Martha Kapos, The Likeness, Enitharmon
Philip Fried, Interrogating Water and Other Poems, Salmon
Philip Fried's new collection blazes with wit and fury and impassioned warning. This is the poetry of direct political engagement, which received wisdom says is impossible to write, unless you're prepared to sacrifice the literary subtleties. But Fried operates with immense technical control and never falls into agitprop or hysteria. Confronting the many nightmares of "the security state" (expansionism, the death penalty, nuclear aggression, torture, rendition, propaganda), his poems avoid the first-person pronoun and the mimetic depictions of bloodshed or abuse, but use clashing registers of diction to infiltrate, expose or oppose each other. Sometimes, displacement creates a parodic effect: in the title poem, for example, instructions on how to perform a harmless electrolysis experiment "at home" overlap with the diction of a torturer's manual: "Imagine you are interrogating water, / coercing the hydrogen and oxygen / to violate their bonds, give up each other ..." The instructions alternate with a denunciation of the enemy, water: "Foe of stability, / it erodes in drizzles, / revolts in tsunamis, riots / in floods and from covert puddles / takes part in uprisings." Like the 'how-to' paragraphs, the descriptions of water's subversive activity also insinuate a textbook overtone, and contribute to both the poem's grim humour and its grim authority.
Fried doesn't find his 'mixology' texts only in military manuals and gov-speak. The King James Bible spurs some of his most powerful effects ('On the Record', 'Canticles', "Unnumbered Psalm'). Shock and awe are alive on the page, and chill the spine, in 'A New Doctrine'. This poem revises the Book of Revelations in an apocalyptic scenario, where "the rider called Faithful and True" annihilates "the Balaamites", by means of "tungsten projectiles, lobbed / From space, cratering at hypersonic speeds ..." Realism splices the mythic vision, and rakes the comforting fiction out of the sci fi:
'Practical Mysticism' concerns the genesis and naming of the first nuclear bombs (Thin Man, Fat Man, Little Boy). Its soberly descriptive tercets begin like a creation-myth ("In dormant form, the fissile Godhead appeared") and conclude by detecting "our own image [was] mirrored deep in the formless". Other poems explore biological human processes in terms of geographical analogy: the spinal cord itself harbours "the fanatics of the body's homeland" in 'Homeland Security'. Delusion and aggression, "hubs of primitive faith and bloody vendettas", aren't imposed by gods and warlords; they're encoded in our biology.
Fried's poems demonstrate that whatever is made of language is open to contamination, morality included. As the soldiers in 'Moral Helmets' are advised, "coming soon is a Moral Positioning System / (MPS) to align your firefight decisions / With four or five of the major world religions". But, through their heightened awareness of the mendacity of words, the poems find authenticity, and document a vision of morality almost as a superior form of politics. The nuances of Wilfred Owen's 'Draft Preface' come to mind. "Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful."
"The aim of a joke is not to degrade the human being, but to remind him that he is already degraded," George Orwell once wrote. The same can be said of the satirical poems by Philip Fried in Interrogating Water and other poems. With his skillful use of dark humor, Fried reminds us in his poetry of the damage that "the war on terror" has done to those it professes to protect.
This may sound dry material for poetry, but Fried completely sidesteps any hint of political haranguing with his subversive use of governmentalese and Biblical language from the King James translation. Take "On the Record," for example, a poem that recasts The Book of Job; "Have you brought forth the Predator Drones? Have you armed / them with Hellfire missiles and fledged them with glycol-weeping wings?" (40). Just as Jehovah asks Job a series of questions that showcase the power of the Almighty, here the State asks a citizen questions that firmly establish who is divinely empowered. The closing verse clearly establishes the divinity of the State's power: "Can you bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades, or configure / the Reaper for deadly persistence? ... Whatsoever is under the / whole of heaven is mine." (41) That this juxtaposition of secular and religious works so well is both funny and disturbing.
