables, Fried speaks every language faithfully and eloquently. Rejoice! Read!”  The poet A.R. Ammons has said of Philip’s poems: “Here in a major new testament the great questions are considered, represented – how the large and small inhabit each other, how indifferences allow differences, how the palpable can be the residence of the widest spirit. The graphic and the philosophical, the human and the godly interplay in a quiet attentiveness, explosive with realization and recognition.”

See what you think:

Interrogating Water

interrogating_waterImagine you are interrogating water,
coercing the hydrogen and oxygen
to violate their bonds, give up each other.

Water, a non-state actor,
flows secretly over borders,
precipitates, infiltrates,
gathers in pools, conspires
with bacteria and mosquitoes

You can perform this at home with simple materials.
All you need is a battery, two no. 2 pencils,
salt, thin cardboard, electrical wire, a glass …

Foe of stability,
it erodes in drizzles,
revolts in tsunamis, riots
in floods, and from covert puddles
takes part in uprisings

… of water. Sharpen the pencils at both ends.
Cut the cardboard to fit over the glass.
Insert the pencils in cardboard, an inch apart.

Claims transparency
but under every skin
is another, while fluid rib
over rib will hide the atomic
truth in a wavering cage

Using the wires, connect the tips of each pencil
to opposite poles of the battery, then place
the other ends of the pencils into the water.

Excitable even in teacups
its sloshing shifting mass
can menace levees and dams
heave at the ocean’s crust
subverting the Earth’s rotation

The molecules will confess in tiny bubbles
of hydrogen and chlorine gas, at the pencil
tips, chlorine masking the fugitive oxygen.

Feliz 2014! “All is calm, all is bright” on some sides of town…

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

Tonight is “Silent Night” in some quarters of town.  I doubt many bookstores will be open.  I was reminded of this when Philip Fried of the Manhattan Review sent me an electronic holiday card, illustrated with this excellent photo by his wife, Lynn Saville (check out her website here). Of course, we’d expect the Green Hand Book Store in Portland, Maine, to be a quieter place than the couple’s native Manhattan, but it’s good to be reminded that some places in the nation and the world will be mercifully subdued on a noisy night – bright beacons in a mad world.  Meanwhile, lift a glass of bubbly, celebrate the inevitable passing of time, and drive home safely.  And, as my electronic holiday card from Livraria Cultura in São Paulo says, “Feliz 2014!”

The Green Hand_Portland, Maine holiday 2014


(Photo copyright Lynn Saville)

“What I Read to the Dead”: John and Bogdana Carpenter translate Warsaw Ghetto poet Władysław Szlengel

Monday, March 11th, 2013

SzlengelWładysław Szlengel was part of Warsaw’s literary scene in prewar Poland.  As a doomed Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto, he read his poems to friends, but longed to communicate with those outside the ghetto.

Now he has.  Journalist and author David Margolick has written about him – and the eminent translating team of John and Bogdana Carpenter have translated his works in the Fall/Winter 2012-13 issue of Philip FriedThe Manhattan Review (its website is here).  “In 1942 and 1943 Szlengel wrote with increasing speed. He called his writings ‘poem-documents’ and ‘a poetry of fact,’ but these words should be taken with many grains of salt,” they write. “His sense of irony had evolved into something new, very powerful and tragic. More artistic development, and change, were compressed into the last years of his life than most writers achieve in a lifetime.”

The cover notes the “Poems from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,” but it’s the 13-page story that caught my eye.  “What I Read to the Dead” is a terrifying account of the German Aktion (a German euphemism for the massacres) of January 1943.  Szlengel would die in the early days of the Uprising a few months later.

Szlengel describes himself as “the chronicler of the drowning men”:  “For the past few days I keep remembering a scene from a Soviet play whose title I don’t remember. The crew of a submarine doesn’t want to surrender to the Whites and sinks to the bottom. Sixteen heroic sailors wait in vain for help.  Last image: lack of air, death hovering over the sunk submarine.  Six, ten, then fifteen crewmen suffocate. The sixteenth wants to leave – somehow – a record of the annihilation of the crew. But he doesn’t magnify the sacrifice.  After all what is so important in a nation of many millions if a handful of men dies?  Perhaps they perished for a great cause, but the number of sacrificed lies was ridiculously small. Just sixteen!  So what?  In a last effort he lifts his hand and writes with a piece of chalk on the steel wall of his tomb: 200,000,000 minus sixteen.  He subtracts sixteen unimportant existences from two hundred million. It’s done, it’s all that will remain in history.  Numbers.  Statistics.”

