Whatever Sends the Music into Time: New and Selected Poems
Leah Fritz, collection, 2012, Salmon Poetry Ltd, ISBN: 978-1-908836-00-7. £10
Leah Fritz, collection,
by Sarah Lawson
Leah Fritz’s new and selected poems, Whatever Sends the Music Into Time, is a fine collection of her best work of the last 25 years: new poems and the highlights of four previous collections. Her style is always recognizable: terse but conversational, highly personal but not hermetic, more formal than otherwise, and slyly, dryly witty.
Leah Fritz and her husband Howard moved from New York to London in 1985. After a career as a journalist and essayist in the peace, anti-war, and feminist movements in the US, she embarked on a new career as poet. “How it Happened” is a sequence of four sonnets about the move across the Pond two years before. They are stylistically original with slant rhymes, internal rhymes, and assonance. She characterizes New Yorkers, who “don’t live by rules”: rather “Get the job done, / perhaps, and fast. How is up to you.” Then getting accustomed to familiar/alien customs in London: “attempt to learn the queue, a dance more com- / plex than it seems, respond to questions (their / intent unclear), and eavesdrop laughter mark- /ing me a fool.”
They made their home in Primrose Hill, and so Fritz, always observing, writes about that very distinctive neighbourhood near Regents Park. “Eyes” [pp.94-5] is like a thumbnail “Under Milk Wood” of the area. “The Day the Pelican Landed on Primrose Hill” is less about the pelican than the late summer day in the park. Both poems are full of little snapshot details and the pleasure of observing the passing scene.
Fritz’s experiments with the sonnet form are quite original, like her “Key West”, divided into two stanzas of six lines each and a couplet. Ostensibly about ramshackle houses in the tropical light of Key West, Florida, it ends strikingly: “This Roman heat / cannot obscure it’s winter when we meet.”
Some of her political themes and personal poems remind me a little of Denise Levertov. In “Aspirations” she refuses to mourn “all of the dead heroes / who tore up this planet / for the good of man.” Other poems deal with peace and the madness of war.
“The Doctor’s Widow” is one of many poems with a personal dedication. Her description of grief for a spouse is well done—“mourning sickness,” she quotes a pun attributed to the deceased. “And he was there, / not being there, at dinner with their friends.”
One of my favourites is her apostrophe to an absent friend, “About Time”, cast as a sequence of five sonnets. It is a monologue addressed to a girl she knew at school, but it is also a narrative about this girl, Frankie, a Belgian war refugee who then, after some formative teenage years in New York, goes back to Belgium. Her parents are anxious to get back home, but Frankie is leaving behind important years of her life and many friends. The poet, now white haired, wonders about the pretty blonde (“Hey, Frankie”) whom she’s seen only a time or two in all the intervening years. Is Frankie, not entirely a New Yorker nor 100% Belgian, even still alive? “In death we’re all displaced.”
Besides her fondness for the sonnet form, Fritz seems attracted to sestinas, where the form consists of a series of six-line stanzas of iambic pentameter in which the last word of each line is woven in a set order as the last word of lines of succeeding stanzas. The final stanza incorporates all six key words in three lines.
The title poem is a sestina about enduring art. The poet wonders how her pen “auditions for its place in centuries”. Through it runs wordplay on “skip” one of the six key words of this sestina. In the course of the poem Fritz explores several meanings of the word. “Mozart years of sound, the flat stone skipped / across the glassy surface of that fourth transparency” (an image perhaps more familiar to British readers as “ducks and drakes”). In the next stanza “skipped” means “omitted” and a moment later her pen is “across the pages skipped”; then the poet thinks about her youth—“about the days I skipped / through city leaves”. But when the sestet is drawn together in a final triplet (usually with all six key words, but here with only three of them), Fritz says, “I think the music that I hear must be / enough, the other vanity well skipped. / Sufficient beauty is there in my time.”
Happy turns of phrase take you unawares. In “Piazza San Marco” early morning pigeons “strolled / across the great expanse till church bells stung / them into sudden flight”. A witty haiku, “Conjugal Grope”, goes: “Wakeful at night, I / kiss your snoring mouth, hoping / your sleep’s contagious”.
