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Book Review: Making the New Lamb Take 

Poetic voice is often difficult to define. It can be playful, ironic, serious—what matters is that it’s distinctive. In an interview, poet Gabriel Fried explained that the poems in his Kathryn A. Morton Prize-winning debut collection Making the New Lamb Take lack irony because they were written, first and foremost, out of a longing to connect. The poems, which fuse images of a Hudson Valley upbringing with mythical and biblical references, feel as if they took a long
time coming. The lines are as clean as filtered water, the subjects are quotidian life seen through the magnifying glass of an old soul. They have none of the sloppy experimentation or random “greatest hits” qualities common to first collections—although for poems that function largely to connect, their wires are often high above the ground.

As the editor of the poetry series at Persea Books, Fried has probably seen a lot of what not to do in poetry. Perhaps that is why his poems feel so flawless and chiseled to their poetic cores. Even the earthiest of experiences, a son’s circumcision, is elevated to the spirit world. Indeed, the scars of his “private self permeate his night like stars.” Some poems, like my favorite in the collection, “Noah’s Dove,” sandwich the ethereal between strong bites at the opening and close, so that we feel as if we are holding firmly onto something we can’t quite feel. It opens:

They rough you up,
Then move on. They have
Their orders, believe
in them, or need to
want to. I have seen this.

The poem continues as a series of declarative, abstract “I statements,” but it ends with the pleasingly brave “I have been man / handled and my mother / will never love me.” The punch would not surprise without the cautious precision that precedes it. In the end, Fried does make the connection he longs for; he just asks that the reader slow down and listen deeper than we might expect.

While Fried’s Hudson Valley exists in the intangible watercolor of memory, Mikhail Horowitz splashes in the oil paint of the present-day. A longtime Ulster County resident and frequent Chronogram contributor, Horowitz is a poet, performer, visual artist, and editor at Bard College. Rafting Into the Afterlife is his third published collection.

On the surface, these two books could not be more different. Horowitz’s poems feel quick and confident, playful, and dirty. The poem titles are all dates; in an afterword, Horowitz explains that the poems were culled from a 365-poem opus titled One Year, and were actually composed from fragments of 25 years of dated journals. While many read like love poems written to a life partner, Horowitz makes clear that the “she” in one line may not necessarily be the “she” in the next.

Unlike Fried’s poems, Horowitz’s are full of irony, wit, and disjointed declarations. They fuse Zen with sarcasm, as in “9.4”’s “parkway mantra: / NOT A COP ON THE TACONIC / NOT A COP ON THE TACONIC,” or “9.12”’s “but how does a poet go postal? / eruption of silence?” The result is a generous, warmhearted collection.

On closer reflection, the two collections are not as starkly different as they first appear. Both are firmly placed in the landscape of upstate New York; both address questions of love, faith, and how to be a man amongst women. And both poets possess voices very much their own.

Mikhail Horowitz will read and sign
Rafting Into the Afterlife at Inquiring Mind Bookstore in Saugerties on December 14 at 5:30pm.

click to enlarge Gabriel Fried - Sarabande, 2007, $13.95
  • Gabriel FriedSarabande, 2007, $13.95
click to enlarge Mikhail Horowitz - Codhill Press, 2007, $16
  • Mikhail HorowitzCodhill Press, 2007, $16

Speaking of...

  • Caitlin McDonnell reviews two new volumes of poetry.

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