Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
Perfect bound, 88 pgs
Reviewed by Teresa Schartel Narey
The devilish girl figure on the cover of Daisy Fried’s third collection, Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, is indication that Fried has something up her sleeve. In these poems, Fried explores motherhood and relationships, though in a way the reader does not expect; they dig deep and often muddle innocence with danger. While many of these poems speak to women’s experiences, Fried does not lecture the reader. Her craft is prominent in every poem, and she asserts it from the beginning: “‘Don’t call me Professor,’ / I say, dozens of times a semester. ‘I’m a writer, / not a teacher.’” The book is divided into four sections, and in each one, we see that little devil lurking.
The fourth section, a long poem comprised of a montage of epistles, “Ask the Poetess: An Advice Column,” is the best place to begin. Here, Fried satirizes the distinctions often made between women and men poets, and through imagined questions, she connects writing poetry to raising children. First, the reader should know:
The Poetess has long felt that women’s equality should be founded
in the notion that a woman is no worse than a man. So it stands to
reason that men are just as bad as women.”
Fried continues by referring to both women and men as poetesses, most notably, she deems Charles Bukowski “our greatest poetess.” With the poetic playing field level, Fried addresses a larger issue: an advice-seeker wants to know why “mothers think they’re so special,” because “Anybody can pop a child out. Writing a book of poems is much harder.” Instead of defending mothers, Fried draws upon the powers of analogy to one-up this pompous claim:
Treat the poem as the child
and the child as the poem. Failed babies should not be thrown away.
Instead, tuck them in a drawer or save them on a memory stick—who
knows when you’ll want to dig them out, pull them apart and work
them up again?
Fried is sneaky by equating the poem and the child, because writers, women and men alike, often think of their work as their babies. Suddenly, all poets are liable for creating promising poems and all poems are vulnerable to their poets’ vagaries, much like the relationships between parents and their children.
Fried references her daughter, Maisie, throughout the collection, and often times we find her in precarious circumstances. In the book’s first poem, “Torment,” Maisie is still in the womb when one of Fried’s students pops a lit cigarette into Fried’s mouth and hands her a beer. In “Midnight Feeding,” Fried ignores Maisie’s cries on the baby monitor to feed stray kittens living in her shed. In “Econo Motel, Ocean City,” Maisie sleeps under a Dora the Explorer blanket that shields her from the “grease-dusted ceiling fan” and the “polluted rug,” and in “Inside All This,” the reader can only assume that the restlessly sleeping baby, scraping “snail trails of snot widening and widening / on its eczema’d face” is Maisie. Although, none of these plights compare to the “human stink” Maisie faces in Rome, where the third section of poems takes us. There, Maisie is subjected to the “Tourists Against the War” protest, “shit piles along the Tiber,” and “a stream of thug-boys / weaving through traffic.” No one is safe in Fried’s poems. She never ignores the obvious and the raw.
It should be no surprise, then, that the title poem is a metaphor for one of life’s most painful, yet joyful experiences: childbirth. Fried begins by comparing women’s poetry to a souped-up Nissan GT-R; when stripped of its accoutrements, the car is just a car and poetry is just poetry. However, as the poem continues, the reader cannot ignore how the “gaping wound / of the car-detailing garage,” which “smells like metallic sex” is like a baby emerging during delivery. Or, how the car itself, “fitted with an oversized spoiler,” “snake zizz[ing]around the license plate,” “sunburst hubcaps,” and “fancy undercarriage installation” is like a newborn covered in vernix under hospital room lights. If we recall, though, that poems are like babies, we better understand the work it takes to deliver exceptional writing—the writing process is similar to childbirth in that it is arduous and rewarding. Though Fried ends with the question, “Was it this that filled me with desire?” it feels more like she is affirming that seeing the flashy car, birthing the baby, or writing poetry has filled her with desire.
By title alone, it would be easy to assume that Fried’s collection is simply about women’s lives, yet more poems about the difficulties of being a mother or observing one’s sweet toddler running around the playground, but Fried never slips into the mundane. Her edge is in her humor, her honesty, and quite frankly her wicked way of weaving the vulnerable with risk. All of her poems are as pimped out as that Nissan, and because of it, we cannot stop looking and thinking about them.
Teresa Narey’s poetry and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in wicked alice, The New Yinzer, No Tokens, The Mom Egg, and Apeiron Review, among others. She is a recipient of an Academy of American Poets University Prize and has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Chatham University.