Gabriel Levin’s Essay on Robert Friend’s work

Edward Field’s Essay on Robert Friend

Anthony Rudolf’s Obituary and Tribute


List of Robert Friend’s translations at Contributor Notes


Photo Album of Robert Friend


Feature of Friend’s work in a previous issue


All photos of Robert Friend: Courtesy of Jean Shapiro Cantu

Robert Friend’s poetry and translations. Copyright © Jean Shapiro Cantu

A Selection of Poems

Robert Friend

by Robert Friend






From Shadow on the Sun (The Press of James A. Decker, Prairie City, IL, 1941)




What was the shadow on the sun? Looking up

we saw the sudden headlines heavy under the sky:

they moved, broke ranks, swirled, and now a wave

washed over us, engulfing the Brooklyn restaurant:

the Italians have entered the last Ethiopian city.


Ebbed; and the quiet sunshine on the cutlery

resumed the historic pathway of its life,

the trolley car clanged its bell, the waitress

came with the order, the radio wept again.


When we looked at the cold clock on the wall,

we saw it was the twentieth century.





From The Next Room (The Menard Press, London, 1995)




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 candelight.

Was he writing “as an antidote to history?”

Hardly. Not even as an antidote

to family history: years of Home Relief

and uncles bringing rolls in paper bags.

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.



From Shadow on the Sun (The Press
of James A. Decker, Prairie City, IL, 1941)




Under the roofs of houses a sullen force is sleeping,

resting its weight on motionless rocking chairs,

on papers fallen to floor, tables littered with dishes,

hairpins dangling in hair.


And if the clock is the one thing still in motion,

it is because something must go on

in a world gone dead, and people

with their wish for living gone.


Their despair is quiet, the miserable marble,        

expressing an infinity of pain.    

The man sitting there on the sofa brooding,  

will he ever lift a hand again?


Will the hand reach out for a comforting cigarette,

caress the woman in the cheap gingham dress?

Will she put up the coffee, arrange her hair,

give back the touch of love in happiness?


There are a thousand thousand homes this evening

as the moon slides across the sky

where the clock tick is the only sound

to measure their history by.


But the moon said: It is going to happen,

that room is going to explode and there’ll be nothing to lose.

The stars knew small flames everywhere

were eating themselves to the fuse.





From The Next Room (The Menard Press, London, 1995)


Ars Poetica


The perfect paradigm

of the young poet –

quivering, sensitive,

painfully sincere,

and “thin enough for any wind

to blow him back

as far as Tennyson” –*

came passionately prepared

to argue the cause of the sonnet.


Dr. Williams was waiting

at the San Juan hotel lobby,

and having listened

somewhat impatiently

soon diagnosed the case.

Taking the young man by the elbow

affectionately, but firmly,

he led him to the terrace

that overlooked the sea,

and said:


pointing to the bathers

running along the beach

and sporting in the waves.



* What Irwin Shaw said about a certain young poet in the Brooklyn CollegeYearbook of 1934.





From The Practice of Absence (Beth-Shalom Press, Israel, 1971)



The Doll



Dollmaker, snug in your house

with your shelf piled with dolls, how can

you sleep? Yesterday in the grass

I saw, with her head full of bran

and her eyes one dead blue stare,

a doll that a child had flung

down carelessly, running off elsewhere

with a shrieking, living tongue.

But careless of that neglect,

she simpered as she lay,

still stiffly circumspect

beneath the changing day.

And if she blushed, it was not

anger, or shame for that fickle child –

merely a painted spot.

She would drive no parents wild,

whose cry was a built-in cry,

and not for pleasure, not for woe.

Not from that wax thigh

would the thick blood flow.

Dollmaker, do you not fear

that on Judgment Day,

her limbs will begin to stir,

her Cupid lips say:

“He has much to answer for,

who to satisfy his pride,

out of wax, paint, and straw,

insolently has made,

though with a craftsman’s art,

this body I could not live,

perfect, without a heart

to suffer and forgive.”




From Dancing with a Tiger: Poems 1941-1998 (The Menard Press, London, 2003)


In the Graveyard


A righteous voice was teaching me to behave.

“Don’t you know it is forbidden to sit on someone’s grave.”


“Well, what if it is? It happens to be my own.

See, here is my name, and a first date cut in the stone.


So while I wait for the second – if it’s all the same to you –

I shall sit here as long as I can and enjoy the view.”




From Selected Poems (Tambimuttu at The Seahorse Press, London, 1976)



  The Moment


Perhaps it’s morning—and you’re waiting for a train,

or evening—on the point of dozing off.