The State is not the only entity that fights a moral crusade against the enemy. In "Homeland Security" we see the body itself take on a familiar battle:
From pre-synaptic villages like Edak,
Ziraki, and Hassu Khel, the radical
tribesmen from the untamed lateral horn
(their forebears battled the Empire to a standstill)
flow in loose groups beneath the Spinal range ... (36)
Perceiving the body as an "inner Waziristan" (36) may seem an exercise in absurdity until one listens to how doctors and the public discuss cancer treatment, with phrases like "mounting an aggressive campaign" and "kicking the ass" of cancer. Just as the state must assume complete power in order to destroy the enemy, so we yearn for complete control over the body for our inner security. The quixotic futility of ever obtaining this "homeland security" does not make it any less addictive.
Fried's poems reveal that there is not only a psychological dimension to "the war on terror," but a mythical one as well. Perhaps the darkest and funniest poem in Interrogating Water is the poem "from The Chronicle," which adapts the language of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of documents that date back to 60 BCE. Fried as chronicler creates a stinging portrait of our future: "A.D. 2114. This year was the tribute revolt in the Garden State, / against further spending measures to stem the rising waters. / Enraged citizens rowed around the Moylan and Moses State / House in Trenton, displaying placards saying, 'No more levies / for levees." (93-94) This dystopian vision feels all too believable.
The more imaginative poems in this collection, such as "from the Chronicle," prove the most effective, while poems that rely mainly on found language at times feel flat." "Coming of Age," for example, creates a short biography of the Warthog, also known as the A-10 Thunderbolt, as a young man. The joke quickly fades, lost in the technical jargon. Far more effective is "Indicators," which profiles the danger of "loners" living among us:
("How many mornings, summer and winter, before
Yet any neighbor was stirring ..."). Unusual
Surveillance may signal a terrorist incident—
Glassing a target with binoculars
Or transiting sensitive sites at odd hours,
Absentminded, pursuing mysterious errands
("Trying to hear what was in the wind ...") (79)
All the quotations here come from two subversive thinkers—Thoreau and Emerson. Fried makes us realize that the Transcendentalists would not thrive in our surveillance state. Nor would anyone who "marches to the beat of a different drummer."
Given the sensitivity to American culture, as well as to our domestic and foreign policies, one might wonder why this book has been published in Ireland and not in the United States. Could it be that Fried's satire makes American readers a tad uncomfortable? Or is it simply that any person that speaks, no matter how imaginatively, about political and social issues is taboo here? Regardless of the answer, Salmon Poetry deserves our thanks for bringing us this much-needed poetry. Interrogating Water reminds us that humor can be an irrepressible weapon.
... Should a real apocalypse happen—and each day CNN offers evidence that it's well on the way—a lucky survivor might find a tattered copy of Philip Fried's Interrogating Water to be an illuminating discovery, a Yeatsian note of foreboding struck in its very first poem: 'Rust and corrosion are everywhere, malfunction / is rife.'
In a time of instantaneously transmitted social and news media, we may no longer need artists to be the 'antennae of the race' as they were for Ezra Pound in 1934, but Fried's poems demonstrate that a poet's acute receptivity to language in all its cultural and political manifestations can isolate and amplify the often unintended messages it conveys, no trivial skill in the rushed, roiling miasma of talking points and reflexive opinionating that constitutes what we call information. Amid this welter of cable TV blather, tweets, press releases, and Facebook flotsam, Fried plucks his controversial subjects—predator drones, capital punishment, climate change—and wraps them in familiar forms, both poetic and what Jonathan Holder dubbed analogical (e.g., letters, lists, prayers, memos) that supply contrasting discursive backdrops for the content, often integrating his own words with text found in pre-existing sources....
Implicit in Fried's poetry is the fear that humanity itself is in danger of becoming ambiguous, indeterminate ('our own image mirrored deep in the formless'), our ostensible autonomy and free will dissipated by 'bureaucracies of vapor.' As if to underscore this grim prospect, Interrogating Water eschews the indulgence of the poetic I, a central Whitmanic or Dantean persona who guides us through a visionary or nightmarish path of self-recognition. Instead, Fried intercepts and repurposes the ubiquitous, untethered vocabulary and rhetoric of the world in which we actually live and lets it coalesce within our individual consciences, hoping to foster states of heightened attention and awareness. If we are destined for a zombie apocalypse, then those of us who occupy 'the ironic zone' along with Philip Fried might as well recognize the warning signs while we can still read them.