Reviewed by Adam Palumbo
Philip Fried’s latest collection, Cohort, consists of three poems arranged as a short introduction, and then launches into a longer sequence consisting of 33 sonnets. The book operates on the understanding that the modern and the archaic converge every day on a sublime, often unconscious, level. Melding the classic form of the sonnet with rich illustrations of modern-day America’s technologic quotidian, his poetry seeks out this sublime and brings it unapologetically to the reader’s attention. His poems exude a sonic energy; he does not abuse the old form, but cracks it open to examine its past—and in doing so, signals its bright future.
Fried is both engrossed in and at odds with the modern world he observes around him. His poems cannot help but be extremely referential, aimed at a techno-savvy, specifically modern audience. But by employing both poetic language and cyber-speak, Fried creates a hybrid that speaks in emphatic, fourteen-line bursts against, as D. Nurske puts it, “the toxic side of the Information Age as it veers out of control.”
But not all of Fried’s experiences with technology and modern appliance put him on his guard. In “Reversible Swirl,” the last and title poem of the introduction, the speaker fondly reminisces on his childhood while listening to the radio, an old Zenith Tombstone. He finds himself amongst family, “grandpa, grandma, mom, dad, arrayed / behind me, the ceramic family / whose chatter cooled to the overglaze.” He fixates on the device itself, remembering the swirl pattern of the cloth covering the speaker that pulsed with noise while he pulsed with boyish excitement. This attachment to the apparatus resonates into the final lines of the poem, where the speaker realizes, “At night, the bedsprings picked up transmissions / that were bending around the edge of the future.” This end line vaults the reader from the past into the present and fuels all of Fried’s reflection on the technology-driven colloquialisms of the modern age.
Despite his nostalgic opening, the speaker subverts the reader’s expectations in his more robust sonnet sequence, aptly named “The Oral Tradition.” The book’s title poem, “Cohort,” begins this section. The speaker says:
first i was only an ignorant dot
iota in the countless cohort
unique and yet only a part
oh how many eyes devoured ignored
me but i returned the gaze
The speaker identifies himself as a piece of the collective but is oddly unsatisfied with it. Throughout these poems, the reader begins to discern the speaker’s discontent with the way the world has changed, little by little, until the speaker admits:
Our least wish is a whole other
life—who can make a meal of the incremental?
So, brother, sister, give your hands over to bric-
a-brac repairs of the possible…
Despite the multitudinous opportunities open in this new century, the speaker still feels insecure in this reality and longs for something different or more imaginative. His tone is world-weary, and he passes this attitude along to “brother, sister” who have no other options than a repair of what could be. This dissatisfaction with the modern world is presented elsewhere, too. In “Advice to the Gods,” the speaker laments the way technology has shrunk the world into a sphere that is becoming too small and too smelly. He speaks of modern transportation in a palpably negative tone, emphasizing its potential for “reducing / all that it passes to less of a place, too close / more and more local.” He also reflects on his own ineffectiveness in changing this wave of progress when he says, “I am consigliere to the gods / of travel, but they rarely consult me.” His battle with technology is one-sided, and the speaker has resigned himself, along with the rest of his cohort, to relying upon it.
However pessimistic Fried may be about the preeminence that techno-dependence has assumed in the Digital Age, his poetry is well equipped to deconstruct it. Using ancient inspiration and structuring it within the classic Western form of the sonnet, Fried infuses resonances of criticism in his “By Babylon’s flow-charts.” Coupling ambitious internal rhyming and wordplay, Fried creates his own version of Psalm 137 and echoes the Biblical poetry’s tone of condemnation, unsatisfied with “appeasing / data-gods with the ragtime of input, clicks / and bits.” Furthermore, Fried’s poetry is full of a keen sense of historical retrospective, and several of his poems reflect upon the last World War. In “Sealed Warrant,” he memorializes those that endured the Holocaust. Beginning with Kristallnacht, he summarizes the pogroms enacted against the Jews in Nazi Germany while still showing a proper respect for their experiences. As a sort of posthumous vindication, the speaker capitulates with an oxymoronic envoi: “I hereby name you, who shall go nameless, / and detain you in a limbo of secrecy.” Elsewhere, the speaker muses on memory’s morphous tendencies, proclaiming, “history is a fitful foam that bursts at your heels.”
Fried’s Cohort exercises a rich cacophony of themes and a deft use of language. But sometimes his syllabic construction falls apart into a sea of caesura and tends towards a Dickinson-esque discourse. In “Illumined Century” he includes the turn-of-phrase, “Edwina’s chaise: ‘[Lightning, blackout, eloquence] / Don’t let father die in the dark!’ The rest / is silence.” This is an example of Fried’s inclination to produce jam-packed lines; luckily this does not occur often enough to sidetrack the reader. The originality of Fried’s sonnet sequence undercuts the disconnect that the speaker feels toward his subject, but he is not trying to condemn the modern. Instead, he has reimagined the sonnet for a new century so that we as readers might “sort out our too many selves.”