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Robert Friend’s poetry in this issue

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Anthony Rudolf’s Obituary and Tribute

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Edward Field’s Essay on Robert Friend

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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

 

“Epicure of Essence: Robert Friend 1913-1998”



by Gabriel Levin


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

 

Jerusalem has had its share of drifters, but Robert Friend may have been its longest-abiding and most comfortably ensconced sojourner. He arrived in 1950, in his mid-thirties, with degrees from Brooklyn College and Harvard, and a dozen years of travel behind him, living first in Puerto Rico, and then Panama and Europe. These had been Edenic years which soothed perhaps the hardships of growing up poor in Brooklyn between the wars. Friend had worked at a variety of odd jobs - inspector of fire-extinguishers, military censor, gas inspector - though for the most part he’d taught English as a second language.

 

Robert came, I suspect, on a lark, and then tarried. For one, the fledgling English Department of Hebrew University was eager to press him into its ranks, Old photos suggest that Friend must have cut an impressive figure: tall, slim, in coat and tie, with a slightly owlish look. He was, by then, somewhat of a cosmopolitan, speaking Spanish, and some French, German, and Yiddish. He had also begun to make a name for himself as a poet back in America, publishing poems in Poetry alongside verse by Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Carl Sandburg, and Hugh MacDiarmid, and bringing out his first collection of verse, Shadow On The Sun, in 1941.  Friend took up the offer to teach English and American literature, though again I doubt he believed he was committing himself to anything long term.


 It may have been primarily the city that appealed to him and made him linger. This was long before the Six-Day War and the so-called reunification of Jerusalem. The city was smaller, plainer, even drab-looking, with wide open fields of bramble, olive and rubble separating a handful of dusty neighbourhoods. Just beyond the rusting barricades and barbed wire fence loomed the Old City walls, and beyond the walls the domes and spires of the Arab medina itself, all under Jordanian control. It was a sleepy town, with little to offer other than the lively, though somewhat peculiar, spirit of its denizens, who were at once friendly and intensely turned in upon themselves. Jerusalem was above all a city of verbal engagement; talk, whether low or high, the rant of its not insignificant number of madmen roaming its streets, or the labyrinthine sentences of its rabbis and uprooted German scholars, not only gave the city its charm but cloaked it in intrigue. Robert felt immediately at home in such an atmosphere.

 

He soon found himself a small basement apartment in the old, formerly Arab neighbourhood of Talbia, commenced teaching, and, more importantly, swiftly, effortlessly, became a Jerusalemite: holding on tightly to his mother tongue and ‘foreign’ manners, he threw himself, body and soul, into the hothouse atmosphere of new-found friendships, of liaisons and betrayals, and intimate, desperate talk, which in the end would serve as nourishment for so many of his poems. The larger issues of nationhood, religion, Zionism, it almost goes without saying, had nothing to do with Friend’s decision, if one can call it that, to remain in Jerusalem. Much later in life he would write of such questions, though in the most insouciant of manners.

 

Friend’s verse during his early days in Jerusalem - witty, meticulously crafted, a touch arch - showed no overt signs of having been written in his new home. There was no trace of the scarred Judean landscape, not even a pine or cypress inserted itself into the poetry to shade the poet’s musings; nor, for that matter, did he allude to traditional Jewish texts, or the Bible - a favourite pastime of newcomers to the Holy Land. Salt Gifts, Friend's second volume of verse, published in 1964, could have been written in an English tea garden. His poetry remained insistently elsewhere, and although the poet had by now become very much a member of  the Anglo-Saxon community (a local term applied to residents hailing from any English-speaking country), he made a point of retaining for years his temporary resident status at the Ministry of the Interior.

 

And yet the poetry’s detached, inward-looking gaze, its shadow reality of innuendo and thwarted desires, does seem to curiously mirror the elusive, dreamy underside of the city, in which so many of its wraithlike inhabitants have wandered, heedless of time and place, not unlike the poet’s hunchback who “studies in the mirror / how well his hunchback fits.” Jerusalem has always at heart belonged to the defeated. And the poet’s early poems partake of that world, even as they turn away from the uncertain realm of a common reality in their insistent “practice of absence.”

 

There came a time - the summer of ‘67 to be exact - when, walking out of his front garden, with its huge mulberry tree, Robert could amble through the half-wild olive field just beyond his home, and then turn down into what had been no-man’s-land, before taking the steep incline leading to Jaffa Gate, or Bab il-Halil, the Western entrance to the Old City. For a while, at least, the results of the Six-Day War appeared as a boon. Israelis poured into the Old City, tourism was on the rise, and tiny, backwater Jerusalem began growing at a maddening pace. Robert, undoubtedly, shared in the general elation of the opening up of the city and the consequent uneasy mingling of the two populations, Israeli and Arab. There was, in addition, a personal side to his interest in the Arab community. Friend was gay, and casual pickups in East Jerusalem were generally plentiful and uncomplicated. The poet’s encounters with Arab men rarely remained solely physical, however. There were lovers and there were long-term friendships, which above all else Friend valued. There were quarrels and eventual reconciliations. There was also a genuine concern for the welfare of Palestinian friends who were detained by the Israeli military authorities during the Intifada, a concern which often turned into concerted action on their behalf. And all along Friend made persistent efforts to learn Arabic.