Although there was no knocking at the pane,


no warning whisper or embarrassed cough,

you know it’s there. You’re sitting at a play

and hear a silence not quite loud enough


for you to make out what it has to say;

you glimpse a message on the back of leaves

when the wind shakes them to your side of day.


Whatever it is that’s tugging at your sleeve,

half of your wish is that it wasn’t there.

Now is the time the timeless spider weaves


out of itself the labyrinthine stair

that you must climb, no matter where it wind,

unwinding Nowhere till it leads to Where,


if only you can hold on with your mind.

You do. You do. You never do. And home again,

tremble with terrible gladness to be blind.




From Salt Gifts (The Charioteer Press, Washington, DC, 1964)


The Complicated Lover


He was at sixes and sevens

with all his heavens.

Take love. Was there ever a face

(no matter how fine) or grace

(given the leisure to assess)

whose defect or excess

he was not disappointed with?

Love always turned to myth,

not an ancient gleam of gold,

but brass. And once more sold

down the river, he turned his leaf over.


Others assume their swans

are swans, never throw stones

when they who ride the flood

gobble worms, dredge mud,

or cloud the water; but render homage

due their imperial plumage,

though dirties by fickle weathers

to less than snow-white feathers.

Not he. Flecks of disaffection,

weaning from affection,

were simple to discover.


Was there ever on a white hip

a mole; was there a lip

drawn like a crooked seam

he would kiss? Roses had deafened him

to the prayer in an armpit.

His passion had too much wit

to nuzzle in that grace

like others of the race.

No, no. He was not fond or mad;

he found no freckle tenderly sad

to kiss over and over.


And supposing—a fiction—

the goddess of perfection

lay outstretched on his bed.

True, he would wed.

Not his the blank refusal

of the plump espousal.

But after! Not eager for boars, less simple,

he hunts the moral pimple;

not asking: Do you love me? but, why?

What do I mean when I sigh?

Uncovers only to discover

the complicated lover.






From Salt Gifts (The Charioteer Press, Washington, DC, 1964)


The Hunchback


Within the house of mirrors

amazedly he sits

and studies in the mirrors

how well his hunchback fits.


He picks up his book of riddles

and tumbles his game of blocks.

How many tears in an onion?

How many springs in clocks?


Flies turn to bones of amber

when the spider spins itself,

and he sighs into the cobwebs

and the clock sighs on the shelf.


He treads his growing shadow,

and walks the endless round

along the edge of the mirror sea

where a hunchless ghost lies drowned.



From Shadow on the Sun (The Press of James A. Decker, Prairie City, IL, 1941)


The Gift



Quietly now in straw, in harbor, in nest

breathings are gentle with sleep. Night, a great water,

washes the last strains from the flecked sky,

washes the world.


An ocean of illimitable tenderness,

sea-bottom world, green leaves, green wind,

and home a sea-cave

under the waves of time.


Now lamps are stars through water, shine

as we had wished so long ago god’s eyes

to shine, light up your face who wait for me each night

with the great gift of love.




From Salt Gifts (The Charioteer Press, Washington, DC, 1964)



In the Orchard      

For Elizabeth


We sat in the Cambridge orchard drinking tea.

Above, the apples rounded to a fall.

Preserving balance, cup upon a knee,

     we thought no thought at all,


but rumored idly with the idle bees

deep in the heart of flowers, who triggered thus

another generation’s histories.

     But what was that to us?


A cheek may flush, a heart may miss a beat.

I am not master of such languages.

I settled back into the rural seat,

     “Another biscuit, please.”


Master or not, was she not signaling?

And was I not interpreting her eyes?

For suddenly I felt it like a sting:

     Why, this was Paradise!


and almost dropped my cup. Something was slithering.

Well, here was one man it could not deceive.

I laughed—as if I hadn’t heard a thing.

     And she laughed back—as if her name were Eve.




From Dancing with a Tiger: Poems 1941-1998 (The Menard Press, London, 2003)


Hatred: A Sestina  



is wanting

to hurt

and its fulfillment


on someone's grave.


Because the insult was grave,

I must repay hatred with hatred,

abandon all pleasure:  the dancing,

the flirting, the wallowing wantings

of every day.  How drab their fulfillment

when compared with the pleasure to hurt.


I plan to avenge the hurt

if it takes all my life to the grave.

Revenge is the deepest fulfillment.

I shall give myself to my hatred.

No means too mean shall be wanting

when the consummation is dancing.


I dream day and night of that dancing.

His death will not save him from hurt.

There's more than a grave he’ll be wanting

when I get to dance on his grave,

whirling in an orgy of hatred,

stamping on his slab in fulfillment.


