The Book of the Rotten Daughter by Alice Friman
(BkMk Press, University of Missouri, 2007)
Family relationships provide the narrative backbone to Alice Friman’s collection, The Book of the Rotten Daughter, as it explores life and death. These poems, therefore, manifest resentment, jealousy, hatred, betrayal, forgiveness, love, courage, understanding and acceptance, among others. Rich concrete imagery and metaphors deepen the reader’s interest; I came to respond empathetically to their narratives.
My immediate, first question about the book (and its title) was logically, “What’s this about a rotten daughter?” The answer is in the first poem in the book, “The Dream of the Rotten Daughter”:
“It [rotten one] was
his label for her from
the time of the big bed
Sunday mornings, and she
between them pretending
oblivion, a balled-
up cuddle to bridge their
unbridgeable gap or
(speak truth, oh rotten one)
usurp the I’m-here-first
of that furious eye.”
From these lines we deduce the relationships within a family. A child, a first child, was born to a couple, and their life changes drastically -- but not necessarily for the better. Before the child arrived, the wife’s affection and attention were centered mostly on her husband. With the child, the mother divides her attention and affection between husband and baby, most probably with the child getting more attention. This causes jealousy, resentment and anger on the part of the father, and misery on the part of the mother. The baby grows into a child who now is able to see and hear and sense what is going on. An “unbridgeable gap” between her parents becomes obvious even to her youthful eyes. But this does not prevent her from going into her parents’ room to climb onto their bed, then slipping into and lying down on the space between them. The father is angry and tries to wake her up to tell her to return to her own bed. But the child pretends to be asleep.
The father does not hide his resentment from his daughter. One day, with or without provocation, he calls her “rotten.”
The daughter does not forget -- she calls it his “label” for her. So when, much later, she wakes from a dream, she wakes up laughing. She is laughing at the ridiculousness of the dream where her father is still competing with her for his wife’s attention -- in a dream long after his death. Then she continues to laugh because she gets a brilliant idea: she will write about their family and publish a book which she will call The Book of the Rotten Daughter.
Friman writes three poems about the death of this father: “After Shooting the Barbados Ram”, “The Vigil”, and “Sub Rosa.”
In “After Shooting the Barbados Ram”, the daughter kneels to bend over the brains of a ram spilled on the grass. The movement makes her remember how, in a similar gesture, she once bent her dying father, “holding the hand / that for sixty-two years refused / mine, singing the song he never sang for me.”
In “The Vigil”, the daughter is at the bedside of her dying father. She describes herself as “loving a father who delivered nothing / but a crate of sorrows.”
In “Sub Rosa”, this daughter remains at his father’s bedside until he dies, and dies without any last word from him to his wife or daughter: “The closed door remained close. / The seal unbroken.”
But the daughter also remembers him carefully tending rose plants, then putting the blooms in vases to line their kitchen counter:
“one shameless beauty after another still throbbing
from the stem, like the sobs of a sentence
or the relief of a betrayal
stammered by a heart’s red tongue.”
In these three poems, the daughter’s behavior towards her dying father makes a lie of her father’s label: “rotten one.” They reveal much about Friman’s ideas of life -- that life’s difficulties need not overcome the individual.
In “The Sound”, Friman writes:
“Since your death
I remember you as I’ve written
not how you were. The old forgiveness
of child hand in yours comes through
What the poems -- that which were written -- reveal are that the words are not those of a rotten daughter.
From “Letter to My Sister”, we learn that the daughter placed the mother in a nursing home; she tells a sister that “things go well.” Their mother being in a nursing home, however, does not mean that this older daughter no longer does anything for their mother. From “In an Angry Vein”, we learn that she visits their mother and does things for her like painting her mother’s nails, playing games, telling story after story.
We also learn from “From The Daughter Journals” that the daughter is overwhelmed by all that she has to do for herself as well as for her mother. She writes:
“Oh Mother forgive me
I have bad dreams
…I can’t seem
to go more gently into your good night
I’m afraid you are taking me with you.”
There seems to be no end to the daughter’s troubles. She married and found love only to be deprived of this love. In “Sonic Boom” her husband discovers a lump in his throat. Unable to identify the lump, the doctor is unable to treat it. In “Shattering”. the lump worsens.” She comes to talk to him “through such brave / and lovely death”. The husband dies. She says of herself:
“And I --
one more soldier in misery’s army.”
This daughter is not a rotten one. The circumstances in her life are the rotten ones. She didn’t ask to be born, but after she is born she is rejected, resented and verbally abused with a label of “rotten one” from her own father! She finds love and marries a man who loves her but he dies, leaving her as “one more soldier in misery’s army.” She tries her best to care for her mother and her sister accuses her of trying to earn her ticket to heaven. Finally, she is overwhelmed by all the things she has to do and by her friends and acquaintances who call on her for help. But the most rotten thing that happens is she believes that “she was not favored by the gods…Jesus never loved her.”
Yet in her relationship with her family, this daughter shows patience, loyalty, forgiveness, love, love even for her unlovable father, and courage.
Her idea of living is to keep making herself “accessible” to all that life brings to her, good or bad, “subtracting nothing.”
These poems are so moving that they encouraged me to connect them into a story, versus to review them as (individual) poems. I think it’s because, through story, I felt I could more fully enter this daughter’s life. That is, I wanted a story that I could inhabit. Where I could exist to hug this daughter and whisper to her: No, not rotten. Not rotten at all.
Beatriz Tabios is the mother of Galatea Resurrects’s Editor.