A Heart With Eyes:
John Freeman’s Debut Poetry Collection, Maps
(Copper Canyon Press, October, 2017)
In John Freeman’s introduction to a second anthology of writing that addresses the seismic cultural and economic dislocations of a parsimonious American society, Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation (Penguin, September, 2017), he writes about the way the trajectories of our lives are decided on the whim of fate: “Improbability demands stories. Each one of us in America could have gown up someone else had the universe’s mysterious finger touched a different key.” The configuration of notes played, letters assembled, left him, he decides, lucky. And yet, the life of an artist rarely unfolds simply with luck. It takes an acutely troubled heart to write back home—wherever that home is, to friend, dead mother, beloved partner—so eloquently with news of the world; and the range of his oeuvre proves that Freeman’s heart is big, wide-open, and ravaged by what it encounters in that world. Maps (Copper Canyon Press, October, 2017), his debut poetry collection, provides perhaps the best insight into the workings of a keen and compassionate intelligence.
Freeman is primarily known for his voracious involvement with the anthologizing of other voices, particularly of writers who tend toward prose rather than poetry, first as the American fiction editor for Granta, then as executive editor the aggregating online endeavor LitHub, and finally the force behind his eponymous journal, Freeman’s. In all of these works he appears to have the remarkable skill of venturing into unfamiliar territories around the world (Reykjavik, Porto Alegre, Cardiff for example), and serendipitously coming upon, and subsequently soliciting work from, enormously talented writers. It is not surprising then to discover that in his poetry, New South Wales, Sarajevo, Beirut, Algiers, and Paris rub shoulders with hardscrabble towns across America from Cleveland, Ohio, to Rocklin, California. In each setting poems spill stories of ordinary people, and never without context. A grandfather’s dogged work ethic diligently applied equally to prune-picking in Ohio and accounting in Sacramento in “The Unknowing,” evokes a now obsolete American dream of hard-work and white upward mobility, in his case, confirmed. In another poem, “Sarajevo (Summer, 2016)” the poet, listening, absorbs both the girl relating a story, and the story itself, bombs falling on Sarajevo as a play unfolds, the actors relentless and undiminished, rising up before his eyes.
These are poems that take account of the untenable conditions of modern life, one where “we don’t know violence exists/until it’s recorded,” even as the poet acknowledges the futility of knowing the dimensions of its magnitude with the metronomic thin blade thrusts found in “The Blinding,” a sharpness relieved only by the roll and draw of the Latin that ends it with the cant of cartographers. Freeman does not shy away from confronting that violence, and especially so when it arrives in stealth to ambush him. By accident, for instance, in a barbershop in Beirut, where he finds it held unspoken in the hands of a woman serving milk-coffee; or lurking among the street-side florists and pumpkin-sellers of a native’s New York City, the ones who rarely falls even for the hard-sell. But his gaze is most resolute in the face of the profound lacerations made upon the heart by the people we love.
In a series of poems about his dying mother, Freeman acknowledges the failures that are endemic to the conduct of human life, and manages to make them quintessentially his. Our collective lot, which is to fail—to be better, love harder, be present, to see each other clearly beyond mere looking—he recalibrates with deep poignancy. In “Repair,” which manages both to evoke the standard set for the measure of love in Evan Boland’s “Quarantine,” and to display a Tolstoyan ostranenie, he enters and leaves the poem talking ostensibly about a renovation of his New York City apartment, and the money-pit it becomes, but places a different story at the center, about his father relinquishing everything he has, his self-regard, his friendships, his faith, in order to tend to his sick wife. He watches his father carrying his mother into the bathroom to brush her teeth and wipe her spit: “I’d stand there helpless before so much love, unable to do anything/useful except/to watch how serious it gets, how there’s nothing serious/without an end.” That poem carries a faint echo of another, “Blackout,” and the wife he himself once carried on his back, burdened and resentful, eleven flights down to the street so she could pick up her hospital crutches and leave him forever, love having already fled.
Indeed the collection maps love with the same fervor it does war, though the poems are drawn tight and reverent, and are studded with references to ugly externalities, as if to claim love in the singular would be to confess to a flaw of the spirit. Nonetheless, one cannot help but find the complex, near euphoric, beauty that escapes like flares set beside a disabled vehicle on a lonely road. “Fish” for instance, dedicated to writher Sasha Hemon, gives the reader the thrill of visualizing “…octopus/and puffer fish, squid curled like/pink knuckles, tuna so big it had to/be carved by vertical saw…” removed from their ectothermic practices, artificially cooled, as well as the tagine shop where the two friends belly up and eat “couscous with Bosnians who/chewed French words into chunks/the Moroccan chefs could understand,” and ends with the tender brutality of a fishmonger slitting a fugu swiftly at the neck, the departure a kindness. One cannot help but remember in that closing line, the presence of the refugees he has broken bread with, and the escapade becomes not a celebration of the piscatorial arts, but a stand in for what is denied to the reluctant immigrant, forced similarly from their familiar deep, even as all of it is witnessed and rendered with the tenderness that defines an enduring friendship. In “Wimbledon,” a few lines about unmeasured happiness, and the way a relationship that can acknowledge its own boundaries can thrive in preferred solitude, and find “some other way/to mark time, not by being/boundless/but bound, as the sky/is to ground at the close of day,” lines that echo Donne’s “Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” bookend a stirring mise en abyme of the ways in which a designated possessor—in this case, the English queen in days past—comes to control all those who are only sometimes unwillingly possessed. All that exists, the poem claims, is turned into the service of that transaction even as what feels eternal contains within it the seeds of its undoing.
An awareness of loss, then, defines this collection that roosts the chaos of the private in the turmoil of the public. Freeman employs a sweet lyricism to nestle that within “purgatories of ice,” “the airless summit of unexpected careers,” “the tiny aperture of Stockholm’s daylight,” and “sons arrowing back,” to attend a wake for the living. In “Lacking Measures,” an examination of the mental instability that accompanies grief, all the un-done, un-said moments in a life catching up, he compares himself to a ship dipping out of sight, and out of life itself, a lazaretto which may contain all, or only all that ails him.
has been abandoned
like a ship set ablaze and left to drift at sea,
where there is the time
you can see it float away, and then when it
is spied in the distance,
lost at latitude, then it falls from the
map altogether, and it’s as if it
was never there at all.”
It feels absurd to imagine a consciousness so fully, and tangibly, invested in the world, to entertain such gloom, but it is hardly possible to look as hard as Freeman does at the world and not, on occasion, be felled by the immensity of the task ahead. “Remember the better names of the world,” he writes in one of the two prose poems in the collection, “Paris (Bastille Day).” “Hear the long high whistle that sings through the gap between what is and what we call it. Let us not mistake that song for anything but a warning.” If a warning must be sounded, then let us allow it to be made by a lover equally of the many, the few, and the one, a writer who is a citizen of the unfamiliar world, as he is fully and quite clearly a blue-blood American son, a poet who walks by a river, as this one does in “The Money,” and says out loud, “I don’t have a fucking wallet in my my heart/ to put the fucking money in.” In a literary climate where bravery is uncommon, and all our parts immiscible, it is a rare gift to sit for a while with an artist who has not forgotten that
“the heart has eyes,
not its own,
and we watch ourselves
watching it, as much our heart
as the heart itself.”