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Sarah Rosenthal reviews

Homeless at Home, by Gloria Frym (Creative Arts: 2001)

This review is 1,920 words or about five printed pages long.

In the preface to Homeless at Home, a volume of poems addressed to her dead father, Gloria Frym writes, ‘These letter poems are guided by Jack Spicer’s notion that poetry is an argument between the dead and the living, a kind of correspondence.’ Spicer’s notion suggests a number of provocative possibilities: If poetry is understood as correspondence, then it follows that the poet is as much listener as speaker, as much reader as writer. If the dead can correspond, they must, it would seem, bear different news, and hear differently, than the living. They will, perhaps, still bear traces of their previous living nature, and these traces will provide certain contours to the conversation, helping determine what words are used, what is said, and how.
      At the same time, there will, one would think, be a mystery, a strangeness, a sense of possibility and radical indeterminacy, in this interaction between the poet and the beyond. Finally, Spicer’s notion is not merely mystical; it is also a factual description of the nature of language, which is in a very literal sense transmitted to us from the dead, and thus always crowded with the voicings of ghosts. This effect is heightened in poetic language, which is constantly and consciously in conversation with the writer’s literary forebears.
      On the most literal level, Frym uses Spicer’s notion as a basic frame for an exploration of her relationship with her dead parent (every poem begins ‘Dear Father,’). On this level, the book provides a deeply moving and satisfying exploration of a difficult relationship with a loved one. There is nothing sentimental about this exploration. Moments of empathy and humor are followed hot on their heels by moments of misunderstanding or anger — which makes sense, if one joins Spicer in seeing such a relationship as active, bidirectional, and indeterminate — as not so different, in this sense, from relationships with the living.

Cover image, Frym book       But the book embraces difficulty not only in its refusal to achieve simple closure in the relationship with the father; it ultimately goes much further, inviting not just the father but multitudes of dead interlocutors to participate in this correspondence (beginning, one might note, with Spicer himself, as well as with Emily Dickinson, who provides the book’s title and epigraph).
      What does one say to a dead father, and how does one say it? The speaker in Homeless at Home is bound by certain givens: the father’s life experience, his personality and values, the tenor of his relationship with his daughter. Frym tells us in the preface that her father was a Jew who emigrated to the States just before WWII and became a successful capitalist. The poems themselves hint at a man who could be distant, inflexible and critical of his daughter in a way that she experienced as an attack on her femaleness: ‘In order to arrive at my workplace, I have to step over the bodies. You assume I’m exaggerating, but you did not go to my workplace, you did not step as I do, you may not have noticed. And if you did, why did we never speak of them?’; ‘I might... /...arrange/my soft parts so you/can’t use them as targets for practice.’ (9, 31)
      These aspects of the father help shape the poems’ subject matter: references to capitalism, poverty, war and gender proliferate. The language of war and foreign policy often appears to do double duty, referring both to actual world events and to other forms of conflict, including, it seems, the speaker’s charged relationship with her father: ‘I would like to stop some things from happening./ A proscribed truce with mishap./ At least, muffle the gun.’ (12) ‘Earlier we agreed there should be no walls./ Namely, the Wall divided body from mind./ Later, when it tumbled down/ we applauded, cautiously. You wore half a smile and I/ wore the other.’ (3)
      The language of conflict isn’t limited to poems about war; in the following lines, language critical of corporate greed seems to slide into personal attack:

Dear Father,
Spring. Awakened on the cusp of light
by birdsong. Fragile night, new corporate mergers
muffle the dreamed melody. Weight of deals
preventing flight. CEO of Hewlett-Packard makes $15,000
a day. But we’re rich
on paper. Hypocrite entrepreneur!         (40)

What’s striking, however, is that the speaker uses the very terms that separate her from her father as a means to create empathy: ‘Have you noticed how your war ended in the spring/ and mine did too? And then/ they never ended again.’ (10) Poem #40, quoted above, having slid from attack on corporate greed to something we might read as an attack on dad, abruptly shifts to acknowledgement of the father’s plight as a struggling immigrant:

There goes a young man who reminds me of
everything I believe you never had.
The self he seeks
how quick he moves with those American legs
free of rickets.   (40)

The warp speed at which the language moves between anger and compassion suggests the speaker’s tremendous capacity to stay open toward the conditions that shaped the father’s life and their relationship; to recognize that he is not only a force against which she defines herself, but also a ground for feelings of kinship and continuity.
      But the daughter is not the only one making connection possible. These poems are not about the dead father, they are to him, and that fact implies an active interlocutor. At some point prior to the writing, he passed from one form of otherness — the living, spiky father with all of his difficult specifics — to otherness with a capital O, Otherness as a ‘denizen of heaven’ (17). In this second capacity the father represents a new kind of absence, not the psychological absence of an emotionally limited parent, but absence as a kind of vast, generous, listening space — absence, one might say, as a kind of presence.
      This second aspect of the father can receive dispatches that the living father may have been unable to accept. Whereas the living father would dismiss the speaker’s account of stepping over bodies on the street, perhaps the dead father can hear the daughter’s need for comfort and explanation: ‘ the threshhold, three beached mammals piled against the brick. Father, what caught them in their throats, cast them to this sidewalk moat, the sea so far away?’ (9) This dead father can, with no preparation, be plunged into a pithy explanation of his daughter’s craft:

Dear Father,
Startled awake.
Scan the motherless horizon.
Nothing but early birds, worms
and languaged clouds.
Get to work translating:
What dreams through me
dreams through everyone,
only I write it down
while they sleep. (18)

He can be counted on to appreciate a sophisticated poetry that proceeds through a lyrical music and lightning-fast leaps of thought and wit (a poetry one wonders if the immigrant businessman who ‘struggled with the American language’ [Preface] could readily enter), perhaps because as a denizen of heaven such poetry is his language too:

The person you desire to see suffers.
Persons you desire to avoid appear
atopic like dust on a surface.
I tried earthly words you don’t understand.
Now we meet in a heavenly language.   (25)

The father, in his dual capacity as a remembered living figure who is also a representative of the beyond, evokes the ‘master’ to whom Emily Dickinson wrote several letters — an Other whose identity still hovers, in the contemporary imagination, between that of an actual man and what we take to be Dickinson’s concept of the divine. Homage to Dickinson and her poems crops up throughout the volume, starting with the title and epilogue. Dickinson becomes in a sense another interlocutor, putting in her brilliant two cents about politics, war, death and eternity, and the challenges of being a female poet defining herself in a male-dominated world: ‘...My life/ has not stood a loaded gun, but/ other children took to firing.’ (25) One of the shortest poems in the volume reads in its entirety: ‘Dear Father,/ I can’t join the company business./ A dim capacity for wings/ Degrades the dress I wear.’ (16)
      In a personal communication in 1998, Frym said of the ‘master’ letters, ‘Perhaps Dickinson was experimenting with narrative in those letters and there was no recipient and she never intended to send them in the first place. It makes sense to me that she was responding to fiction she’d been reading. In the course of her rather intense literary career, how could it be that a woman who read so much fiction never try her hand at any narrative?’
      Frym herself writes both fiction and poetry: Back to Forth (The Figures: 1982) is a collection of prose poems informed in part by her interest in Language poetry and French feminist writing; How I Learned (Coffee House Press: 1992) and Distance No Object (City Lights: 1999) are both volumes of relatively straight-up stories mostly narrated by a range of first persons, from characters who sound like Frym to lively, elderly Jewish women who refuse to shut up or stay put. In Homeless at Home, Frym is able to bring both aspects of her craft to bear, to create something that in the end defies categories. In one sense it is an epistolary novel, replete with plot and characters, scenes and backdrops. Throughout this review I’ve talked of a ‘speaker’ and certainly there is a strong ‘I’ authoring these letters, identifiable in part by an edgy, sardonic wit anchored in a well-informed, deeply felt concern for the world: ‘I would like to write a poem/ that equals/ The Snack Bar at Auschwitz.’ (27)
      But if, as was pointed out earlier, Dickinson too becomes a kind of character in this book, then perhaps we had better include the other fragments of poems and references to poets sprinkled throughout: ‘Dear Father,/ The solution to one sentence is not the solution to any other./ Allen said, the key is in the sunlight by the window. So Ted said, follow me down/through the locks. There is no key.’ (20)
      But if we include ‘Allen’ (Ginsberg?) and ‘Ted’ (Berrigan?) in the growing cast of characters, then mustn’t we also acknowledge all the other voicings and fragments of language from both high and low culture that jam up next to each other in many of these poems? The following passage hops comically between literary analysis, biblical intonation and a note on tacky American culture: ‘Direct Address/ Goes the way of bulk mail. God invented/ Food and the source of food. It is/ Written, and placed in most motel rooms.’ (8) Within the book’s simple ‘I/Thou’ framework, a whole world of words are speaking amongst themselves.
      This is the most profound sense of the Spicerian injunction that guides the work: All language is the language of the dead, the language of our forebears — arriving, one might say, with strings attached, like a parent’s complicated love. It is precisely by opening herself up to hear the voices not only of the father, and of Dickinson, and of other poets, but to the polyvalent voicings of all language, ‘translating... what dreams through everyone’ onto the page while still containing those fragments within the framework of a particular conversation, that Frym is able to create a work at once focused enough to feed our desire for intimate connection and large enough to address — and be addressed by — the entire world. In this work, Direct Address does indeed go the way of bulk mail, but somehow when we receive the missive, it still feels personal.

Photo of Sarah Rosenthal

Sarah Rosenthal

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