Szlengel describes, at first in euphemism (“passed away”), later to the brutal reality of the Aktion.  An excerpt:

During these four days the next-to-last wave of my readers passed away. All those who barely a week ago listened to my poems and the strange adventures of Meier Mlynczyk on the island-barrack of Schultz passed away. The listeners at my liteary evenings of the “broom-makers” passed away, also the closet roommates, neighbors, friends, companions in discussions, often involuntary co-authors of the contents of this volume.

Fania R., who would say “Merde” for good luck before each of my appearances at a performance, who knew many stories about Curie-Sklodowska and Professor Rous, has left, miserable and cold in a sealed freight car.

Gone are my roommates, funny Juzio who slept in a woman’s pajamas and a woman’s stockings, not to produce ambivalent effects but simply because he had nothing else. Gone is his energetic wife who fled the Umschlagplatz [point of departure to the death camps – ED.] with a bullet wound in her back, only to return to the Platz for a second time after five months of hunger and a stubbon struggle for some means to escape to “the others.” She didn’t make it.

Gone is the beautiful Ida L., image of health and the will to live, just last week – damn it!!  You feel like clenching your fists.

I saw the corpse of Asya S. who provoked me to write a second optimistic version of the poem “Let Me Alone.” Gone. And tomorrow, my God tomorrow or the day after, as our secret sources report, the German orgy is supposed to be repeated – how many more will die.  It is to early to make the final account. But I am constantly tortured by the living specters, close to me, of those who were here just the other day, who were confident and at the same time so terribly afraid – in such a moving, human way – of what would happen to them. …

Postscript:  Just got a note from Philip Fried.  He tells me he’s just heard that BBC producer Mark Burman is working with Eva Hoffman on a show about Szlengel – the 27-minute BBC Radio 4 program and will air in late April, and may include the translations of the Carpenters.

Lunch at Le Monde with Philip Fried in NYC

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

This week in New York City has been drenched in Polish literature (see posts here and here) – so my visit with poet Philip Fried, founding editor of the 30-year-old Manhattan Review, may at first seem like something of an anomaly.

Until, that is, you realize that the quiet Manhattan Review was the first American journal to publish an interview with Polish poet and dissident Stanisław Barańczak in 1981. The review began to publish the work of Chinese dissident poet Bei Dao as early as 1990. And, according to its website, in 1994 it launched an unprecedented nationwide campaign that increased the number of poetry reviews in The New York Times.

I discovered the review when I was unearthing a rare, early interview with Zbigniew Herbert, by his translators John and Bogdana CarpenterThe Manhattan Review was among the first reviews to devote a whole issue to the renowned poet in the mid-1980s – and I initially contacted Philip to get more than the snippets I found online.  (I also, on this visit, received a copy of his Early/Late: New and Selected Poems, published last month by Salmon Poetry.)

One would think that the Manhattan Review, which has two new poems by Les Murray in its current issue, would be better known.  But Philip and the Manhattan Review are as quiet as it namesake island is named is noisy.  We nevertheless had a pleasant and talkative lunch at Le Monde, an amiable bistro that “celebrates the cuisine of the Loire Valley” near Columbia University.  Besides Polish poetry, we discussed the upheaval in the book industry and the dwindling presence of poetry on the American scene.  What, after all, is a poet to do?  The attempts to “reach out” to the public via April Poetry Month are usually farcical.  Poet celebrities are often, well… not really poets at all.  Pulling up the drawbridge and sticking to one’s own tiny audience has resulted in a situation Philip compared to polar bears on ever-shrinking ice floes – an image that will stay with me for some time to come.

Postscript on 3/28:  Philip just wrote to tell me he got a nice notice in Publishers Weekly — a publication we rate highly since it put humble moi and  An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz one of the top ten books for the spring, in the “Belles Lettres and Reflections” category.  Here’s what it said about Philip’s latest collection:

This skillful and memorable first selection can seem like the work of three or four different poets, though wit and civility hold it together. First comes a bevy of poems about God, often comic, and often spoken in His assumed voice: often in stand-alone prose sentences (like the Book of Proverbs) they mix the language of elevated salvation with the debased terms of business and politics: “I regret to inform you that, in the purview of immutable discretion, it has now become necessary to downsize the elect.” Verse from Fried’s Mutual Trespasses (1988) also looks at–or speaks for–a divine Creator, wittily juxtaposing His omnipotence with human foibles and emotions: “He seemed to sink/ into Himself, a collapsing/ mountain.” Big Men Speaking to Little Men (2006), making up most of the last half of this collection, casts aside divinity for carefully ironized versions of family history: nostalgic at times, more outwardly conventional, these pages may nonetheless hold his strongest work. The New York-based Fried (who edits the Manhattan Review) closes with supple, formally acrobatic excerpts from a recent set of sonnets: “I’ve cornered the market on me, but I’ll sell you the shimmer./ When the bubble has burst, volatility is tender.” (Apr.)