Alice Friman’s sixth full-length collection is The View from Saturn from LSU Press. Her previous collection is Vinculum, LSU, for which she won the 2012 Georgia Author of the Year Award in Poetry. She is a recipient of a 2012 Pushcart Prize, is included in Best American Poetry 2009, and has been published in 14 countries. She lives in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she is Poet-in-Residence at Georgia College. Her podcast series, Ask Alice, is sponsored by the Georgia College MFA program and can be seen on YouTube.
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At high altitudes the heart rises
to throat level, clanging for service.
The body—#l customer—needs oxygen,
the red blood cells scurrying like beaten
serfs not delivering fast enough: supply
and demand, that old saw.
struggling to make love under six blankets,
my heart banging so hard it threatened
to knock me out of bed, and you
in socks, ski hat, and four sweaters, fighting
for breath? When relating our story, paring
it down for parties,
let's leave those parts
out. Say we went to South America
for pre-Columbian art and Machu Picchu.
Mention the giant condors, yes, but not how
they floated up from Colca Canyon
like human souls circling in great flakes
nor how I cried, reaching to bridge
the unbridgeable gap. Say that one shivering
night we visited a thermal pool, but not
how slippery as twins tumbling in the womb,
we sloshed together under Andean stars.
Or how nose-bleeding or heart-pounding
and laboring for breath,
we reached for each other. Practice the lesson
of the body in distress: the heart knows
how much leeway it has before demanding
its due. Waiting in line for the Xerox calls for
giveaways of more supple truths: cartilage, Love,
DL: What was the thinking behind your decision to use dropped lines? What do you think they contribute to the poem?
AF: The poem is in the form of a sort of letter—a mental letter to my husband. But, yes, a letter; therefore the paragraph form with what I think of as paragraph indentations rather than as dropped lines. I think that the paragraph form is useful when a stanza break seems like too much of a break and the alternative is no break at all. It's a sort of compromise, a middle ground, a little break.
When I write, I rarely think about how the poem presents itself on the page. The underlying emotional heart of a given piece usually chooses how it wants to come out. In a first draft, scribbled in ink, the line breaks and stanza breaks will often naturally assert themselves. And then later, after many drafts, I back up and take a look. In the case of this piece, the first two stanzas came out in six lines each. All right, I say, six-line stanzas is what you want? So be it.
DL: The poem includes several negatives: in stanza 3 “but not,” in stanza 4 “nor how” and another “but not,” and in the poem’s last line “not bone.” There’s also a contrast between what really happened and what the two lovers will say happened. And there’s a contrast between what the physical heart wants and what the romantic heart wants. Talk to us about the function and value of contrast in this poem.
AF: Yes, there's much contrast in the poem, and I'm pleased that you pointed it out. But use of contrast is only one part of a process of clarification and narrowing down that this poem employs. The poem begins with the general and little by little moves to the particular. In this case: bone. More important to that process of narrowing is that the piece is written in the negative. Writing in the negative is a technique I use often. What it does is clarify by paring down in steps: no it's not this, nor is it this, nor this, until you get to the point, the conclusion.
I hasten to say that I think if a poet chooses to employ the negative, it's not necessary to have thought about the end before sitting down to write the poem. That's an essay, not a poem. Robert Frost said that a poem is an ice cube melting on the stove. In other words, the poem should be a discovery for the writer in writing it as it is for the reader in absorbing it.
I think writing a poem utilizing a repetition of the negative serves as an example of the poet thinking on paper. And hopefully, the reader, in following the negative steps, becomes a companion to that thinking, thus leading him down, down to the point—in the case of this particular poem, to "cartilage, Love, / not bone." Notice, too, that the poem begins with the body and ends with the body, and so, in a sense, the poem is a circular descending spiral driven by all those negatives.
DL: The repetition of “always” in the final indented line strikes me as one of those little things that mean a lot. Is it strategic? Why repeat the word?
