The View from Saturn by Alice Friman

Reviewed By

In an interview with Gina Abelkop for The Georgia Review, Alice Friman reveals that her latest collection, The View from Saturn,came out of a life-changing experience: seeing Saturn through a telescope while on vacation in Hawaii. That experience is referenced in “The Night I Saw Saturn,” which acts as one of several points of departure for the collection. Aboard a plane crossing the Pacific Ocean, the speaker notices a fellow passenger:

Crossing the Pacific, flying backward

into perpetual night, and all night

one light on in the plane, a young man

beneath, scribbling. I am looking out

This speaker gazes out the window at “it—Orpheus of the night sky—the rock that sings.” The young man, on the other hand, does not indulge in reveries, but rather furiously attends to his work. From the beginning, two diverging perspectives are established: one looking down, inwards, serious and studious. The other gazing out into the cosmos.

The View from Saturn is published by LSU Press, which describes the collection as providing “both a telescopic and microscopic view of ourselves.” I started reading with that description in mind, and at first I thought of those two perspectives as differing merely in scale and scope. The more I read, however, the more it seemed that Friman’s poems were attempting to negotiate two apparently contradictory ways of looking at the world.

Throughout, the speaker expresses a refusal to be constrained by a dominant worldview. “The Brain,” which heads one of four sections named after parts of the human anatomy, deploys a quasi-religious register:

The brain always knows

where you are. A triumvirate

of eyes, ear canals, tiny nerves

In the next poem, “How It Is,” which aggressively challenges authoritative narratives, the speaker implores, “Be like the river. Stick out your tongue.” This subversive element permeates the collection, manifesting itself in Friman’s sly sense of humor. In “Tracing Back,” the introductory poem of the volume, Friman reveals how she crafts a seductive rebelliousness: “the innocent pull/ of words, that belly crawl/ of language.”

In the beginning, I suspected that Friman had set out to write against some kind of scientific discourse, because of the apparent tension in several poems between the speaker’s worldview and what I perceived to be a scientific worldview. “Bluer than Blue,” for example, looks at the sky from two competing perspectives. The poem begins with the phrase “Scientists say,” and after invoking “vapors,” “wavelengths” and “Lord Rayleigh’s law of scattering,” counters with “But I say…” and provides an alternate rendering of the sky, one that personifies Earth: “our own girl—gussied up/ in her best blue atmosphere/ for her autumnal tango/ with a star.” The deeper I got into the collection, however, the more apparent it became that Friman—from the “telescopic” perspective— was writing not against science, but scientism; the belief that science can provide some type of “ultimate truth.”

The way the collection reconciles seemingly opposed perspectives is via a rejection of “ultimate truths.” By approaching the universe through the microscopic and telescopic, The View from Saturn asserts the notion that from every perspective, every speaker is author of a unique narrative. What is a worldview anyway, if not a story? Friman seduces through and appears to be seduced by the vehicle of narrative: language. In “Vexed,” the speaker proclaims:

I like the word vex.

Not honey in the mouth

Like barrette and gorgeousness

But raw edged. I like tonic too

Both worldviews—the telescopic and microscopic—cannot escape the confines of language. Language, however, can’t restrain ultimate truth (if such a thing exists). Instead of lamenting that inaccessibility, however, Friman revels in the sharpness of language and its potential for creating a multiplicity of narratives.

The View from Saturn is divided into five sections, four of which are dedicated to parts of the human body. Sections revolve around the brain, skin, hands and tongue. A fifth section, at the center of the book, consists of a single poem titled “The Joker.” The Joker— “trickster of the dark carnival/ scepter of misrule”— opens himself up to different readings. The poem, several pages long, builds to a deliberate, sequential rhythm in the second stanza:

 A dog barks. A clock ticks.

Black five on a red six, red

Seven on the black eight.

Wait. The aces are loading

The notion of telling fortunes recurs throughout the poem. The third stanza begins the narrative of Great Aunt Sadie (to whom the volume is dedicated), whose physicality is summoned with striking imagery: “bucktoothed Sadie, old/ as the old country, skin like/ boiled chicken, gray hair/ wild around her head as if/ she stuck her toe in an electric/ socket.” But while the steady build of the second stanza establishes an expectation for a similarly structured narrative, subsequent stanzas abandon Sadie’s story to meditate

on the nature of the Joker and sojourn to pre-war Paris before returning to Sadie. The Joker may be read as a search for the divine that finds only a god of chaos, or as a meditation on the hubris of a reader who expects stanzas to unfold according to a preconceived design.

Friman allows opposing worldviews to exist in the same space. Objectivity exists neither in the microscopic nor the telescopic. Every perspective—including the scientific— is, by definition, subjective. In “Coming to Terms,” craftsmen discuss the meaning of life in language that reflects their own subjectivities. A butcher describes life as “blood and bone running/ mindless—a headless chicken,” while a baker counters by asserting that life is “sugar or plain, jelly roll/ or stale bread” and a candlestick maker offers a blunt metaphor: “life is art.” The poem ends with an arresting perspective, that of “the drowned,” who proclaim that life

 is the thing we clutched—

our own murderous baby—

it being all we had

when the sea rose to claim us

and the boulder hardened

against us and would not yield.

“Coming to Terms” provides a microcosm of the entire collection. While the meaning of life is subject to countless interpretations and worldviews, the only undeniable aspect of life, the only thing in life approaching ultimate truth is this: it must end. The View from Saturn invites us to approach that inevitability with humility, dignity and a touch of humor.

Tariq al Haydar has published a novella in Arabic titled Hellat al-Abeed (The Slave District). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in several publications, including The Atlantic, The Normal School, Down & Out and Jadaliyya. He is a lecturer at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia and a Ph.D. candidate at the George Washington University, and has been a contributor at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. More from this author →