Page Count: 60
Publication Date: Sunday, February 01, 2009
Cover Artwork: Lyn Saville
About this Book
Tense with dark wit and wild originality, Cohort, Philip Fried's eagerly-awaited new book, opens exciting territory where poems haven't dared to venture-the toxic side of the Information Age as it veers out of control.
With a sharp eye for the mythic in the utterly contemporary, and a Swiftian deadpan, Fried creates a world of Babylonian flow-charts, ocean treadmills, Turing and Tiresias, the computer and the deposed god. It's a thrill to see the classic sonnet, with its volta and envoi, its echoes of lovers' quarrels, retuned to an age of chaos theory, protocols and strategies turned loose from all rational context, white noise, and endless war.
There's a deeply personal subtext-"the late war had defeated history,// now we lived in the pleroma/of voices, signals," Fried writes in a childhood poem-and a light touch: but Cohort's ambition is transcendent: to show human identity under extreme pressure, in an environment which we created but which no longer reflects us.
Cohort, with its three-poem introduction and book-length sonnet sequence, draws inspiration from the sonnet's origins to update it for the Digital Age. Linked from its earliest days with legal proceedings and a modern psychology of conflicted love, the sonnet held together what wanted to fly apart. Petrarch miniaturized the standoff of forces in the oxymorons he used to characterize his divided emotions - sick health and freezing fire. Acknowledging this tradition of warring but tightly bound forces, Fried re-conceives the contemporary sonnet as an arena where fragments of self and samples of lingo play off against one another. And coloring these contests is a love intrigue that implicates the reader.
Philip Fried, a New York-based poet and little-magazine editor, has published three previous books of poetry: Mutual Trespasses (1988); Quantum Genesis (1997), which A.R. Ammons called "a major new testament"; and Big Men Speaking to Little Men (Salmon, 2006), which - said Marilyn Hacker - "represents much of what I admire in contemporary American poetry. . . ." Fried also collaborated with his wife, the fine-art photographer Lynn Saville, on a volume combining her nocturnal photographs with poetry from around the world. And he is the founder of The Manhattan Review, an international journal that for three decades has published the best in Anglophone poetry and translations.
Read a sample from this book
The Oral Tradition
Review: Nathan Hamilton, from his blog Curiosa Hamiltona
(The complete article - which also includes reviews of "Still to Mow" by Maxine Kumin & "Miscreants" by James Hoch - can be read at Curiosa Hamiltona)
... It is this sort of experiment with which Philip Fried's fine book-length sonnet sequence, Cohort, is concerned. Here, the suspended fragments of Kumin's half-ignored 'world of sirens, metal and speed' are steered for headlong in poems of repeated linguistic invention and probing wit. As the three introductory poems demonstrate this is a sequence of some scope and ambition:
...the lead-footed, combustible
bus-driver steers our destinies
no appeals except to the wheel.
in the spin, the wandering poles, the rifting
plates, we ply our cosmic commute,...
('Short Line Driver')
...it was all radio.
At night the bedsprings picked up transmissions
that were bending around the edge of the future.
( 'Reversible Swirlâ€™)
From the witty metaphoric introduction to its chilling legalese close, language and the noxious aspects of an information age out of control are on trial in Cohort. And so is the lyric self (or selves) and its place and purpose in the world, as in the envoi 'i too am a late bloomer / with rank in the family a budding consumer'. The first three sonnets avoid punctuation and capitalization, other than Big Bang and Ygdrasil (the 'world tree' of Norse mythology). Punctuation and capitalization of the pronoun 'I' is left until the fourth sonnet, 'The Oral Tradition'. This 'growth' draws attention and declares a process of world creation and investigation. Then, in 'Sealed Warrant', the reader is addressed across the gap between octet and sestet: 'You are the material // witness implicated in every window'.
And so the framework for this trial of language and the world is set-up in the sonnet's form - its history of lovers' quarrels and legal proceedings, opposing forces, arguments, and potential reconciliation. Fried plays continually with this gap between sections as, in 'Risk Assessment', 'the needle of grandma's Stuttering stitching, // piecing together our lives of patches and fractions' and, in 'By Babylon's flow-charts' //And we, we are a swarm intelligence. Get it? // Got it! / twitching down the pheremone lanes'. These repeated formal games subtly, and delightfully, invite the understanding that the tense join of the age's fragmentary forces resides irretrievably and yet observably in the separating white space of these sonnets' form. And the sequence's formal trajectories are even more intriguing. As if the joining forces were being stretched to breaking point, the sequence condenses from the reducing six sections of the introductory poems, to the five-section sonnets in the title poem, into the two sections of the Petrarchan sonnet. From here, it then expands out again into the four sections of the Shakespearean, and from there - while observing also the use of regular dashes and hyphenization to delicately enact a fracturing force in sentence structure - back out into the world.
That the 'rivers of Babylon' lyric has become 'Babylon's flow-chart' is also typical of Cohort - this time of the wordplay, specifically Fried's regular usage of modern business banalities and symbols, mixed with other cultural fragments, to suggest harm being done. This is the damage of the entity 'business', an entity we have created but which no longer works in our own best interests; its now contextless 'strategies', 'protocols' and 'underpinnings' running amok across the landscape of thought. This is all to say that Fried's is an altogether more rewarding project. It remains true to the territory and jargon of our time, and is wryly entertaining, without ceding intellectual ground. It is relevant, insightful, and darkly witty in its scrutiny of the digital age - an emboldening salve amid the wear of 'the world's infantile, satisfied babble'.
About the Reviewer: Nathan Hamilton runs Egg Box and is Chairman of the Board of Directors for Inpress, an organisation that represents and supports 30+ independent UK presses. He also currently programmes and runs the Richmond Upon Thames 'Book Now!' Literature Festival. His poetry and criticism have been published in a number of places, in print and online, including Poetry London, the Manhattan Review, nth position, the Guardian, and the Spectator.