 

 

He didn’t get very far in his Arabic, but neither, for that matter, did he ever really acquire a sound knowledge of Hebrew. This didn’t deter Friend from beginning to translate Hebrew verse. A certain insularity from the Hebrew tongue seemed to help, keeping him at a slight remove from the meaning, the semantics, of the Hebrew text, while allowing him to concentrate on its meter and rhyme. Robert’s natural preference was for the traditional moderns, like Natan Alterman and Leah Goldberg, both major Hebrew poets who began writing in the 1930s. The latter was also a friend of the poet’s, and Menard Press in London would publish his splendid selection of her work in 1976.

 

A year earlier Tambimuttu published a slim Selected Poems of Friend’s under the imprimatur of Seahorse Press. The verse in that volume is coy, vulnerable, with a by-now characteristic penchant for the redolent, at times over-felicitous, phrase. The “Complicated lover” who is “at sixes and sevens / with all his heavens” softly revels, even as he is stifled - and the tone is at once resigned and proud - by the tight fit of his own artifice. And yet a handful of poems offer a glimpse of what is yet to come. I am< thinking in particular of such poems as “The Irrational Source,” “A Crucifixion,” “Young Man and Kitten,” “My Turn,” “Absence,” where Friend cautiously lowers his guard:

 

     A little more of irresponsible love

     and a little less of responsible affection

     could have saved. Your code

     of honor breeds pestilence of stone,

     a clean, dead world where nothing grows.

     Justice, too, out of a pure sky

     can murder. A little water,

     the irrational source, will defeat error

     till roses and wheat spring from arid eyes.

     Order is a perfect ring - a noose.

     Who dangles there is I.

 

By 1980 Friend had inadvertently become a respected figure. A generation of Israeli poets, Yehuda Amichai, Natan Zach, Dalia Ravikovitch, among others, while undergraduates had attended Friend’s class in modem American poetry, and had listened to Friend reciting from Frost, Stevens, Moore, and Pound, as he stood or leaned against the large desk in front of the class. Aspiring poets approached him for advice, Hebrew poets asked him to translate their poems. After much needling from the English department he would even acquire a doctorate. And a host of poets passing through Jerusalem had by then visited, or rather descended, into his cat-filled apartment, overheated in winter and poorly ventilated in summer - little more than two large, low-ceiling rooms divided by bookcases: Frost, Auden, Alfred Chester (who died in Jerusalem of an over-dose of barbiturates), and Lowell. who, legend has it, was seen pinching Leah Goldberg’s bottom during one such social evening.

 

Friend’s sense of having a proper place, after thirty years in Jerusalem, seemed to translate itself into a greater openness in his life and work. Undoubtedly his willingness to speak and write about his own homosexuality was connected, as well, to changes occurring around the world in gay communities, including Israel. He was, moreover, acutely aware of the fact that over the years he had practically lost his American readership. American poetry had undergone a sea-change in the 1960s, and Robert, whose literary models were Housman, Auden and Larkin, hadn’t quite found a way to combine his own inner needs for greater directness with his gift and hunger for formal playfulness. He now set about to make that adjustment, or find that voice, which would accommodate itself to both “the public nude” and the disciplined elegance of the artificer.

 

1980 was also the year that Menard Press published Friend’s fourth collection of verse, Somewhere Lower Down. Though appearing when the poet was sixty-seven, it is his most youthful, spirited collection. I remember attending a reading shortly after the book came out. Robert read with a verve which occasionally lapsed into bluster. It was a side I hadn’t recognized in the poet before. And in fact it didn’t flare up again, at least not with such force, in later readings. But at the time a certain flamboyance and audacity was very much part of the new poetic self Friend was experimenting with: “Nose-picker, peeker through a bedroom shutter, / farter in a suburban swimming pool, / my lower self, you are a perfect fool.” Thus numerous poems are governed by a sort of late-in-the-day adolescent fever and daring. Though here too the need to shock is more often than not reigned in by neatly rhymed quatrains:

 

     Only because the trains are running

     and planes are flying in every direction

     to somewhere where a god lies sunning,

     waiting for him with an erection,

 

     does he pretend the world is real,

     that it means something to rise and greet it.

     He gives a shine to an old ideal,

     and boils an egg and is glad to eat it.

