Friendship

One day I do you a good turn. Then
You do me two good turns.
I am pleased by that & say so the next day.

You break the lead in your pencil.
I loan you mine.
You give me an expensive fountain pen.

I play you a recording of The Modern Jazz Quartet.
Though you like Milt Jackson’s vibes, you
Take me to The Ring at Covent Garden…

We introduce each other to our wives.
My wife teaches your wife how to cook fondues.
You wife teaches my wife how to live.

I dedicate my book to you & you are moved.
You make a character of me in yours:
It is singled out for praise by the reviewers.

I give my mistress to your loyalest disciple.
Claiming he is bored with her, you have
The wench returned; her skills are much improved.

When I sing my secret lute song about mountains,
You take me to the mountains
In your car: You have a cabin there

Where after drinks we agree to a primitive contest.
Preparing for it, you
Scar your face grotesquely with a razor blade.

Upon return, I burn for you my manuscript.
For me you smash your files. I wreck my mother’s house.
You wreck your only daughter’s mind.

In the end, I write a letter saying:
I forgive you. But you do not write back.
It is now the time for silence.

For we are friends. We love each other very much.

When you’re driving a car, you have at most only three kinds of turns available to you: the left, the right, and that often-prohibited, radical move, the U-turn. But poets face no such limitations. When a poet wants to make a turn, it can be in almost any direction. Consider this little haiku by Issa, translated by Robert Hass:

     The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
with children.

The first two lines lead us to believe we’re dealing with a landscape without people; but with the third line, the poem turns, and suddenly we’re forced to re-assess the meaning of the word “flooded,” seeing it as figurative rather than literal as we see the village suddenly populated with children. It’s a turn from one kind of landscape to another. Simple stuff, but effective.

Another of Hass’ translations of Issa gives us a different sort of turn altogether:

New Year’s Day—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

As in the last poem, the turn here comes with the final line. But instead of turning from an empty landscape to a populated one, we turn from the objective, natural world to the subjective world of the speaker’s emotions, which are out of sync with the splendid blossoming of the world. What seemed to be a simple expression of enthusiasm for the day turns into a statement about how we can carry our indifference and apathy with us no matter how much beauty surrounds us. If the first haiku turns by adding a human presence to the landscape, the second haiku turns by taking us from the outer landscape into the inner landscape. There are no limits to the directions a poem can turn.

There are also no limits on how hard a turn a poem can make. The two haiku above give us rather gentle turns: there’s just not much room in a haiku to build up a lot of momentum in one direction before the poet grabs the wheel and wrenches his vehicle around. Two lines give the poet just enough time to set up an expectation (“Oh, we’re going to describe the flood of water in a village,” say, or “Ah! We’ll be talking about blossoms and natural beauty here!”) before turning the poem away in a different direction. The Shakespearean sonnet, which traditionally sets up a pattern with three quatrains all heading in the same direction, builds up some serious momentum, but can still turn on a dime: after developing a clear and powerful pattern of expectation, the quick little turn with the quatrain at the end shows off the sonnet’s nimble handling. It’s the little red MG convertible of poetry.

There are even more dramatic examples of sudden turns at high speed. John Matthias’ poem “Friendship,” for example, builds up a lot of momentum before spinning around in a sudden turn. It begins like this:

One day I do you a good turn. Then
You do me two good turns.
I am pleased by that & say so the next day.

You break the lead in your pencil.
I loan you mine.
You give me an expensive fountain pen.

I play you a recording of The Modern Jazz Quartet.
Though you like Milt Jackson’s vibes, you
Take me to The Ring at Covent Garden…

In order for a turn to provide some kind of surprise, it needs to violate expectation, and the most effective way to build up expectation is through the establishment of a pattern of parallelism. That’s what “Friendship” does in these opening stanzas, where the speaker and his addressee clearly have a competitive relationship and in which the speaker is constantly being outdone. One good turn is met by two: a very abstract statement of the pattern that gets picked up in the stanza about the writing implements and the stanza about music. But what happens next? It’s more of the same, only emphatic and exaggerated:

We introduce each other to our wives.
My wife teaches your wife how to cook fondues.
You wife teaches my wife how to live.

