Review by Jennifer Martelli
Elizabeth Strauss Friedman writes in her title, “Lost Positive (Centaurus Constellation—Centaur),”
As women ought to be,
life outside male invalidation
advertently galloping into stardust.
In her latest collection, The Lost Positive, Constellation Poems, Strauss Friedman creates a night sky, a cosmology of star clusters in four sections that tells the story of the “Chained Woman,” “Strongmen who fancy themselves gods,” “Men’s Tools,” and finally, “Beasts.” These constellations have always reflected the myths we’ve been taught; here, they are given voice through astronomy and poetry, and shine with a contemporary light. Strauss Friedman’s use of ancient mythology underscores how long and pervasive the subjugation of women has been. As the poet writes in “Virgin’s Just Another Word for Sucker (Virgo Constellation—Young Maiden),”
I’m a typo in the script of the universe
which we are taught makes no mistakes,
and so stand out in the times of desperation as the error
you need fixed; the astral body after its undoing.
I am undone. And so will make you whole.
The book reads like Petersen’s Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, complete with photographs and end notes that are written as beautifully as the poems. Strauss Friedman’s book is a layered guide to this feminist cosmology. Beginning the collection with a definition of “lost positive,” the poet presents the challenge, “Women are the lost positives of language in the constellations . . . We must claim our place and be rightfully recognized as the positives of the universe.” The eight photographs within the pages tell their own stories. I thought the most chilling photograph was the image of the veiled and crowned woman followed by a photo of the altar. This alludes to marriage, but also to sacrifice. Strauss Friedman ends the book with “Notes—Echoes of Lost Positives.” Like a glossary, we’re presented with the poems we’ve read, as well as ones that “serve as mirrors of our lost agency.” I love end notes and glossaries. Here, each note functions as a poem on its own and as a way of empowering the negative space. In “Unmistakable—(Oceanus Constellation—Octant) See: [Norma Constellation—Level],” the description mingles sight and sound, “in the formation of an endless ring. . . .”
Throughout this star guide, Strauss Friedman displays her mastery of poetic sounds. The speaker vows in “Always Visible, Almost Forgotten (Microscopium Constellation—Microscope),” “My woman’s ear will measure your fading pulse.” Strauss Friedman’s “woman’s ear” is impeccable. I found myself reading poems out loud for the joy of the rhythms and sounds. In “Due North (Circinus Constellation—Draftsman’s Compass),” the poet’s metrical control of the pacing on the line mimics the horse’s gait, “The horse plods away with the night tucked in its saddle,/a thief of darkness in a moment of national need.” Consonance turns political in “Making Them Mine (Scutum Constellation—Shield).” The voice becomes almost Plathian in its mockery and rage:
Would you see it with my legs crossed?
Demure like a diva immune to debasement?
Or does it only shine bony, warm, rubbed raw
bleeding lavender and flinging anti-climax
at the black, plastic sky?
Imagine, the gamble of the vulva nailed to the sky,
vulnerable. Flooded with connection.
Pulling in stars by the pail.
Strauss Friedman’s bold use of plosives and fricatives electrify this poem, and like many in this collection, transform the poetry into political super novae.
The sounds of names and voices bring these poems into the present. In “Shouldn’t This Title Include Pomegranates? (Hercules Constellation—Strongman),” Strauss Friedman challenges the toxic masculine to, “Call me dirty, name me nasty/woman. . . .” This notorious quote by the disgraced ex-President and admitted sexual predator, Donald Trump, reveals the strongman, that authoritarian bully, who seeks to silence. By conjuring the past (the myth of Hercules) and transporting it with contemporary language to the present, the poet creates an arc, “Where anything that crosses my path, I eat alive.” In “Unfinished Business (Orion Constellation—Hunter),” she writes
So, the story goes—women carry water
for other stars; provide blood supply
for others’ children.
They want need only travel in one direction.
In “Heartless (Ophiuchus Constellation—Serpent Holder),” the speaker’s scorn for women not supporting other women is underscored by Strauss Friedman’s choice of constellation (snakes, snake holders) as well as her deft use of sound:
My gift? Bringing people back from the dead.
Phyllis Schlafly, Louise Johnson, blisters
oozing into disease of engendered rights.
Verbal violence storming my heart.
Strauss Friedman displays her artistry not only for poetry, humor, and narrative, but also for acknowledging the grief inherent in the loss of voice. in “The Opposite of Easy Listening (Leo Constellation—Lion),” she traces a history of a name, its “de-evolution,”
Leo—DiCaprio, Tolstoy, da Vinci, Popes I-XIII—
burnished lions all, built by myth and media into monuments.
Choruses of women singing their praises,
the only way our voices carry.
The speaker muses in “What Happens to a Voice Too Long Unused? (Lynx Constellation—Lynx),”
I wish I knew how to mark my territory
in jagged seams of stolen light
or beckon bodies that sparkle transparent
in the night. I think I dated this constellation once. . . .
Elizabeth Strauss Friedman guides us in confronting the “strongmen” who steal or control bodies and voices, guides us in how to stake our claim. In poetry rich with rhythm and sounds, she creates a star map of the constellations, forges a different mythology. The Lost Positive is an important book, a field guide, where I learn about language and sound, about claiming the negative space back. It is
A lesson less
The Lost Positive: Constellation Poems by Elizabeth Strauss Friedman
86 pages, BlazeVox Books, 2023
Jennifer Martelli (she, her, hers) is the author of The Queen of Queens (Bordighera Press, 2022) and My Tarantella (Bordighera Press). She is also the author of the chapbooks In the Year of Ferraro (Nixes Mate Press) and After Bird, winner of the Grey Book Press open reading, 2016. Her work has appeared in The Academy of American Poets Poem a Day, The Tahoma Literary Review, Thrush, Cream City Review, Verse Daily, Iron Horse Review(winner, Photo Finish contest), and Poetry. Jennifer Martelli has twice received grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council for her poetry. She is co-poetry editor for Mom Egg Review and co-curates the Italian-American Writers Series.