Besides the personal poems about her own life or the lives of others, Fritz often returns to Biblical themes for inspiration, especially the earliest myths of the Old Testament. “Fruit” is a series of eight sonnets reworking the expulsion from Eden from Eve’s point of view and then turning into an overview of the history of early civilization and agriculture. Adam and Eve become Everyman and Everywoman down to the dystopian present day.
Whatever Sends the Music Into Time ends with the stunning sonnet cycle called “Book Review” and the book in question is the Bible. After a brief history of the religious impulse in prehistory and history and a run-down of Judaism and Christianity, Fritz ends with: “I recommend this with one reservation: / For heavens sake, avoid interpretation”.
But I can recommend her book without any reservations at all. Whether Leah Fritz’s poems concern her politics, her memories, her friends, her surroundings, or her imagination or any combination thereof, for the reader there is never a sense of exclusion. We are invited into her world and her mind to share the memories or the flights of fancy. It is a generous invitation and one that should be gladly accepted.
by Todd Swift
There are a number of Americans who have come to London over the past 100 or so years, and made an impact - one thinks of Robert Frost, Eliot, Pound, and then later, Donaghy. Today, there are a good dozen excellent American expat poets who mainly publish in the UK, and are better known, sometimes, here than "back home" - Liane Strauss, Kathryn Maris, Tamar Yoseloff, Katy Evans Bush, Ruth Fainlight, and Leah Fritz, come to mind.
Fritz is a very interesting instance of this expatriation. Before she moved to London in the mid-80s, in her 50s, she had been a very vocal and visible member of the feminist movement in America, based for a time in New York, writing articles and books in the 60s and 70s. For instance, Andrea Dworkin's great work, Intercourse, is dedicated to Fritz. Fritz's archives are at Duke University. When she settled near Sylvia Plath's final flat, in Primrose Hill (purely by accident), she began to discover her true vocation was poetry. What followed were several decades of writing poetry, and being a very welcome and benevolent presence on the London poetry scene.
Fritz's poems, gathered here in a handsome edition by Irish press Salmon Publishing with a striking cover image by the poet's artist husband, Howard Fritz, have had a frustrating reception history. While several of her best poems have, over the past 25 years, appeared in PN Review, Poetry Review, Acumen and Ambit, her collections were with small presses, including the particularly odd Bluechrome, whose publisher seems to have literally disappeared. It has struck me as eccentric or a little unfortunate for such an excellent poet to be marginalised with small Bristol-based presses - but that is how the British poetry world often works. It is rare for American and Canadian poets of even the first-rank to be published by established larger presses in the UK, even if they live here (Salt and Seren have somewhat altered that story of late); nor was she published much in America during this time.
That lack of always-fortunate mainstream publication has now changed with this superb overview of her poetry oeuvre, which has come at a key moment in her late career, at the moment she is writing her best work. Fritz, who is in her early 80s now, has, perhaps without many people realising it, become a poet of minor greatness. That is, while no claim for her being a major American poet of our time would be fully credible, it is hard to read these 160-odd pages of poetry and not feel a thrill of recognition: Fritz has become a brilliant minor poet of the first rank, one that all American poets and critics (at least) need to include in their thinking.
What Fritz does best is thinking aloud, in poems that are often musical and usually formal. It is as if The New York School had fused with The Movement. These are poems of the city, of art, of desire, of remembrance, of atheism, of fear of death - and also, politics. And also, it must be said, reflections on the act of being a poet. There is a verve and tang to the diction which is American, but the shaping lyric intelligence owes far more to a British sensibility. Many of the poems are satirical, but enough are lyrical, and compassionate, to surprise the reader. An excellent example of her stylish brio can be found in a new poem from the selection, 'Conundrum', reprinted in full below:
Often I veer from wanting to be good
to doing what is right, and back again.
They're not the same. To open up the flood-
gates of my heart may simply drown my brain;
to stem that tide with reason, just restrain
a passion that has instinct on its side.
And what accounting must I make for pride?
To attract new friends and keep the old, to please
my love beyond the argument of skin,
must I consider each antipathy,
concur with every shibboleth? How thin
is such affection! What's then left of me?
