Grief is sloppy. Art tries to make it tidy. For sorrowful poems, songs and paintings to relate, they need to be laid out within a structure and left to expand in the minds of viewers and listeners. In lies the irony: craft has its confines so that it can liberate its subjects. Grief has its quiet lulls and its rage-filled tirades; it has its disjointed moves, its recurrences, and its counting of the hours. As the only culturally-sanctioned form of madness, it’s never a straight line of events but rather a quarantine inside devastation and magical thinking. I wonder if those who feel that grief proceeds in a step-by-step process are longing for the structure of art and haven’t found it yet.
Of course, an artist or poet can overdo formal matters and deaden the emotional experience that they are trying to convey. The idea of reading a collection of elegies, for example, would feel to me like trudging through lines of gravestones. Tidiness could transform the poems into granite memorials rather than explorations of loss and sorrow.
Thankfully, we have Lily is Leaving, Leslie Fried’s first poetry collection. The book displays an authentic and generous submersion into grief, personal history, shared tragedy and longing. Fried, who is Steven Jesse Bernstein’s widow (Bernstein was the poet, punk rock hero and spoken word performer before there was spoken word who died by his own hand thirty years ago this year), began her own arts career as a set designer. For thirty years, she worked in plaster and paint depicting scenery for film and theater. She came to poetry later, after her life with Bernstein, and she took to it with both humility and gusto, taking courses at Hugo House, reaching out to other writers and editors, and going back and back to her verse, recalibrating it. (Fried is now Curator of the Alaska Jewish Museum in Anchorage.)
In Lily is Leaving, Fried’s eponymous subject, “Lily,” is Lillian, her mother, to whom the book is dedicated. But the collection is not a series of elegies to her mother; the poems merge different grief pools, mingling her mother’s death with the loss of her partner, the dissolution of families, the holocaust’s destruction, and the isolation the speaker feels in later life.
Throughout the poems, tragedies emerge in scant Beckett-like landscapes, often empty except for a hut or train or field. In “Dune Shack,” for example, a “great ball of sun pasted to the window” shapes the background for two lovers. In “Existential Texas,” “sooty careless clouds drift across Texas/like God’s ink blotter” and in “travail,” a tiny chicken coop is a home where, in the end, the “door is closed for now/to the fields beyond.” The simple objects serve as set designs. They are layered into the poems and their flatness serves as a backstop that promises depth of a world beyond. From a playhouse in a vacant lot, to a hayloft, to levees in New Orleans and Warsaw during the Second World War, to an unnamed border town and into a residence hotel on Airport Way South in Seattle, Fried anchors the scenes into places that become palpable as objects to fixate on in the midst of disorienting loss.
In “Special Collections,” Fried’s speaker is organizing her belongings into an archive. (As Bernstein’s heir, the poet did study library science to prepare Bernstein’s papers, recordings and ephemera for Special Collections at the University of Washington.) In the poem, the objects arise from diverging losses and they transcend physicality until the speaker is shelving despair and longing: “I thought I would die/I didn’t die/shelf” and “lost boys/lost boys I loved/shelf.” The “shelf” becomes a repetition throughout the poem, often serving as the only word on the last line of a tercet. “Shelf” is like a flat of scenery rolled upright onto a stage. On the poetic line as well, it carves horizontally through the mind. Within Fried’s craft, grief can’t be pinned down and the tension of the poem lives within futile attempts to make shelves, to collect and categorize what won’t stay fixed.
In “Why Children,” a magnificent lyric set in couplets as one rolling sentence that moves between love and rage, the poem conjures vulnerability and ferocity in a grief-music that resonates with the craving to tell the truth. “To have children is to know hard love,” Fried writes, and the poem sings of the duty of a parent “to carry a great stone/ tenderly without a horse.” You get the sense that our speaker and those she has loved, have carried burdens without help, without solace and, in the end, pulling it off was “a trick of the trail.” Whether it is the journey, the place one finds herself in or the craft of holding and expressing grief, the hard love that one carries is tenderly and tragically felt in these poems. In “Playhouse in a Vacant Lot,” Fried reaches out to those she’s lost, all crammed in a hut together:
To all the beloveds in this hut
I am indebted
you pet and pinch and drift along
this world made of paper
this map of kin where the names have changed.
While grief mingles its subjects, surfacing the unexpected, Leslie Fried shapes poems that merge and honor artifacts of loss and the disorienting love with which we handle them.
Frances McCue is an American poet, writer, and teacher. She has published four books of poetry and two books of prose. Her poetry collection The Bled (2010) received the 2011 Washington State Book Award and the 2011 Grub Street National Book prize. Three of her other books, Mary Randlett Portraits (2014), Timber Curtain (2017), and The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs (2014) were all finalists for the Washington State Book Award. In 1996, McCue cofounded Richard Hugo House, a literary organization in Seattle, where she served as the founding director for the organization’s first decade. During that time, she researched Richard Hugo and the Pacific Northwest towns that inspired his poems. McCue is a professor at the University of Washington. http://www.francesmccue.com/