AF: Yes, it's strategic. I repeat the word for emphasis. After all, the poem is a love poem. Even under great physical duress (which we were in) and in the midst of incredible beauty that bordered on the mythic, making us feel small and insignificant, we clung to each other. Yes we did. That is the "bone" I'm referring to at the end, the basic bone of our marriage that isn't necessary to share with idle chat at the water cooler. There's an old Irving Berlin song called "Always" that my husband often sings to me in his sweet tenor voice, a song that always makes me cry. In it the word "always" is repeated and repeated. Perhaps I was channeling that.
DL: Your poem is rich with figurative language. For example, hyperbole occurs in stanza 2 where you have a “heart banging so hard it threatened to knock me out of bed” and in stanza 4 where the two lovers were “nose-bleeding or heart-pounding and laboring for breath.” Hyperbole often doesn’t work in serious poems, but it does in yours. Tell us how you made it work.
AF: My dictionary defines hyperbole as “an obvious and intentional exaggeration.” Let me assure you and anyone reading this that the language I use is neither exaggeration nor hyperbole. We were in the mountains of Peru. We were over 16,000 feet up. I did some research after I got home to understand just how high we were so as to explain the effect that that altitude had on us, especially me. Denver is called “the mile high city.” Its altitude is only 5,183 feet—one third as high as where we were. Sixteen thousand feet is higher than any mountain in the Alps. Twenty-six thousand feet is called “the death zone.” I can tell you honestly and plainly that I understand why. When I speak of “nose-bleeding” in the poem, I am recalling the fact that I ended up in the emergency room gushing from both nostrils. When I say “heart-pounding,” I can tell you that when the heart is laboring so hard, the rest of your body feels like an appendage to be knocked about. If you are lying down, the body twitches uncontrollably and jerks back and forth hard. I did indeed feel as if I were going to be knocked out of bed.
DL: You also employ several similes. In stanza 1 we find “red blood cells scurrying like beaten serfs,” in stanza 3 condors “floated … like human souls,” and in stanza 4 we are told that the lovers were once “slippery as twins tumbling in the womb.” Are these similes to be taken as literally as your hyperboles? How did you arrive at these comparisons?
AF: When I wrote "the red blood cells scurrying like beaten serfs,” I was thinking that red blood cells carry oxygen. People who live in the higher elevations of the Andes have evolved larger red blood cells that are capable of delivering more oxygen. We, on the other hand, are at a disadvantage; the heart has to pump like crazy to drive the blood faster and faster. I imagined the red blood cells as serfs, bent under their load of oxygen, being whipped and driven.
One of the most magical places I've ever seen is Colca Canyon which is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. You sit on the edge and watch the condors with wingspans of up to ten and a half feet float slowly up out of the canyon. Since they are so big, they have to wait until the sun warms the air enough so that they can rise on the thermals. They do not fly as we know it but float instead, being lifted up and then circling. They seemed weightless like great dark flakes. Before I left, I stood, tilted back my head, and raised my arms; one condor seemed to pause then circle above me like some sort of greeting, and I felt as if I were being blessed. The fact that most people were fussing with their cameras and two men standing next to me were discussing their golf game made me realize again how perhaps I don't belong in this world, which is why I listed this experience as one of the things not to be discussed in passing, in idle chat.
The "tumbling in the womb" refers to one very cold night high in the Andes when we visited a thermal pool. The water was hot as amniotic fluid, the earth's uterine water, and my beloved and I were playing in it. Were we not then children of the earth? twins in the belly of the mother? in the world's amniotic sack?
As for how I arrived at these similes, I just wrote what I saw and what it meant to me.
DL: It’s clear that your poem evolved out of a real experience. What made you sit down and convert the experience into a poem?
AF: Not all poems have a trigger—the thing that gets you started—but this one did, an interesting one. My husband and I had recently come back from Peru, so, of course, our stay there was in my mind and I had been writing about it. It was a late afternoon. I was driving on the outskirts of Columbus, Georgia, I imagine coming home from the Carson McCullers house where I used to go to hole up and write. I passed a street sign that said—or I thought it said—Cartilage Drive. That caught me up. Wow! Cartilage? And I realized that I had never seen that word in a poem. Okay, I said. I shall write a poem whose end will include the word cartilage.
Check out another poem from The View from Saturn: How It Is, featured at Poetry Daily.