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Gene Frumkin's "The Old Man Who Swam Away ..."

By Blake de Pastino

AUGUST 24, 1998:  Fellow New Mexican poet Alvaro Cardona-Hine once described Gene Frumkin as being "molested by the very compensations of his own existence." A messy description of a man, maybe, but an excellent recommendation for a poet. Ever since his first book came out 35 years ago in the alleys of L.A.'s Beat scene, Gene Frumkin has wrestled with what it means to be alive, suffering the molestations of life from all angles. Over the years, Frumkin has become a pro at this kind of struggle, going to the mat with the brawniest and hairiest metaphysical issues to ever step in the ring. As a result, he has become one of our most quietly challenging poets. From his latest book, The Old Man Who Swam Away and Left Only His Wet Feet, published by the local La Alameda Press, you can get a sense of where Frumkin has been and where's he's gone, as poems both old and new trace the arc of his career. For readers who aren't familiar with his deep, difficult work, Old Man is probably the best kind of primer you could ask for. And for those of you who have read him, met him or studied with him at UNM, you'll probably find that you still enjoy the constricting feel of Frumkin's poetic stranglehold.

The book begins with reprints from two of Frumkin's early chapbooks--Dostoevsky & Other Nature Poems (from 1972) and A Lover's Quarrel With America (1985)--followed by a third section containing his most recent work. Together they provide a sort of growth chart of Frumkin's verse. His earliest works, you quickly find, tend to be dense and dizzying. They address the giants of modern literature, with titles like "Dostoevsky," "Waiting For Godot in Class" and "Proust Pro Naturam." More importantly, though, they're written with a heavy and mysterious kind of lyric, with words that sound as if they're turned at angles. "Candle of the dozen woods," one poem begins, "another year flattens its face against the glass." It's a typically curious Frumkin image--physical, and at the same time, hauntingly immaterial. "What is there/you do not understand?" he asks later in the same poem; he then answers himself, "Simply the rhetoric/of this very question."

It's ambitious stuff, but thanks to Frumkin's sense of heart, it never feels like vain philosophizing. He has a knack for creating clarity and humor among all this profundity, as seen in pieces like "Albuquerque Spleen" and the neurotically witty "The Nature of My Sexual Problem." They are signs of what's to come in the second section, where Frumkin steers himself more toward realism, social observation and even political commentary. In the title poem of A Lover's Quarrel With America, written during the heart of the Reagan era, Frumkin lambastes the very idea of patriotism with cynical wit: "Talking about America(,) the hero/opens his lips/like Hustler pussy." But even while he's sounding off on such profane matters, Frumkin never loosens his grip in the big, cosmic grapple. Here, you still find poems like "There is No Reason to It" and "The Problem of Individual Identity is the Dilemma of Philosophy," each written with thick imagery and a twisted kind of syntax. Read alongside his earthier works, they help form a balance between the worldly and otherworldly, which seems to be Frumkin's perfect pitch.

The poems that finish up this collection, dating from 1997, are certainly the most personal, intimate and natural of the bunch. From his laugh-out-loud memories of growing up in the Bronx to his series of heart-poundingly erotic poems, you can see that, in more recent years, Frumkin has taken his preoccupation with the abstract and given it an anchor. But still, his hammerhold on the English language remains. Like almost everything in Old Man, these poems are hard to read, challenging and humbling as you study each line. If reading Gene Frumkin leaves you a little punch-drunk, though, it still goes to show you what you can get from a close, transformative session with a book. "To be human reminds us that to define/significance/is an obsession," Frumkin writes near the end of this collection. It's an obsession that only patient readers, and powerful poets like Gene Frumkin, seem willing to handle. (La Alameda, paper, $14)

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