Monday, December 3, 2012

Patrick Friesen's jumping in the asylum

After reading Patrick Friesen's mawkish 1999 "carrying the shadow" (blogged a few years back), I hesitated to pick up anything by him for quite a while. After a few chance readings of several of his newer poems from two journals -- poems markedly improved in severity and rigour -- I decided to pick up his 2011 offering, “jumping in the asylum”. George Amabile, in the back cover promo, calls these poems “jazz improvisations”. It’s a good descriptor. Friesen has forsaken the clipped yet flabby line in favour of unpunctuated shifts between remembered image, commentary, and philosophical questioning. At their best, lines create a near-seamless engagement with unexpected turns of thought, past and present impressions achieving a liquid curve by a quick neural flip to another line, or phrase within a line. But Friesen can also stay with moments and ride them so that sensations aren’t a showy noodling, a splash of disengaged elements the reader is left to puzzle over, and it's a good challenge to a current suspicion of the benefit of integration in a post-post world. As such, “anna and rose” sets the memory in a haunting, charming this-happened-even though-no-one-remembers elegy: “those who crossed this field the horse that stood in the/shade and rubbed its hide against the bark/anna holding generations in her lap singing her childish/songs before she put away her stuffed lamb”. The next stanza pulls back to observe the observer and what happened: “sunday there was nothing all day but time and green stains/and the breathless bride on the steps”.

Hard to get away with “time” and “beauty” and “death” repeatedly, though. Not that Friesen overwrites as much as he frequently wants to step back from the image to explore meaning, though his open-ended manoevres are usually less than enlightening. Just one example, from “room 205”, where “gazing at the sandstone shine/of st. mary’s in late light/bags of rain hanging over the steeple and caught in some/contradiction of time//somewhere in the city you made a voice somewhere in the/blinding snow”. Vague rambling isn’t laudable open-mindedness. The preceding image is obliterated, and any inferred or implied meaning from that image is lost with it, as well. That brings up one danger of  run-on, free-form lines: rhythm needs to be strong and various, challenging yet pleasing. Friesen frequently pulls it off, but like an accomplished soloist trying to trade riffs with Coltrane, quite a few transitions are also less than fluid, sometimes awkward --  “it is the shaking day call it that the day when all you/ever knew is shaken into what you know”.

The other danger of the improvisatory approach Friesen has taken up in “jumping in the asylum” is apparent in the gathering sameness of style and effect. Sticking with the jazz comparisons, Lee Morgan could create a sinuous, complex, tasty long line on his trumpet, but he could also slow it down and soften it with a sustained, subtly lilting exhalation or a slow and staccato pattern. Friesen’s like the energetic listener who hears a breathless solo and can’t wait to get on his instrument and play his own version (or new creation) without pause through the night and into the next day. The poems rarely reach the second page, but it’s the tempo and emotional effect that matters here, not each poem’s length. Though the style is repetitive, kudos to Friesen for twinning melancholy and swift association. Can’t say I’ve encountered that combo in quite this way before.

I look forward to Friesen’s next release, and because of this volume, I look for any book or more of his I’ve missed in the last few years.

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