But, truly, would I ever surrender love
when there's no other cause I'm certain of?
This poem is a fine instance of the Fritz mode: elegant, rhetorical, discursive, and formally poised - it's also smart, and infused with a sense of the irony of poetic tension. Fritz, indeed, yokes together many unusual tendencies into one poetic imagination - atheist and seeker of social justice, lover of old movies, and modern art, formalist, and radical - her reading of contemporary English poets, especially, has raised her game, to the point where perhaps ten or more of the poems collected here in Whatever Sends The Music Into Time, including the title poem, might be possible classics of a kind, the sort that would not look out of place in the next Norton anthology. It is certainly hard to imagine a more intelligent, committed and witty American poet now writing in her 80s. I would like to end with the opening poem in the book, which I think is very subtle and moving in its enjambments and mirroring, and its sly references to Crane and Yeats, titled 'Where Were You':
Where were you when I needed you, the year
the old man died, the year I got the plague
of womanhood, the year the sailor jumped
me in the park, the year I started out
to think of love, hugging my schoolbooks to
my breast? You weren't one of those who hung
out on the corner of my eye, who stood
apart and held me when the old man died.
And when I started out to think of love
and caught the plague of womanhood, where were
you when the sailor jumped me in the park?
Where were you when the boy who looked so like
you stood apart and held me quietly
the day the old man died, that fourteenth spring
when everything changed, everything?
Fritz combines poetic craft with craftiness, and is a poet all readers who enjoy subtle poetic ratiocination and feistiness combined (a rare marvel that) should seek out.
Leah Fritz sits like an old friend on my poetry shelf. There are eighteen new poems in this volume and each one speaks of a new angle to Fritz’s work. She does not rest on her laurels by re-inventing past successes. Each poem is tackled with a new and fresh approach. “Where were you when I needed you, the year/the old man died, the year I got the plague/of womanhood,” (the opening lines of ‘Where Were You? the opening poem in the book) gives the reader a clue into the theme of many of the poems in this section: ageing, friendships, re-evaluating important things in Fritz’s life. She tackles important political subjects with the same sensitivity as she does personal ones. She is not afraid to raise issues around war, poverty, hatred as well as love and domestic concerns. “Sing me no Christmas Carols, no hymns to Him/Who couldn’t save the world. The road to hell/is paved with good intention, and the inn/is still full up”.
Fritz is an assured poet whose work is strengthened by her choice of poem titles. Poems are sometimes weakened by their title. Not so here. The title of the collection is a difficult one to live up to as the phrase ‘music into time’ has been used over time in other genre but it is right for this New and Selected collection as Fritz examines time often with musicalvreferences. “I think the music that I hear must be/enough, the other vanity well skipped. /Sufficient beauty is there in my time.” And this brings mevto form. Fritz is capable of sustaining form, rhythm and tone throughout individual poems and the book as a whole. The poems speak to one another by building on the formal techniques that Fritz has acquired perfectly over her writing life so far. Thought has gone into the placing of poems on the page so that they resonate with their neighbours on either side and so build up to a musical whole.
Fritz has the enviable knack of using convincing internal rhyme which gives her poems a musicality of their own and from the same poem, “Or in myself, which can give forth/such music as I have? Let it be/enough for me and mine in our own time”. (‘Whatever Sends the Music Into Time’)
In this collection both the new and selected poems reflect on, often, unanswerable, rhetorical questions. In ‘Manhattan Memory’ we are introduced to a neighbour, a madman, we are told. The poem/story is uncomfortable to read and we, the readers are caught in the poet’s fear of the unknown. “Each time/ I turned, oddly frightened: Was it me,/my oblong room, painted red,/my treasured texts his vision leapt at,/all my thoughts strewn across/an unmade bed?”
At the heart of this collection is a gem, the four line poem ‘Finding The Way’. This is Fritz at her best, vulnerable, questioning, associating closely the writing of poetry with living. “Two women out after dark/in a city strange to both/make up the street signs/as they go along.” This is a book that will speak to many of us as to see Fritz’s choice of poems written over the years sit alongside her new work demonstrates a remarkable achievement of a poet who still has much to say.
