Spring. Awakened on the cusp of light
by birdsong. Fragile night, new corporate mergers
muffle the dreamed melody. Weight of deals
preventing flight. CEO of Hewlett-Packard makes $15,000
a day. But we’re rich
on paper. Hypocrite entrepreneur! (40)
What’s striking, however, is that the speaker uses the very terms that separate her from her father as a means to create empathy: ‘Have you noticed how your war ended in the spring/ and mine did too? And then/ they never ended again.’ (10) Poem #40, quoted above, having slid from attack on corporate greed to something we might read as an attack on dad, abruptly shifts to acknowledgement of the father’s plight as a struggling immigrant:
There goes a young man who reminds me of
everything I believe you never had.
The self he seeks
how quick he moves with those American legs
free of rickets. (40)
The warp speed at which the language moves between anger and compassion suggests the speaker’s tremendous capacity to stay open toward the conditions that shaped the father’s life and their relationship; to recognize that he is not only a force against which she defines herself, but also a ground for feelings of kinship and continuity.
But the daughter is not the only one making connection possible. These poems are not about the dead father, they are to him, and that fact implies an active interlocutor. At some point prior to the writing, he passed from one form of otherness — the living, spiky father with all of his difficult specifics — to otherness with a capital O, Otherness as a ‘denizen of heaven’ (17). In this second capacity the father represents a new kind of absence, not the psychological absence of an emotionally limited parent, but absence as a kind of vast, generous, listening space — absence, one might say, as a kind of presence.
This second aspect of the father can receive dispatches that the living father may have been unable to accept. Whereas the living father would dismiss the speaker’s account of stepping over bodies on the street, perhaps the dead father can hear the daughter’s need for comfort and explanation: ‘...at the threshhold, three beached mammals piled against the brick. Father, what caught them in their throats, cast them to this sidewalk moat, the sea so far away?’ (9) This dead father can, with no preparation, be plunged into a pithy explanation of his daughter’s craft:
Scan the motherless horizon.
Nothing but early birds, worms
and languaged clouds.
Get to work translating:
What dreams through me
dreams through everyone,
only I write it down
while they sleep. (18)
He can be counted on to appreciate a sophisticated poetry that proceeds through a lyrical music and lightning-fast leaps of thought and wit (a poetry one wonders if the immigrant businessman who ‘struggled with the American language’ [Preface] could readily enter), perhaps because as a denizen of heaven such poetry is his language too:
The person you desire to see suffers.
Persons you desire to avoid appear
atopic like dust on a surface.
I tried earthly words you don’t understand.
Now we meet in a heavenly language. (25)
The father, in his dual capacity as a remembered living figure who is also a representative of the beyond, evokes the ‘master’ to whom Emily Dickinson wrote several letters — an Other whose identity still hovers, in the contemporary imagination, between that of an actual man and what we take to be Dickinson’s concept of the divine. Homage to Dickinson and her poems crops up throughout the volume, starting with the title and epilogue. Dickinson becomes in a sense another interlocutor, putting in her brilliant two cents about politics, war, death and eternity, and the challenges of being a female poet defining herself in a male-dominated world: ‘...My life/ has not stood a loaded gun, but/ other children took to firing.’ (25) One of the shortest poems in the volume reads in its entirety: ‘Dear Father,/ I can’t join the company business./ A dim capacity for wings/ Degrades the dress I wear.’ (16)
In a personal communication in 1998, Frym said of the ‘master’ letters, ‘Perhaps Dickinson was experimenting with narrative in those letters and there was no recipient and she never intended to send them in the first place. It makes sense to me that she was responding to fiction she’d been reading. In the course of her rather intense literary career, how could it be that a woman who read so much fiction never try her hand at any narrative?’
Frym herself writes both fiction and poetry: Back to Forth (The Figures: 1982) is a collection of prose poems informed in part by her interest in Language poetry and French feminist writing; How I Learned (Coffee House Press: 1992) and Distance No Object (City Lights: 1999) are both volumes of relatively straight-up stories mostly narrated by a range of first persons, from characters who sound like Frym to lively, elderly Jewish women who refuse to shut up or stay put. In Homeless at Home, Frym is able to bring both aspects of her craft to bear, to create something that in the end defies categories. In one sense it is an epistolary novel, replete with plot and characters, scenes and backdrops. Throughout this review I’ve talked of a ‘speaker’ and certainly there is a strong ‘I’ authoring these letters, identifiable in part by an edgy, sardonic wit anchored in a well-informed, deeply felt concern for the world: ‘I would like to write a poem/ that equals/ The Snack Bar at Auschwitz.’ (27)
But if, as was pointed out earlier, Dickinson too becomes a kind of character in this book, then perhaps we had better include the other fragments of poems and references to poets sprinkled throughout: ‘Dear Father,/ The solution to one sentence is not the solution to any other./ Allen said, the key is in the sunlight by the window. So Ted said, follow me down/through the locks. There is no key.’ (20)
But if we include ‘Allen’ (Ginsberg?) and ‘Ted’ (Berrigan?) in the growing cast of characters, then mustn’t we also acknowledge all the other voicings and fragments of language from both high and low culture that jam up next to each other in many of these poems? The following passage hops comically between literary analysis, biblical intonation and a note on tacky American culture: ‘Direct Address/ Goes the way of bulk mail. God invented/ Food and the source of food. It is/ Written, and placed in most motel rooms.’ (8) Within the book’s simple ‘I/Thou’ framework, a whole world of words are speaking amongst themselves.
This is the most profound sense of the Spicerian injunction that guides the work: All language is the language of the dead, the language of our forebears — arriving, one might say, with strings attached, like a parent’s complicated love. It is precisely by opening herself up to hear the voices not only of the father, and of Dickinson, and of other poets, but to the polyvalent voicings of all language, ‘translating... what dreams through everyone’ onto the page while still containing those fragments within the framework of a particular conversation, that Frym is able to create a work at once focused enough to feed our desire for intimate connection and large enough to address — and be addressed by — the entire world. In this work, Direct Address does indeed go the way of bulk mail, but somehow when we receive the missive, it still feels personal.