Alice Friman

Negative Capability

The man who wrote the book I’m leaning on

to nail down the first draft of this poem


died yesterday. Truth, I never liked him—

his arrogance, his floor to ceiling vanity.


But he could write, work wonders with

words, arrange whole seasons in a sentence,


bring the cherry back to the cheek in a

dreary time. Meaning, he could squeeze out


tender, though where that tender came from

I never knew, so careful he was to conceal it—


his practiced scowl, the hard casing of

his eye. Surely a biographer will uncover


the painful source of that softness. Even

the rockface of a mountain beaten by time


and weather chips away. Besides, who can measure

another’s suffering? Who dares? Let the years


have their way with him. He wrestled

with language until the end, and that’s enough,


which leaves me running with the crowd

to lift a glass. Here’s to the man who kept


one eyebrow perpetually cocked and hoisted

toward the ceiling. A man I feared—


sneerer of the less than, the not as good as,

the pitiable of no account. But before


he’s safely under—dirt packed down,

the obligatory daisy—I have to confess.


He was my author-on-a-pedestal, my scholar,

my shining star. The light at the end of the tunnel.


The light shrieking toward me on the tracks.



It sneaked up on me, that bare-

legged, mosquito-bitten itch 

of my fifteenth year, taking me

over, leaving the books 

unopened on the bedside table. 

That July when I periodically 

took off to scramble 

up the hills to be alone 

as if an answer waited there 

for me—a diagram, a directive, 

or a pattern I needed to learn 

how to piece together and sew.


If you insist, you could say 

it was my summer of biology 

coming due, for what was I 

but a girl on the edge 

not knowing what to make 

of my heart, hung out like 

a for-sale sign on my sleeve. 


But looking back,

what I remember is a green     

jostle of leaves trembling in their 

bath of light: the morning sun 

filtering through in a great 

spill of generosity, the way

one would wish to spill, pouring 

it out all one's life, pure and unfiltered 

from the heart’s bucket, hitting each 

dried and speckled thing until it shone.


The Mystery of the Cat

I am being fed early before the others. 

Mother says being four I can’t wait. 

I can wait. I am swinging my legs, 

feet not touching the floor. 

New dress, white with blue flowers.  

We are in Brooklyn, Great-grandpa’s

apartment. Passover, first night.


I’m trying to figure out what I saw 

hanging from a hook behind the door

in his bathroom. I think it’s a secret.

That’s why I'm watching him. 

He’s sitting at the head of the table 

frowning like the picture in my book 

of Moses seeing a bad thing coming.


Everyone’s a little afraid of Great-

grandpa but me. If you don’t wash

before coming to the table he knows. 

He knows everything.

He has a white beard like God

and eyes that go right through you.

I always wash my hands, not like 

Cousin Herbie who’s got red hair,

picks his nose, and fights all the time.


Great-grandpa will die in January

when it snows, collapse in schul 

while praying. The rabbi says 

that means he’ll go right to heaven. 

I don’t know anything about heaven. 

I only know he’ll not be in his  

chair anymore, there at his place

at the big table where he belongs. 


When he dies I will cry all day. 

It will be my first death.


I may be little but I know

what I’m scared of and it's not death.

It's big dogs, big dogs like King 

straining at his chain, snarling— 

his mouth all teeth and dripping.

King, the German shepherd  

Daddy dragged me to, insisting 

I pet him, say nice doggie, nice, 

while he's yelling, “Don't be afraid 

or he’ll smell it on you.” But I was 

afraid. And I’m afraid of the thing 

I saw in the bathroom when I 

went to wash my hands. It’s ugly

and I’m not sure what it’s for. 

Mama would know, but she won't

tell me, which makes it a secret.

I don’t like secrets. Grownups

have secrets. They listen to the radio,

whisper to each other, then tell me 

to go out and play. I’m not a baby.

I can tie my shoes and write my name. 

I know what’s good and what's bad.

And I know who I love: Mama, 

Daddy, and Betsy my doll. I love

ice-cream too, topped with sprinkles,

and red apples. I don’t like broccoli.

I hate broccoli. And I don't like big 

dogs or what I saw in the bathroom  

that looks like a whip. A thing with 

nine leather strips, each ending in 

a knot to hurt or punish, but who? 

And why was it there? Great-grandpa 

is gooder than good and wouldn't hurt 

a living thing—praying all the time 

in the old words so God understands. 

Maybe they whisper to each other 

late at night in the bathroom—secrets,

grown-up secrets. God’s voice coming 

from under the tub where it’s dark 

or from behind the mirror on the wall,

saying something bad is coming and

Great-grandpa will need that whip.


At the circus, Aunt Nellie bought me

a toy whip. My cousins got balloons. 

But that whip isn’t this whip. This whip

would belong to a bad man with boots 

up to his knees and a big dog. Maybe 

Great-grandpa once ran from a man

just like that, grabbed his whip and never 

gave it back. My Great-grandpa is the

bravest man in the world. Only trouble is

it’s 1938. That man would have bought 

another one, a bigger one, by now.


Alice Friman’s seventh collection is Blood Weather, LSU Press. Her last two are TheView from Saturn and Vinculum, for which she won the 2012 Georgia Author of theYear Award in Poetry. A recipient of two Pushcart Prizes and included in Best American Poetry, she has been published in Poetry, Ploughshares, Massachusetts Review, Gettysburg Review, Georgia Review, Plume, and many others. She was poet-in-residence at Georgia College until 2017. She was the subject of our Closer Look in Innisfree 9. Her website is

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