I dedicate my book to you & you are moved.
You make a character of me in yours:
It is singled out for praise by the reviewers.

I give my mistress to your loyalest disciple.
Claiming he is bored with her, you have
The wench returned; her skills are much improved.

The pattern here isn’t just a matter of piling parallel incidents of one-upsmanship on top of each other. There’s a kind of crescendo, an increasing extremity in the incidents, and in the incommensurate nature of the response. The gift of a nice pen is disproportionate to the loan of a pencil, but at least the pen and the pencil are part of the same general category. The art of fondue and the art of life are not. By the time we reach the stanza about the mistress, the exaggerated nature of the competitiveness has reached a comic level — and insulting to the speaker, too, who not only has his gift returned but can also infer that his sexual performance hasn’t been particularly skilled or adventurous.

In the next three stanzas, the poem continues to add exaggerated instance of competitiveness to exaggerated instance of competitiveness, establishing a powerful pattern even as it amps that pattern up into something truly grotesque:

When I sing my secret lute song about mountains,
You take me to the mountains
In your car: You have a cabin there

Where after drinks we agree to a primitive contest.
Preparing for it, you
Scar your face grotesquely with a razor blade.

Upon return, I burn for you my manuscript.
For me you smash your files. I wreck my mother’s house.
You wreck your only daughter’s mind.

So far, the poem has established a pattern, and even developed it, exaggeration being a kind of development. But it hasn’t turned, not really, not yet. And there are only four lines left. Here are three of them:

In the end, I write a letter saying:
I forgive you. But you do not write back.
It is now the time for silence.

At first, this seems like a break in the pattern. The speaker seems to want to break with the way things have been, to call a stop to things by forgiving his friend for all of his extreme and destructive actions. But the friend’s refusal to respond is just a new kind of competitive act, another raising of the bar. It’s as if he said “So, you think you’re going to claim the moral high ground by presuming to forgive me, eh? Well, I claim the moral high ground with my silence! I am the aggrieved party! And I’m too aggrieved to even offer forgiveness. Top that!” We haven’t broken with the basic structure of parallelism after all: we’ve continued it, with even greater intensity.

But then, at the very end, there’s this:

For we are friends. We love each other very much.

Until now, the relationship between the speaker and his interlocutor has been strictly competitive. But now we’re told that the relationship is really one of love—and, for the first time in the poem, we’re asked to reflect. Until now, we readers have just been along for a fast ride down a straight road into exaggerated competition: we’ve watched the escalation of things, but we haven’t been asked to think much. And now, all of a sudden, there’s a sudden, screeching turn, and we’re asked to consider how the actions of the speaker and the friend who constantly trumped him can possibly represent love. Love, we gather from the poem—at least the love behind male friendship—is something perverse and destructive, something that builds to crisis and lapses into silence, but something that endures it all.

So “Friendship” ends with a judgment about the nature of the relationship between two characters, one that isn’t immediately intuitive. Until the last line, the language has been strictly narrative and descriptive, but here, at the very end, we readers are engaged in a different way. In a sense, “Friendship” is like those Shakespearean sonnets that give three examples of something then turn to offer a conclusion that meditates on the meaning of those examples. But instead of twelve lines building up a pattern and two lines turning away from it, we’re hauled down a 30 line drag strip before the poet slams on the brakes, white-knuckles the wheel, and sends us spinning off in a new direction, wheels squealing. It’s an extreme and exaggerated kind of turn, one that fits the poem’s subject completely.

*

Robert Archambeau’s books include Home and Variations, Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry, and the forthcoming The Poet Resigns, as well as the shorter collections Citation Suite, Another Ireland, and Slight Return. He is the editor of Word Play Place: Essays on the Poetry of John Matthias, Letters of Blood and Other Works in English by Göran Printz-Påhlson, and other books. His poetry and criticism have appeared in many journals, including Poetry, Chicago Review, Cambridge Literary Review, Pleiades, VQR, Contemporary Literature, and Boston Review. He has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Illinois Arts Council, and the Swedish Academy, and is at work on a study of the social history of poetry and aesthetic autonomy from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century. He blogs at http://www.samizdatblog.blogspot.com and teaches at Lake Forest College.

John Matthias, “Friendship.” Published by permission of the author and Shearsman publishing.