 

I don’t believe Robert was completely satisfied with Somewhere Lower Down. It did mark an increased directness in speaking of matters of the heart, that “old slob,” and flesh. And yet, as in the above stanzas from “Only Because,” the poet’s treatment of love and sex was most often cavalier - as if nakedness, the stripping of the self, could only lead to self-ridicule.

 

Fifteen years would elapse between the publication of Somewhere Lower Down and Robert’s last, large collection, The Next Room, also published by Menard Press. It is a long period, even for a poet who published at long intervals. During this time Friend translated and published a selection of verse by the poet Gabriel Preil. Preil was a splendid anomaly on the Israeli literary scene: a leading Hebrew poet who was born in Estonia and lived a solitary, near-anonymous life in New York City. He was, so he said of himself, the last of the Hebrew poets living in exile, a poet who refused the comforts of writing in one’s homeland and made only three brief visits to Israel rather late in life. It was the perfect match: an American in Israel, endearingly holding onto his expatriate status, and an Estonian-born Hebrew poet living in the Bronx.

 

During this time Friend was slowly, painstakingly, and at a late hour, trying to consolidate the disparate elements in his new-found style. Translating Preil’s free-verse poetry might have actually helped, for Preil’s rueful poems of dislocation are most often skillfully poised between the serious and the comic. And this is especially true when the poet, an incorrigible romantic, speaks of the frailties of old age.

 

Friend, two years younger than Preil, made every effort to hide the fact that he too had reached his seventies. He was, after all, a certified hypochondriac, forever checking for draughts in friends’ homes, adjusting his wool scarf around his neck, and calling his physician at all hours of the day. But age would catch up with Friend and - perhaps taking Preil’s cue - the poet set himself down to record, with the lightest touch, “the way a word travels / in a light wind,” its incursions.

 

Age, then, would be Friend’s grand, insistent theme, during his last years. And time and its vagaries are treated most successfully when the poet chooses the most abbreviated of forms: fifty-odd pages of compact poems, first published in pamphlet form as Abbreviations, in which the poet speaks with grief and humour of the body’s decline after open-heart surgery, and of the demise of friends and lovers. Friend had reshaped, in his late seventies, a style and voice pared down to his needs, as he would admit in “The Poem”:  “Mr. Friend, meet Mr. Friend, / and so I was born. / The terrible journey began. / I rushed home to write the poem / I feared to forget. . .”

 

The poems would come, with unexpected ease, irregularly rhymed, casual-looking,frank, even “raw,” as the “unfinished creatures / we are often glad to be.” He would write of pissing into the garbage pail instead of the toilet, of foul-smelling undershirts, of eye examinations and of heart failure, of lost cats, of late-night conversations on the phone, of the ice-cream man, his “sweet summoner,” and of dying with his “wretched Hebrew” on his lips, desperately trying to remember the words for “Quick, I’m dying.”


There would also be a slow accumulation of longer poems, eventually included in the second section of The Next Room, where Friend looks back at his childhood and youth, and, most strikingly, pays tribute to friends and poets: Alfred Chester, Leah Goldberg, Frost, Larkin, Preil, Edward Field. Friend was eighty-two when The Next Room appeared in print. For someone who’d written so much about “the last game of dying,” he was in the best of health. He’d travelled to Egypt, the United States, and lastly to England, upon publication of his book. He’d also published another volume of translations, from the Hebrew of the early twentieth century Russian-born Ra’hel, and was preparing a volume of translations of verse for children by the Hebrew Nobel laureate, S.Y. Agnon.

 

Two years later, however, in 1997, cancer was diagnosed. He was given three to

four months, and managed to live, out of sheer determination, for just over a year.

Before anything else Robert decided half defiantly, half-jocularly, to publish  

privately an envelope-size book of sex poems, titled After Catallus, which vexed some of

his friends and delighted others. He then put his affairs in order, sold his old flat, and,

refusing to stay in a hospice, rented a small, ground-floor apartment with plenty of sunlight and a view of a majestic, old date palm. Here he was cared for by Nizar, his Palestinian male nurse, and here he entertained, translated, and wrote, propped up in his bed, his last poems.

 

“I'm all bruised bones,” he sadly confessed after staring at his emaciated figure in

the mirror, picking up the thread, as it were, of a conversation we’d had recently on

Hopkins’s “Carrion Comfort.” But during these last months Friend was also “sheer and

clear,” and he talked, in the best manner of an old-time Yerushalmi, or Jerusalmite, of

friends and family and books, with a lucidity that comes after the chaff has flown.

 

I visited Robert in hospital a few days before he died. It was by then difficult for

him to open his eyes, let alone talk. But, with the tracings of a smile, he did manage a

single complete sentence: “my sequiturs are non,” he sighed, before silently sinking back

into the pillow.

 

Several months earlier he had written, “They tell me I am going to die, / why don’t

I seem to care? / My cup is full. Let it spill.”