But if I am to enjoy that fulfillment

my thoughts must be spinning and dancing

endlessly.  What of my hatred’s

last rites: What shoes shall I wear to hurt

in?  What tune shall I dance to?  Grave

decisions. And how shall I get there? Wanting

answers to all these.  What a desolation of wanting

that murders all other fulfillment.

I might as well be in my grave.

For under that frenzy of dancing

whose body’s writhing?  Whose heart’s mortally hurt?

I am the corpse of my hatred.


Dare I dig a grave for that hatred,

abandon abandonment there, the terrible wanting to hurt?

That thought itself is fulfillment. My heart, my heart begins dancing.


From Somewhere Lower Down (The Menard Press, London, 1980)



The Plot


If only we could see what lies behind

A door, what courage then would knock? But I

Had been invited. The stranger had been kind.

I stood upon the threshold with a sigh.


I stood upon the threshold with a sigh

Knowing what blind blood knew: that I would move in trance

When a dark music in the wings would cry,

Into the tale foretold, the chained steps of the dance.


The chained steps of the dance, the story long since told,

And now the music cries: Begin, begin.

On either side the door a heart grew cold.

And I must knock. And he must let me in.



From Somewhere Lower Down (The Menard Press, London, 1980)






Whatever grows here grows wild:

Cactus and sudden nettles in the dunes,

Boys in careless constellations

Scattered, or shyly fugitive.


Passive to my look they lie

While dreamless fish leap long bows in the sun,

And lean birds stalk the seas

Tempting their tongues of foam.




From After Catullus (The Beth-Shalom Press, 1997)



Out of the Closet


A closet-queen of words

who hid his meaning 

in fashionable ironies


I now declare myself

in shameless clarities 

and turn


all my tailored "she's"

into naked "he’s".




From Dancing with a Tiger: Love and Sex Poems (The Beth-Shalom Press, 1990)


On the Train


As the train roars on

mile after mile after mile,

I see

not foreign fields and farms--

only your mindless smile,

the bed you lie upon,

and him--

as he locks you in his arms.







No Master of Languages


(In Jerusalem)



It’s difficult enough to die.

But to die in Hebrew!

That’s asking too much.

How can I

when desperate for breath or keeling over,

both press the emergency button on my chain

and find words for “Quick,

I’m dying.”

By the time I remember enough to say

“heart attack” or “stroke”

all will be over.

I suppose I’ll have to stick to the word I know,

the word so many wear around their neck,

Hai, Life,

and go on living in my wretched Hebrew.





From The Next Room (The Menard Press, London, 1995)



The Tray



Translated for me a long time ago,

it took me many years to understand

the words engraved on my old Arab tray:

to teach the young is to carve in stone;

the old – to carve in dust.





From Dancing with a Tiger: Poems 1941-1998 (The Menard Press, London, 2003)






We are lost: we begin to think it is all a farce,

We begin to wear a cynical smile that we really mean,

We question the mornings and afternoons and nights,

We sit in a parlor.


We drink tea and wine, we praise pure perfect poetry,

We question our inner springs and what makes us stop and go,

We halt at street corners under a yellow light,

We speak of our loss –


Which is women, which is money, which is wanting to fight,

Which is an ideal and bread and a spinal support,

Something of magic, something to shake enervated bones

And churn pale blood.


It is time for something, surely to arise,

To arise and shake this dignity off us,

To shake the air too still with stultified

Ambitions, to cry out,


Shaking not heaven but our own stupor,

Our sick pondering: lost, lost, we are lost.

And we are, quite, and the midnight moon

Is weaving, and we

Weaving prepare our clever endings,

For we really shan’t emerge, shall we?

Edward and Murray and David, shall we emerge

Or perish in darkness?



From Dancing with a Tiger: Poems 1941-1998 (The Menard Press, London, 2003)



White Dream



After receiving the relentless news

and experiencing the terrible invasion,

I was strangely unafraid, and even glad

as I sank into each day as into a soft pillow

and wafted like a child into healing sleep.

Perhaps it was simply resignation.

I knew it as unconditional peace.

Pain, I knew, would come later.

Let it.

I turned over on my pillow

and sank into another

white dream.




From Dancing with a Tiger: Poems 1941-1998 (The Menard Press, London, 2003)



The Last Year



This is the last year.

There will be no other,

but heartless nature

seemingly relents.

Never has a winter sun

spilled so much light,

never have so many flowers

dared such early bloom.

The air is brilliant, sharp.

Never have I taken

such long, long breaths.





From Dancing with a Tiger: Poems 1941-1998 (The Menard Press, London, 2003)




My Cup


They tell me I am going to die.

Why don’t I seem to care?

My cup is full. Let it spill