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Robert Friend’s poetry in this issue

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Gabriel Levin’s Essay on Robert Friend’s work

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Anthony Rudolf’s Obituary and Tribute

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For all photos of Robert Friend: Courtesy of Jean Shapiro Cantu

Robert Friend’s translations and poetry. Copyright © Jean Shapiro Cantu
jeanshapirocantu@gmail.com

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Contributor Notes




Robert Friend


Ars Poetica by Edward Field

 

 

Editor’s Preface to Dancing with a Tiger: Poems 1941-1998
(The Menard Press, 2003)



By Edward Field

 

When I read the poems of Robert Friend, I always sense the relationship to my own poetry.  He was the father who passed on to me the key, and his own poetry is the mother ground I started from.  It is true that W.H. Auden and Constantine Cafavy were major influences on me almost from the beginning, but first there was Robert Friend.

 

                        A crowded floor of couples at a dance

                        and only I,

                        his tail wrapped round us both,

                        dancing with a tiger.

                        Soft lights, music,

                        social happiness,

                        but suddenly

                        -- what had I said to him --

                        the strong grip loosened,

                        the tongue at my ear

                        stopped licking,

                        and he growled....

                                                                        -- “Dancing with a Tiger”

           

But like dancing with that tiger, our relationship, if vital, had rarely been an easy one.

 

I met him in l948.  I had dropped out of college where my attendance was becoming more and more erratic, and had booked passage on a converted troop ship to France, where I hoped to stay for a year on the thousand dollars saved from my flying pay during the war – this budgeting was not unrealistic in that era of a Europe on the edge of bankruptcy.  By chance and the imperatives of the alphabet, Field and Friend were seated next to each other in the ship’s dining room.  I quickly learned that the distinguished, professorial man next to me was a published poet, and though I had no grounds for claiming that I too was a poet, except that I wished to be, desperately, Robert Friend accepted me at face value.  Ten years older than me and a native of Brooklyn, he had been teaching in Puerto Rico and Panama for some years, and after getting his masters at Harvard, had finally landed a job at Queens College, a lucky break that would bring him back to New York again.  So he was celebrating by going to Paris for the summer.  A mistake, as it turned out, for post-war Paris turned out to be even more seductive than New York.

 

During the ten day voyage, he gathered, or rather, there gathered around him, a group of young would-be artists and writers who were taking the thrilling leap into the unknown of a Europe that had been closed to the outside world during the long years of the war and promised the intellectual thrill of a new movement, Existentialism.  Robert Friend was a natural teacher, and it was with evident pleasure that he led the group’s discussions throughout the voyage.  It has been true through the ages and in all cultures that when there is sexual interest on the part of the teacher, the student blossoms in the particular glow of his attention and learns.  I myself thrive on being paid attention to, and one of the reasons for my failure in college was the hopeless anonymity of sitting in the large post-war classes swollen by returning GIs, trying to concentrate on the drone of the professor’s voice.  Face to face with Robert Friend discussing literature was not like studying and nothing like school.  He was “just” a friend.  And I blossomed.

 

Robert and I continued the “class” for several months on the left bank in Paris.  Escaping our unheated hotel rooms in that spartan post-war period of rationing, we sat in cafes for warmth, poring over the poetry in the Oscar Williams anthology of modern verse.  From Friend I learned to probe the words like a talmudist to discover the often elusive meanings in modern poetry, whose battle cry was obscurity, which only served as a keener goad to figuring it out.  Further, I studied Robert’s own poems through draft after draft, as his poems emerged from their chrysalis in the endless rewriting and he showed them to me.  Even in more recent years, when both of us began to write more easily, his language had the weight of consideration, rather than the throwaway language that is the mark of the fashionable throwaway poetry of today.  Of course, in that era of The New Criticism, the more you re-wrote your poetry, we all believed, the better it was bound to become.  It was also a period of political re-thinking, when the certainties of the Depression were being questioned.  This affected Robert Friend personally.  

 

For Robert Friend was a product of Depression-era New York, and a poverty-stricken childhood, when his father deserted the family, and many nights his mother had nothing to feed her children and had to send them to bed hungry.  He told me that he didn’t realize it at the time, his head was so in the clouds, but when he started at Brooklyn College his clothes were ragged. 

