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Good Letters

Frieda PushnikHow does poetry speak for brokenness, for pained desire, for grief? A couple poems in the current issue of Image raise this question for me: B.H. Fairchild’s dramatic monologue, “Frieda Pushnik” and Robert Cording’s cycle “Four Prayers.”


Fairchild’s speaker is the “Armless, Legless Girl Wonder”—as her obituary in 2000 put it—who made her living as a touring attraction in what used to be called “freak shows.” (Thanks be to God that political correctness has deleted that horror of a phrase from our vocabulary.)

Fairchild has Frieda speak her heart as she reflects on the crowds who come to gaze at her. She scorns them as “monsters of innocence,” as reptiles who “leak in” to her tent, then “slither out.” She sees through their deep need for her—like the woman who keeps returning, tearfully, “somehow suggesting that / the sorrow is her own and I’m her mirror now, / the little well of suffering from which she drinks.” Yet Frieda’s pained prayer, even in the same breath as her disdain for “that teeming, oozing, / devouring throng” is, finally: “let me be one of them.”

Robert Cording’s poem is different in texture and setup: the speaker speaks about a woman he loves who cannot leave her all-absorbing grief at the death of her child. But here too is a poem about longing for what cannot be. During the year’s cycle that the Four Prayers pass through, the speaker tries various ways to console the grieving woman, all futile. “I have / waited for a prayer, for some words to help / her believe what can never be changed can be / endured….”

Both poems give language to a longing, a craving even, to be other than we are. At the same time, both express a longing for acceptance of what we are, of what we are given to be. The poetry lives in the tension between these two longings. And so these poems speak our life’s condition. They choose extreme cases (a radically deformed woman, another woman consumed by grief for her dead child) which grip our attention. But the grip is then held by our gradual awareness that in these women our own human condition is mirrored.

The prayer of the “holiness of the present moment” is so popular, I’d submit, because we are always aching to live outside the present moment — in a lost past or a desired future — yet we know that life can only be truly lived at this very now.

Psalm 16’s line of total acceptance tugs at me: “the lot marked out for me is my delight.” These two poems make me realize how hard it is to pray this line and mean it.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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