Much of what is surprising about Petty Theft falls into “the old is new again” category. The first great American poet of the 20th century was E. A. Robinson, a master of poetic form and concise human portraiture, but the tsunami of Ezra Pound and modernism flushed Robinson out of our poetic imaginations. Most of us who remember Robinson today do so because some high school English teacher assigned his “Richard Cory” and then played Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” on a record player (or in a cassette deck) so that the students could hear the duo’s mellifluous rendition. The teacher was trying to elevate popular music lyrics to the status of poetry, but probably neglected to explore why Robinson’s genius had inspired Paul Simon in the first place.
“Richard Cory” looms in the backdrop of Friedman’s “Jim and Mary.” In Friedman’s ballad-like stanzas, a perfectly ordinary couple leads a perfectly ordinary life until the wife suffers a cerebral hemorrhage that leaves her mobile but mentally childlike. Her husband then struggles for “mercy, healing prayer, / proof, theory or Magnificat,” as he shuts out a world he cannot rejoin:
They kept away. Though Mary liked
to see the sidewalk crocuses,
Jim turned the bolt. Nothing stays
or is what it promises.
They then go for a romantic walk in the woods:
They stood in sunlight like young lovers.
They felt the stirring April breeze.
They suffered the bitterness that came
from blooming Callerys.
As in “Richard Cory,” the scene abruptly changes:
The whole world was a reverdie.
The far light was a kind of beacon.
Jim held firm to Mary’s hand
and felt the daylight weaken.
The 6:03 was punctual.
It trundled unerringly down the track.
Jim heard — did Mary? — the wheels that said,
get back, get back, get back.
Note the cold-blooded touch in the last line — Friedman does not soften his final blow by personifying the train with quotation marks around the repeating phrase “get back.”
Friedman’s channeling of E. A. Robinson (if the poems of this book were less skillful I might invoke Edgar Lee Masters) is an exercise in retro-transgression. In a time when egos and agendas relentlessly insert themselves into lyric poetry, he adopts techniques from earlier eras and stands back as a neutral observer. “Show don’t tell” may be the workshop cliché, but most millennial poets find ways to make their standard ideological points brutally clear, so it is refreshing to be moved but not pushed; Robinson never tells us why Richard Cory ended his idyllic life and Friedman never tells us what is going through Jim’s mind as he awaits the 6:03. This type of poetry challenges readers to fill in cavernous blank spaces in the way that classical Chinese shih poets usually asked their readers to do.
A significant portion of Petty Theft follows the template of “Jim and Mary.” “Tiny Tina” captures the humanity of a “two-foot-five […] queen of country fairs.” “The Magic Trick” profiles a bedraggled street magician (“Half clown, half Keebler elf”), and its imagery is mirrored in “The Illusionist.” Friedman covers similar subject matters in “The Portrait Artist,” but breaks his mold in a variety of ways in order to comment obliquely on his own poetic methods.
My favorite poem in Petty Theft is one of the few in which the poet describes a group of individuals rather than focusing on just one. In 18 lines of powerful blank verse, “Undark” tells the story of young female manufacturing workers from a century ago who became known as “the radium girls”; they viewed the radioactive material used in manufacturing clocks and other products as an amusing novelty, not a hazard. By choosing this topic, Friedman assumes the unfashionable risk of sentimentality — a risk so unfashionable that Kaveh Akbar and other well-intentioned younger poets have been arguing recently that the word “sentimental” should be removed from our critical vocabulary altogether.
“Undark” is a poem that demands comparisons with Adrienne Rich’s “Power,” which describes the final excruciating years of the equally naïve Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie as she died from the radium she discovered with her husband Pierre. Rich’s poem has some startling moments, perhaps most notably her description of Marie Curie’s skin as “suppurated,” but on the whole it has the dryness of a routine newspaper op-ed. Friedman’s poem closes far more powerfully than Rich’s does:
Fear only turns the key on what it knows.
One girl daubed her teeth to spook a lover
in the grin-lit dark. Now, in that other dark,
there’s still a bit of light left in her bones.
“Undark” offers compelling evidence for the case that nuanced sentimentality belongs in contemporary poetry.
Friedman displays his range in technique and subject in the several dozen poems of Petty Theft that are not portraits. In the title poem, he abandons Robinsonian distance and crafts a romantic and slightly erotic lyric with “crooked bodies nesting at the crooks.” In the four-section poem “Il Poverello,” the speaker wrestles with his religious faith:
We trust that these are actually his bones.
A monk sits at a small desk, selling cards
to the bereaved. I cross myself, move forward,
and touch the pillar, darkening its stone.
Friedman returns to the subject of magic and magicians with “The Vanishing Bird Cage,” but the poem has a very different feel from that of “The Magic Trick” and “The Illusionist.” He quickens the pace with taut unrhymed iambic dimeter, and veers at the end (“How does the cage — / Like logic, it’s / collapsible”) in a manner reminiscent of Kay Ryan. “Distraction Display” is another strong Ryan-like poem that, like “The Vanishing Bird Cage,” uses dimeter and concludes with an unexpected flash of insight.
While I might quibble about a word choice or two, Nicholas Friedman’s first book demonstrates enormous technical prowess. His range of interests is broad and unusual, and I expect that his next book will cement his place in the next generation of our best formal poets.
A. M. Juster (@amjuster on Twitter) is the poetry editor of First Things. His ninth book, a translation of John Milton’s Latin elegies, is due early next year.