 

                        Because his family could not pay the bill,

                        the electricity had been cut off,

                        so in the evening the boy of seventeen

                        had to write his poems by candlelight....

                        His mother wrung her hands, his father fled

                        to the warmer darkness of woman after woman,

                        but he, luxuriating in the candles’

                        shadowy romance, went on writing.

--“History”

 

 

Brownsville, where he lived, was a Jewish immigrant slum, and typical of Eastern European Jews then, street corners were lively with political discussions.  After the isolation of the Jewish ghettos and shtetls, in the immigrant world there was a hunger for what was called “culture.”  Robert formed a poetry group called the Houynyms, named after the enlightened horses of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  The readings he inaugurated in his mother’s kitchen became so popular, he told me, that people crowded onto the porch outside, in hopes of catching the magical syllables. 

 

The years after his graduation from college, the height of the Depression, involved initiation into the activist world of the Communist Party, which was reflected in his poetry:

 

                         “...and the cash,

                         went sliding down Park Avenue in the crash.”

--“Subway”

 

 

It was the Depression that sent him to Puerto Rico on a teaching assignment, which was his opportunity to discover his sexuality that had been stunted by his deprived bringing up, the antagonism of the Communist Party to homosexuality, and the unreal romantic landscape of poetry he wandered in.  Not just sexuality, but a sensuality that his aestheticism had blinded him to -- an appreciation of his body.

 

                        The perfect paradigm

                        of the young poet --

                        quivering, sensitive,

                        painfully sincere...

 

                        Dr. Williams was waiting

                        at the San Juan hotel lobby,

                        and having listened

 

                        somewhat impatiently

                        soon diagnosed the case...

                        he led him to the terrace

                        that overlooked the sea,

                        and said:

                        Look,

                        pointing to the bathers

                        running along the beach

                        and sporting in the waves.

                                                                        --“Ars Poetica”

 

Good advice from Dr. William Carlos Williams.  He learned to swim, play tennis, and take advantage of the less puritan morality of the Caribbean by making out with those bathers.  But by the evidence of the poems he remained the professor, even in bed:

 

 

                        That afternoon

                        he was wearing nothing but a crucifix

                        that dangled from his neck

                        I, not even that.

 

                        Between the fervor of our probings

                        that were somehow turning metaphysical,

                        I began to question God.

 

                        Startled out of our embrace,

                        he leapt onto the floor,

                        where kneeling by the bed

                        he made the sign of the Cross.

 

                        He must have been absolved,

                        for jumping back into our bed again,

                        he finished with the blasphemer.

                                                                        --“The Catholic Lover”

 

 

 

After our summer in France in 1948, he could not make himself return home, even to the long-desired teaching job in New York, and though his funds were dwindling, he stayed on and we continued to meet at the Café Pergola on the Boulevard St. Germain.  Again, as on the ship, he attracted a group of French students, with whom he discussed philosophical and literary issues with a boldness that his clumsy French didn’t discourage.  When he finally ran out of money, he had no trouble, with his academic experience, getting a job in occupied Germany teaching American soldiers.  But there he learned that because of his brief membership in the Communist Party a decade earlier his passport was going to be taken away, forcing him to return to the States, where the country was in the grip of Cold War paranoia about a Communist conspiracy to take over the government.  One step ahead of the American authorities, he emigrated to Israel.  Even without the revelation of the horrors of the holocaust in Europe, American Jews of our generation were still so traumatized by the recent immigration of our parents to America, living in poverty and suffering from anti-Semitism, that the creation of Israel was miraculous.  Astonishing, too, that in Israel Jews cleaned the streets, delivered milk, taught school, even were street walkers!  Living on a kibbutz he studied the Hebrew language, and soon got a job on the faculty of The Hebrew University.

 

“My way of being a Jew is to live in Jerusalem,” he once told me, when I asked him about his religious beliefs.  But while a staunch believer in Israel, he also was open to the culture of the Palestinians and studied Arabic.

