The cover image of Blood Weather: Poems, Alice Friman’s newest collection of poetry, is Memory, a 1948 surrealistic painting by the Belgian artist René Magritte. The painting’s foreground features a dark rose with thorns, a bell (or a bell-shaped shell), and the bust of a woman with closed eyes and a splotch of blood on one side of her face. In the background is the ocean—a recurring image in Friman’s poetry—with variations of dark and lighter clouds looming above. What makes Magritte’s painting the perfect visual counterpart for the poems in Friman’s seventh full-length volume is that their painful and heartbreaking images resonate with memories, both physical (the wound on the face, the pricking of the thorn) and personal (the statue’s closed eyes, the closeted mystery of the bell). Magritte’s own comments on his work and art in general are explored in Friman’s poems and in numerous interviews and essays; he believed that “Everything we see hides another thing, . . . we always want to see what is hidden by what we see, but it is impossible”; “The purpose of art is mystery”; and “The mind loves the unknown.” This need to come to terms with the mystery of the outward, physical universe and our inner nature—coupled with what Friman calls her own predominant themes of “death, love, loss”—serves as a guide to the remarkable poems in Blood Weather.
Friman was born and raised in New York City. In 1956, she married Elmer Friman and moved with him for his job, first to Dayton, Ohio, and then to Indianapolis, Indiana. In 1975, they divorced, and in 1989 she married Bruce Gentry. She moved to Georgia in 2003, and from 2006 until her retirement in 2017 she was poet-in-residence in the MFA program at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville. Though she came late to writing serious poetry—she was forty-two, divorced, and raising three children while living and teaching in Indianapolis—she has gained a reputation as a poet whose succinct language is infused with wit, honesty, and courage. Professor Emerita at the University of Indianapolis, Friman has been an instructor in creative writing, an editor, a lecturer, guest speaker, and visiting professor around the country.
The aforementioned accolades from a career of some forty years learning the craft of poetry, largely on her own, have shaped the writer whose themes and images culminate in Blood Weather. As Friman told the editors of Subtropics, much of her subject matter over the years arises from her need to write in “a way to make sense of the world around us—what she calls “my sweet hell” and “the great permission.” “Drawing the Triangle,” which introduces all the other poems in the volume, is the key to many of their themes and structure. The speaker watches outside her window as a hawk circles over a mouse, determined to capture it to feed its young. Reminiscent of Frost’s “Design,” the two creatures are drawn to this moment described as a spiral of “death exquisite.” Both are part of the “circling down,” and the artist too, in shaping the poem itself, draws our attention to a mundane but telling scene in nature. Just as Magritte comments on the mystery of what is hidden in his art, so too Friman questions whether this meeting holds significance beyond the moment. This circling down, this eddying structure toward doom, is often seen by Friman as terrifying and necessary, but often bitterly ironic or comical. In several interviews, she underlines her approach to writing: “Writing in the negative is a technique I often use,” and “I think duality reflects how I think and is thus mirrored in the world.” Like Magritte, Friman is always looking for what lies beneath or beyond the objects she chooses. The poems in Blood Weather further mine relationships she has explored in previous volumes that cut the deepest or hurt the longest: her struggles with her own parents, the death of her husband’s mother, and the questioning of past ways of seeing. Reminiscing and recurrence, however, are not merely repetition or revisiting the past. She seeks a more mature understanding of nature and what it can reveal. The speaker in “The Visitation,” for example, witnesses the oak leaves’ “ten thousand hands fluttering murder”; she can only hope that “these lines,” her words, will make sense of what she is observing. In “L is for Leaves,” she takes the action of the natural world and identifies with what the leaves are trying to say about her own needs:
hands splayed against the glass, not knowing
which of us is screaming, Hold on, hold on.
In another moment of clarity, the speaker in “Baring the Inevitable” is a witness to loss and cannot separate her own wounds from the struggle of the leaves: “See how / they tear themselves apart, flashing / their wounds as they fall, whispering / remember me, remember me.” The speakers in Friman’s poems, witnesses to everyday objects around them, seek to learn about themselves. Recognizing and remembering trivial, mundane, and common objects are altered by the poet into a revelation, a questioning of what is possible, even when, as she says in another poem, “memory” becomes “a disaster” (“Putting Two and Two Together”).
Blood and what it represents are common themes in these poems. As the title of the volume implies, blood and the weather are related. The speaker is drawn to the mythic and mysterious parts of herself; the inevitable coming and going of the seasons are parallels to her own life. It is telling that November and the autumn of the year are often backdrops to the speaker’s identifying with her own loss and turning toward death. There is an inevitability of erosion in many of the poems. Blood is a sign of life, but it also is a sign of hurt and the cutting of what is essential:
of a life into a high red boil of blood,
Woman’s blood, Unclenched, unyielding,
And unbuttoned. You better believe it.
In other poems, blood is “the red juice of slaughter” (“Judith”), or it is the thread that unites everything in nature: “the tree has turned / red, animal red-blood sister / to the circling hawk” (“The Visitation”). In each of the poems, blood is a natural and necessary function of life. In Friman’s gifted hands, she makes the cuts and wounds of the flesh, whether by natural causes or betrayal by those we love, an act of understanding. She “gives / herself permission to test the darker depths / of what she is” (“Judith”).
Blood Weather is an essential collection. Through the lives of her characters—hers and family’s, historical or Biblical, mythic or artistic—she holds them up as a mirror to nature. As long as she can identify with blood at all levels, the physical and the imagined, she is determined to be remembered: “An artist,” she says in an interview, “is someone who knows how to see.” Friman sees the blood pumping beneath the skin, just as Magritte sees what is hidden in his painted images, and she turns it into poetry.
The volume ends with “In Praise of Wandering”; it is the key to what Alice Friman has tried to do with poetry all her life: “If there’s a message / to squeeze from this poem of wandering, / it’s to be awake to what is possible.” On her website, she says, “I wished to live deeply, not just on the surface of things.” One senses the honesty in Friman’s desire for clarity of purpose. True to the vision of one of her favorite authors, Henry David Thoreau, she has been a fearless, truth-telling witness to possibilities. The final lines of this last poem in her volume tell the reader that, in spite of the fears, the wounds, and the uncertainties, there is hope for us all:
And to the sun that makes all things
possible: our beloved battery that spins
in place and never wanders, ever ready
to hold a spotlight steady for us to love in.
Louisiana State University Press, 2019. 113 pp. $19.95, paper.