Leah Fritz, a New Yorker by background and essentially a poet of the urban scene, is long established in the poetry world here. This is her fourth collection, handsomely produced in hardback (hence high price) by one of the new poetry publishers on the scene, bluecrome. At seventy odd pages, densely packed, with good layout and presentation, worth the money...
Fritz’s poetry fizzles with life and wit, technically skilled, pointed, highly intelligent and often moving. She makes full use of formal form in the modern ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ manner. There is ‘bite’ throughout―poems snapping smartly to their close, sometimes with a sonnet couplet, or a neat paradox, or both:
all accounts, turning slowly,
they brought the children―
Why didn’t we see the wall behind the wall? (Brecht)
quietly snow fell on stone,
each mind an open door
Fritz is an urban poet, not so much of the urban landscape (though that is here, Venice, Florence, Naples, Istanbul, New York, Paris, London, with a marvelous pairing of poems about Westminster and Blackfriars bridges) but of the whole span of the city or polis: the culture, the politics, the demos, the sophisticate celebrations, the meetings of movers and shakers (including even poets), the way we hide away in our built environment as if it’s for ever. She offers this scene as truly vibrant and almost satisfying but in her best work sharply undercuts complacency and crass ideas of what is important, “The city / shines too much as if denying life”.
I liked the poem What I did in Naples which, as the poet struggles to define her relation to the city, is punctuated by voices expressing all the cliches about travel. I enjoyed the poems (and there are several in which this is a key element) which deal with fickle fame: “Do you remember when you wound a watch / every morning and it never stopped? / Now when batteries run down it’s dead. / I wonder whether Dali’s are still ticking?” (The Persistence of … What?). I like the way that modern icons―going on a demo, enjoying food with friends, trawling for sexual encounters in a bar, are kicked into touch with a few sharp words or laid aside with melancholy, “and even / now in praise of martyrdom sing maudlin / hymns”.
The soul of this poetry is unusual. I would almost call it Augustan, Eighteenth Century, or Latinate (Horace) in spirit. She is also highly ambitious―I liked her longer poems (Fruit, in sonnet form, and Book Review, mainly in sonnet form) for the wide scope of both, though, compared with her toughest short poems, these are inevitably more diffuse.
What a lovely thing to have a collection in hardback these days, attractively presented with a full-colour cover! So it is a shame that the typeface is mystifyingly small, especially given the age of your average poetry reader. However, put on your reading glasses. It’s worth the effort.
These poems are accessible, well-made and easy to relate to. Fritz is a good formal writer and the work in this volume is never less than accomplished. It’s a pleasure to move inside the swing of her metrical lines and careful patterning, and it always feels like poetry that’s going on ― art, but not artificial. Having said this, I think the weakness, if there is one (this may be partly a matter of taste), is that sometimes the neat rhyming and metrical closure can sound a tiny bit too slick, as though the form is achieving something but not quite taking the reader with it.
‘Dead, Brilliant Thing’, for example, which is a nicely-turned sonnet, rehearses the way people invest in illusion that logic can’t bely: “The lies / our senses tell us have a truthful ring”. Fritz goes on to suggest that people are still dying illogically as martyrs (this poem immediately follows one written after 9/11) and her closure is a resounding couplet. I’m more convinced by the beauty of its flourish, however, than the depth of thought:
broad daylight hides a rage in store
It may be argued, successfully I think, that it’s impossible to define what makes one combination of lines exactly ‘right’ whereas another doesn’t … quite do the trick. It’s a mystery. But there are poems in this collection where Fritz penetrates that mystery. She combines movement, form, feeling and thought ―and bingo ― what a stunning effect! I loved ‘Dogs’ for example, and I’ll end up with part of that:
first published in Ambit, 2008
The personal is also the political in Leah Fritz’s Going, Going... Fritz cleverly uses the colloquial to deconstruct the rhetorical, and the constraints of form to control a restless imagination. In ‘Dr Katz’ for instance the rhetorical “I did not pray the Lord my soul to take” is deflated by the colloquial “old Dr Katz, who gently saw me in / and I saw out”, the humour increasing the shock when the poem ends chillingly with the death of the poet’s mother: “strong arms I sought / in shadowy trees through flimsy curtain folds / now motionless, as death shuts in the cold”. Several of the poems are overtly political, ‘Christmas 2001’ angrily using platitudes to commemorate 9/11 – “The road to hell / is paved with good intentions” — and ‘Dead, Brilliant Things’ deploying complex paradoxes to express a complicated political vision: “We see the sun drowsily arise / yet know it is a dead, if brilliant, thing... / ...The lies/our senses tell us have a truthful ring”.