 

 

 

“Ahel,” Arabic for “family,”

                        cognate of “ohel,” the Hebrew word for “tent” --

                        for desert dwellers a home:

                        grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, kids --

                        a family,

                        all under one roof --

 

                        their floor sand

                        covered by mats,

                        their roof and walls skin

                        flapping in the wind.

 

                        A Bedouin living in our kind of house

                        solid against the weather

                        complains,

                        “I can‘t sleep.  The walls don’t move.”

--“Arabic Lesson”

 

Here is revealed yet again the scholar, as well as an understanding and appreciation of the Moslem world, the essential ingredient that seems to be missing in Israelis in their dealings with Palestinians.  And here again, sexuality was the bridge to understanding, for Palestinian lovers introduced him to life in the West Bank.

 

Friend was the ultimate cat person, feeding and caring for innumerable stray cats in his neighborhood, in defiance of Israeli laws against this, and out of these feline relationships charming poems emerged.

 

                        My little Columbus

                        my little da Vinci of cats,

                        experimental nibbler,

                        long listener,

                        retriever

                        of (from the garden grass)                  

                        an allusive feather,

                        of (from the kitchen pail)

                        a teasing odor...

                        where have you gone?

 

                        ...Where have you absconded

                        with your shadow?

                                                                                    --“My Little Columbus...”

 

He suffered many other losses besides his cats, and drew the correct conclusion:

 

 

Your father dies, your mother too.

Now you are next in line....

-- “Next”

 

We continued our friendship over the years, though not without stresses.  As in his Tiger poem, he would suddenly growl and rake me with a paw.  Robert had a difficult side, looking too closely (from my point of view) for slights and betrayals. He analyzed my behavior as if it was the text of a poem.  And perhaps I, with my own sensitivities, was an unreliable friend, retreating into unreachable corners when I should have been responsive.  Once, when he was on a leave of absence in New York City, I was preparing dinner for a couple of friends who were due at any moment and he telephoned that he had just broken up with his lover Pete, and could he come by.   Thinking how he would sit there and pour out his tale of woe all evening, I told him, hard-heartedly, that it was impossible with friends about to arrive and barely enough food for them.  He was devastated, saying that all I had to do was “lay another plate.”  I heard about my inhospitality again and again, as well as the time in France, thirty years before, when....but it’s too tedious to repeat.   He was simply like that.  He made demands on me like a lover, which I wasn’t, though I always considered him my teacher, and honored him for that.  Then he complained that I respected him more as a poet than as a friend.  He never stopped listing my derelictions in friendship.  Finally I told him I was not perfect, my faults were indeed many, and gave him an ultimatum:  I’d rather we didn’t communicate with each other any more unless he would drop his litany of my betrayals.  I was trying it on, of course, hoping to get him to lay off the nagging, but he was stubborn, and it actually led to a hiatus of several years in our correspondence.  Finally neither of us could keep it up, and broke down and resumed. 


But with the years, in spite of the strains and our differences, both of us evolved into a mutual admiration society.  I, who was never comfortable in the educational establishment, on either side of the classroom, as teacher or student, found it remarkable that Robert continued his academic career over his whole lifetime, finally getting his doctorate with a thesis on E.M. Forster.  Of course, Hebrew University was an ideal employer, giving him long leaves of absence for stays in England and the U.S.  But he even enjoyed playing the student as well as the teacher, seeing it as a game, and would ask me to give him ten words.  He continued to send me copies of his poems for suggestions, though he didn’t always take them.  For one thing I tried to discourage him from using slang.  He did it cleverly, but the slang was often horribly out of date. 

 

His own loyalty was immeasurable.  I will never forget that in 1971, when I had spent the summer bumming around Central Asia, more dead than alive with all kinds of intestinal bugs and a deep bronchial infection -- I knew if I could just get to Israel, and Jerusalem where Robert lived, I would be saved.  I barely made it to his door – and he took me in, got me medical treatment, cared for me, and restored me to health.

 

It is every poet’s wish to write until the end.  Robert Friend did it.  His last poems were reduced to the simplicity of the circumstances of his dying, shed of all vanity, as well as the dregs of personality.  I can only wish to emulate such a master.