Sarah Lawson finds much to admire in Leah Fritz’s new collection
Whatever Sends the Music Into Time
Leah Fritz’s new and selected poems, Whatever Sends the Music Into Time, is a fine collection of her best work of the last 25 years: new poems and the highlights of four previous collections. Her style is always recognizable: terse but conversational, highly personal but not hermetic, more formal than otherwise, and slyly, dryly witty.
Leah Fritz and her husband Howard moved from New York to London in 1985. (Howard Fritz is an artist, and the striking cover of the book shows one of his enigmatic paintings.) After a career as a journalist and essayist in the peace, anti-war, and feminist movements in the US, she embarked on a new career as poet. “How it Happened” is a sequence of four sonnets about the move across the Pond two years before. They are stylistically original with slant rhymes, internal rhymes, and assonance. She characterizes New Yorkers, who don’t live by rules: rather Get the job done, / perhaps, and fast. How is up to you. Then getting accustomed to familiar/alien customs in London:
attempt to learn the queue, a dance more com-
-plex than it seems, respond to questions (their
intent unclear), and eavesdrop laughter mark-
-ing me a fool.
They made their home in Primrose Hill, and so Fritz, always observing, writes about that very distinctive neighbourhood near Regents Park. “Eyes” is like a thumbnail “Under Milk Wood” of the area. “The Day the Pelican Landed on Primrose Hill” is less about the pelican than the late summer day in the park. Both poems are full of little snapshot details and the pleasure of observing the passing scene.
Fritz’s experiments with the sonnet form are quite original, like her “Key West”, divided into two stanzas of six lines each and a couplet. Ostensibly about ramshackle houses in the tropical light of Key West, Florida, it ends strikingly: This Roman heat / cannot obscure it’s winter when we meet.
Some of her political themes and personal poems remind me a little of Denise Levertov. In “Aspirations” she refuses to mourn all of the dead heroes / who tore up this planet / for the good of man. Other poems deal with peace and the madness of war.
“The Doctor’s Widow” is one of many poems with a personal dedication. Her description of grief for a spouse is well done—mourning sickness, she quotes a pun attributed to the deceased. And he was there, / not being there, at dinner with their friends.
One of my favourites is her apostrophe to an absent friend, “About Time”, cast as a sequence of five sonnets. It is a monologue addressed to a girl she knew at school, but it is also a narrative about this girl, Frankie, a Belgian war refugee who then, after some formative teenage years in New York, goes back to Belgium. Her parents are anxious to get back home, but Frankie is leaving behind important years of her life and many friends. The poet, now white haired, wonders about the pretty blonde (Hey, Frankie) whom she’s seen only a time or two in all the intervening years. Is Frankie, not entirely a New Yorker nor 100% Belgian, even still alive? In death we’re all displaced.
Besides her fondness for the sonnet form, Fritz seems attracted to sestinas, where the form consists of a series of six-line stanzas of iambic pentameter in which the last word of each line is woven in a set order as the last word of lines of succeeding stanzas. The final stanza incorporates all six key words in three lines.
The title poem is a sestina about enduring art. The poet wonders how her pen auditions for its place in centuries. Through it runs wordplay on “skip” one of the six key words of this sestina. In the course of the poem Fritz explores several meanings of the word. Mozart years of sound, the flat stone skipped / across the glassy surface of that fourth transparency (an image perhaps more familiar to British readers as “ducks and drakes”). In the next stanza “skipped” means “omitted” and a moment later her pen is across the pages skipped; then the poet thinks about her youth—about the days I skipped / through city leaves. But when the sestet is drawn together in a final triplet (usually with all six key words, but here with only three of them), Fritz says,
I think the music that I hear must be
enough, the other vanity well skipped.
Sufficient beauty is there in my time.
Happy turns of phrase take you unawares. In “Piazza San Marco” early morning pigeons strolled / across the great expanse till church bells stung / them into sudden flight. A witty haiku, “Conjugal Grope”, goes:
Wakeful at night, I
kiss your snoring mouth, hoping
your sleep’s contagious.
Besides the personal poems about her own life or the lives of others, Fritz often returns to Biblical themes for inspiration, especially the earliest myths of the Old Testament. “Fruit” is a series of eight sonnets reworking the expulsion from Eden from Eve’s point of view and then turning into an overview of the history of early civilization and agriculture. Adam and Eve become Everyman and Everywoman down to the dystopian present day.
Whatever Sends the Music Into Time ends with the stunning sonnet cycle called “Book Review” and the book in question is the Bible. After a brief history of the religious impulse in prehistory and history and a run-down of Judaism and Christianity, Fritz ends with: I recommend this with one reservation: / For heavens sake, avoid interpretation.
But I can recommend her book without any reservations at all. Whether Leah Fritz’s poems concern her politics, her memories, her friends, her surroundings, or her imagination or any combination thereof, for the reader there is never a sense of exclusion. We are invited into her world and her mind to share the memories or the flights of fancy. It is a generous invitation and one that should be gladly accepted.