Literary ghosts haunt the second section. ‘Under Westminster Bridge’ revisits Wordsworth’s sonnet to find the bridge “shut / for maintenance” in a world of “gambling games, an arcade travesty”. Sylvia Plath fails to survive Yeats’s house in Fitzroy Square, or the resentment of a passing stranger: “Damn near blew up the kids”. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is left sadly to “decompose” in Florence while her husband is celebrated in Westminster Abbey. The section closes with the fine ‘Making It Clear’, the poet “sinking fast / in depths that may elude me to the last”.
This dying fall leads straight into the slower reflective metres of the third section, full of illness and death. A mother visits her daughter in hospital in ‘Istanbul — Two Visits’, and though the daughter survives the cancer hinted at in “benign”, the fear and suffering is quietly clear. The implicit theme here seems to be that in moments of such suffering, we notice nothing around us but our own grief. Cancer is there again in ‘The Cure’: “Her voice so young / in such a ruin of a face, near mine / enough to graze me like a mirror”.
The last sequence is a sort of summing up hinted at in the figurative title ‘Book Review’. As throughout Going, Going... the sonnet form dominates to control Leah Fritz’s omnivorous imagination. A short review can scarcely do justice to such an imagination, where range is very much part of the success. This is very fine writing, and I wish I could quote more.
first published in Acumen, 2008
(extract from 3 reviews)
Leah Fritz is technically accomplished (including a deftly handled sestina), intelligent without losing any accessibility and shows respect and compassion for her subjects. Her poems focus on people and their relationships with their landscapes, generally urban, and time. Sometimes the myth kitty is raided but to good effect when “Ozymandius Defends Himself”, apparently “misquoted by a mad engraver”, he concludes, “Left to the gritty tendency of sand/ to hide both noble and ignoble deeds/ of man in real and metaphoric time,// as arrogant cliffs disintegrate and land/ docile as pebbles when breaking waves recede,/ my fame would pass, but for that infamous rhyme.” For me the stand out poem was the “Women In The Park” sequence which ends “their infants piggybacked through galleries,/ aware that they are privileged, still know/ the common, deadly pain of giving birth,/ the cord that, broken, tears the universe.” against the backdrop of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. It demonstrates Leah Fritz’s key strength of taking a snapshot applying to a particular time or person and then broadening out to the universal.
In Going, Going… we find Leah Fritz ‘under Westminster Bridge’ contemplating ‘the world out on parole’. Wordsworth is the first of many poets whose shadowy footsteps she traces through London and beyond. Yeats and Plath are remembered – and their deaths contrasted – by means of their tenure in Primrose Hill. Fritz locates herself by literary tradition as much as by geography, slipping between poetic forms just as an experienced traveller integrates with customs and cultures. This selection includes a ballad, ‘As We Speak’, that comes with ‘apologies to William Blake’, and a sonnet about, and after, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (‘Death in Florence’). Yet this is no mere fan-worship; Fritz’s distinctive voice reads like a conversation with her forebears. While her gaze is predominantly retrospective, she also acknowledges her contemporaries: a sonnet dedicated to Mimi Khalvati betrays ‘What teachers get up to when they’re not in school.’ Fritz quotes Robert Browning ‘The best is yet to be’, but her poems don’t bear out this optimistic sentiment. Despite evident strength of character, she expresses a feeling of powerlessness in the face of change. The title poem ‘Going, Going…’ is a winsome meditation on the aging body’s perversity: ‘… I feel I am a faint/ Shadow in the backdrop, something that the artist/Tried unsuccessfully to hide, something too quaint //For the production that the playwright had in mind.’
