Walter Benjamin's brilliant insight that "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism," kept running through my mind as I read and reread Michael Fried's third book of poems, The Next Bend in the Road. Best known for his stimulating and rigorous work in art history and criticism (I am eager to recommend Art and Objecthood, Manet's Modernism and Menzel's Realism), Fried is highly conscious that great works of art, the most enduring human achievements, are inevitably entangled with the agon of history. Our joyous creations, our deep intimacies, are intertwined with the suffering of others. Art is stained, as the following one-line poem shows:
Lubricated in fish blood, tears, semen.
The theme of interconnectedness runs like an electric current through this book, lighting it up. The first poem, a prefatory piece, introduces the motif in the most personal way. The poet sends off his collection ("Go, little book") and welcomes his child:
The hummingbird looks up from his flower punchbowl with an expression of pure dazzlement.
The May morning is that perfect,
our eleven-month-old daughter in her Grandma's-gift raspberry sundress is that astonishing.
She came here in stages
from Wuhan, China, where we adopted her
in the eye of a cyclone.
En route from the orphanage
all the while Anna slept in your arms
her birth mother's tears rose wavelike from the dusty earth
to speed us on our way.
The adoption of the poet's daughter is the touchstone of this work, which keeps accumulating figures and examples, noble precursors. All Fried's poems are "adoptions" of a sort, as Stanley Cavell suggests, lifting up "what had nearly been left behind." Fried apparently sees no gap -- and we shouldn't either -- between poems that deal with autobiographical subjects and poems that treat literary and artistic ones. Life and art are everywhere intertwined. All encounters are personal.
Many of Fried's lyrics and prose poems have an essayistic quality, the character of parable: "Kafka's Drawings," "Freud's Sacrifice," "Wittgenstein on Green," and so forth. The title poem, the first piece of a triptych, takes up the short-lived love affair in 1916 between Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetayeva, who represent what is highest in Russian poetry. Both were cruelly broken on the wheel of Stalinism.
The Next Bend in the Road
If there's a mention of eyelashes, then it's about Osip.
-- Nadezhda Mandelstam
The young man with long thick eyelashes is
unapologetically drunk with the world's beauty
despite or possibly because of the hollowness at its core
which he confirms in the slightly dead timbre
of the distant church bells sounding the hour.
Meanwhile the little horses jog onward without
the least appearance of strain, their breath issuing
visibly in twin dissolving plumes of cloud,
and the extraordinarily pretty woman (scarcely
more than a girl) whose head rests on the young man's
shoulder, although she has a husband to whom
she will return, is for the moment all this. Just beyond
the next bend in the road, or if not the next
the bend after that, still hidden by the towering
fir trees, their dark drooping vigorous branches
loaded with snow (I forgot to say that this
is a winter scene, that the youthful lovers are in
a sleigh, that they are both poets, that they will come
to similar ends), the Revolution waits.
(All quotations are from Michael Fried, "The Next Bend in the Road." The University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 2004 by the University of Chicago.)