Before reading a poem, I try to pay attention to its form or shape on the page. Alice Friman’s “Vinculum” is in couplets, a form that mimics the secondary mathematical meaning of the poem’s title: “A stroke or brace drawn over a quantity consisting of several members or terms in order to show that they are to be considered together,” according to Beyond a few occasions of what appears to be almost accidental end-rhyme, the poem is essentially free verse bound into couplets. By its title and shape alone, readers are cued that the poem is going to have something to do with a tie that binds two or more things that are (but for their vinculum) independent and free.

Who constitutes the “us” of this poem, and what is the vinculum that binds them? Clues are given in the epigraph (“for Richard”) and in the metaphoric “umbilical” glance described in line 3. When the metaphor morphs into an actual umbilical cord “discarded / in some hospital bin,” we know the speaker is addressing her 50-year-old son. The relationship between mother and son has attenuated over time, but in the poem they share a glance that reminds them powerfully of how close that connection once was. A single look “stripped down to the bare wire of what we were” re-forges the bond with all the totality and force it had when mother and child shared the same body, and returns the speaker vividly to the day of her son’s birth when she was 23 and he was a “little fish, hanging on.”

The moment passes without acknowledgement by either the son or the mother; he’s grown “too worldly” and she’s too conscious of past “failed attempts / to fire into language what’s beyond words.” Near the end of the poem the speaker’s perspective tilts upward and wonderfully expands, and she is able to apprehend a bond arcing over herself and her son like a stanchionless bridge, the very image of the mathematical symbol that titles this poem.

“Vinculum” offers an opportunity to talk about the uses of allusion in poetry. An allusion is a reference to something—often another work of art or literature—outside the poem. Here, “that ghost of an eye-beam floating between us” made me think of the eye-beams in John Donne’s poem “The Ecstasy”:

Our hands were firmly cemented
With a fast balm, which thence did spring,
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes, upon one double string;

Perhaps Friman did not intend this allusion, but for me it invited another whole poem and century into the world of this one. Allusions allow poets to build layers of meaning in poems that work on many levels at once and thus can appeal to a wide range of readers. When done poorly, allusions can make readers feel excluded, as from a kind of in-joke. When done well, as in this poem, nothing is lost to readers who do not “catch” the allusion—it is not necessary to the meaning or experience of appreciating the poem—but much can be gained by readers who do.

—Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor


for Richard

Do not look at me again like that: between us
is too stripped down to the bare wire of what we were.

The look, umbilical—that cord I thought discarded
in some hospital bin fifty years ago come November.

How strange to find it once more between us,
still beating and so palpable we could

cross over and enter into each other again,
seeing our old selves through new, first eyes.

Plucked from a drumroll of autumns, that one
was ours—autumn of my twenty-third year, autumn

of your final fattening, taking up all the room,
worrying the thinning walls. The rope that seethed

from me to you and back again—our two-
way street—and you, little fish, hanging on

past your lease in a time of narrowing dark,
which you can’t possibly remember, but do.

And it comes to me: that look must be what love is,
which is why we’ll not speak of it nor hunt it down

in each other’s eyes again, for you’re too worldly
to admit, without wincing, what happened happened.

And I, too conscious of my failed attempts
to fire into language what’s beyond words, could not

bear it. Which leaves me holding the bag once more
of foolish thoughts. I know, I know, the universe

has neither edge nor center nor crown, but I want
to think that past Andromeda and out beyond

a million swirling disks of unnamed stars, that cord
we knew, that ghost of an eye-beam floating between us,

arcs in space, lit up like the George Washington Bridge
pulsing with traffic, even after both stanchions are gone.


From Vinculum, by Alice Friman, Louisiana State University Press. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. First published in The Georgia Review.


wvfc friman poetry Friman_4-28-15Alice Friman’s  sixth full-length collection is The View from Saturn, from LSU Press. Her previous collection is Vinculum, LSU, for which she won the 2012 Georgia Author of the Year Award in Poetry. She is a recipient of a 2012 Pushcart Prize, is included in Best American Poetry 2009, and has been published in 14 countries. Friman lives in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she is Poet-in-Residence at Georgia College. Her podcast series, Ask Alice, is sponsored by the Georgia College MFA program and can be seen on YouTube.


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  • Wendy Barker May 31, 2015 at 7:50 pm

    One of Alice’s exquisitely wrought and deeply moving poems, and a terrific review of it!