While this theme can potentially become a one-trick pony on which a poet rides to the grave, for Fritz the body’s fate is just the starting point for ruminations on social and moral decay:‘Brecht where are you when we need you now?…Where/Are your daughters, where your sons, to blast/Away the dust-motes of despair?’ She writes from a deeply personal context of protest. In an unusual anti-war poem, ‘Women in the Park (Sketches from the Vietnam years in New York)’, the conflict is viewed through the eyes of‘mothers pushing English carriages and talking (yes) of Michelangelo, their infants piggybacked through galleries,aware that they are privileged…’It is an honest account of bourgeois outrage, all the more powerful for being located beyond the conventional heroic guise of the outsider. The most plaintive poems conclude with droll couplets, cast off with a debonair shrug of the shoulders, as a cynical belle might pull a rueful moue on losing the love of her life. The reader gets the feeling that passions run deeper than the poems admit. Some capture the sardonic tone of holiday postcards home, written by an under-whelmed visitor. New York City ‘shines too much as if denying life’ while the poet is ‘seated facing sprawling thighs/trying ostentatiously to read.’ ‘Fruit’, Fritz’s narrative of the Fall, sums up the flight from the garden in an aside ‘How sensible of Eve/to pack a lunch.’ Such light heartedness borders on the bathetic at times, but it saves the poems from becoming sententious.
The mocking tone is most effective when sending up intellectual pretensions, such as the discovery of evolution, which is described as a belief that ‘… heaven [is] not upabove at all, but all around, and man emerged,/not from the hand of God, but more absurd,/anonymously from some thumbless ape.’ ‘Book Review’, an ambitious long sequence, concludes the book appositely. It is reminiscent of Breughel’s vast canvases that depict everything at once – both secular and religious scenes, distant landscapes and intimate exchanges. Like ‘Fruit’, the poem’s narrative attempts to explain a religious instinct it is overwhelmingly tempted to mock:‘Men worship what they do not understand./It’s in their fickle nature to adore/what seems impenetrable. They have a gland/for this.’ Fritz begins with Genesis, then charges through the Old Testament, the New Testament and Greco-Roman myths, by way of any of the ‘Books some people long ago…/inscribed on parchment scrolls’. She cultivates a reviewer’s dead-pan tone:‘Notably, some disagreements deal with supernatural events around the Hero’s birth and death. I won’t reveal the plot…’ The idea of a biblical spoiler is a nice irony, and of course we know already that the plot will get steadily worse as we enter the modern period. Eventually Fritz abandons her reviewing persona for a more exasperated invective, on witnessing ‘love /and peace dismissed as jam tomorrow.’ The poem implies that a lot of the blame for faction and violence lies with religious texts:‘These books are never out of print,Though now as relevant as chariots Or the ox-drawn plough.’Whether humankind is better off without the religious sensibility (or ‘gland’) which generates such impassioned beliefs, and hence conflict, is an impossibly complex debate. ‘To sum it/up requires more than a final couplet…’ Indeed.
The danger of Fritz’s stance is that her indignation has the potential to sound as bigoted as those she derides. Are books really to blame for extremism? As a poet, she is right to acknowledge the power of the written word. However her exegesis fails to acknowledge the literary and philosophical qualities of a work which, ironically, was part of the canon for many of the writers referenced elsewhere in this selection. Could antagonism be part of the human condition, rather than something we can petulantly blame on studious ‘Zealots’? We come back to the mothers pushing their prams in Central Park.It’s a complicated matter, as Fritz acknowledges, declaring (one might almost say back-tracking) in ‘a final couplet’ – after Sontag – ‘I recommend this with one reservation: For heavens sake, avoid interpretation.’. A hearty warning to reviewers, which I take as a welcome injunction to stop interrogating the poem.
published on Eyewear (Todd Swift Blogspot)
Nancy Campbell is a poet, printmaker and the editor of Ellipsis, a new writing series published by Sylph Editions. Her most recent publication, After Light, is a collaboration with the photographer Paula Naughton. She will be writer in residence at the Upernavik Museum in Greenland during 2010.
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