Friedman’s poems address a wide range of topics and situations, from pet birds to bear suits to sitting shiva, but Pretenders is at its best when it is boldly and baldly political.“If you want to know the future, / ask a broker,” Friedman writes in “Brokers”: “Brokers win wars, empty graves so they can fill them again.” In a world where futures are traded and money talks, Friedman implies, language is often the level on which violence and injustice take place, or where they find justification. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, this the way the world ends — not with a bang, but with a euphemism. Friedman strikes this apocalyptic tone again in “Outage”: “The war bet on itself to win / and cashed in big time, … and then the whole / damn universe crashed.” In “The Serpent,” Friedman combines parable with political statement: “The serpent offers you a deal / on an apple. ‘Take it,’ he says. / ‘It won’t eat you,’ but it does.”
Against such bold statements about Western consumer culture, Friedman’s more personal poems, many of which strike quite intimate notes, can seem surprising. “On Sex” is a playful, confessional exploration of the barbed exchanges that can occur between lovers. “Note to Self on Getting Fired” is just what its title suggests. In “Good News,” the speaker scans his life of sickness, fear, and Occupy Wall Street, ultimately determining, “Good news is far away and travels slowly.” It is somewhat difficult to square the bumbling speaker of these workaday poems with the sharper, more direct and politically incisive speaker of poems like “Brokers” and “Outage.”
A quick note about the book’s editing seems necessary: though the volume is nicely organized and laid out, it contains many typographical errors, particularly for such a short book. At times, missing commas, dashes, and quotation marks could cause confusion and misreading, which is a shame given the careful and various tonal registers of the poems.
Lucy Biederman is an assistant professor of creative writing at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. Her first book, The Walmart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.