A Tribute To Robert Friend on his 100th Birthday
Author: Jean Cantu
December 24, 2013
When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, I knew three facts about my mother’s brother, Robert Friend: he was a poet, he lived in Israel, and he was gay. As I later learned, he emigrated to Israel in 1950, the year of my birth. Being a curious child and having a lively interest in my mysterious uncle, “the poet,” I spent many hours going through the air mail letters that Robert sent to my parents from Jerusalem. Later, as a would-be poet in my teenage years, I started to read the volumes of his published poetry that he proudly sent to my parents. I also noted that many of his letters contained new poems typed on scraps of paper.
As I became an adult, I started to correspond with Robert, sharing anecdotes, photos and poems. After reading his books, I commented on the poems that moved me, and so our correspondence went on through the years. I didn’t know a lot about Robert’s life as a gay man in Israel but I knew that he was honored as a writer of English language poetry and as a translator of Hebrew poetry, in addition to teaching English literature at Hebrew University. When I visited Robert in Israel in 1971, I still didn’t know enough about literature (and gay history) to ask the questions that would come to mind today.
When Robert died in 1998 (at the age of eighty-four), he left me the copyrights to his poems and poetry, the greatest gift he could give. On the eve of his 100th birthday–November 25, 2013–it is important to note that through his own English-language poetry, Robert was a pioneer of gay literature. However, because he spent many years in Israel, his work has yet to reach a critical mass of readers in the gay community in the United States.
Looking at early photos of Robert, one sees a sensitive and scholarly young man who began writing poetry in early adolescence. From what I’ve learned from my family, he knew he was gay early on, a fact he explained to my mother when she visited him in Puerto Rico (in 1941) and found Robert and his male friends dancing in the living room.
Friend’s first volume of verse, Shadow on the Sun, was published in 1941, when he was twenty-seven. His sexual orientation can be surmised from lines such as “All men are lonely gathering in the night/to keep each other warm” (“Impossible Blue”) and
This love is solitary that will die this death;
it weeps on your breast, gathers loneliness
of all men who at the self-same hour
lying behind dark shades in a rotting house
shut out the light of history, shut out that love
which giving of itself gives to itself,
creates new worlds. That is our meaning;
and when I’ll read it in the eyes of men,
sharing their lives with them, our purpose one,
I’ll read it clear in yours.
Friend grew up in Depression-era Brownsville, in a poverty-stricken family consisting of his mother, five children and an absentee father. After graduation from BrooklynCollege in 1937, he joined the Communist Party. According to the poet Edward Field in his Editor’s Preface to Friend’s Dancing with a Tiger: Poems 1941-1998, “It was the Depression that sent him to Puerto Rico on a teaching assignment, which was his opportunity to discover his sexuality that had been stunted by his deprived bringing up, the antagonism of the Communist Party to homosexuality, and the unreal romantic landscape of poetry he wandered in. Not just sexuality, but a sensuality that his aestheticism had blinded him to—an appreciation of his body.”
When Friend emigrated to Jerusalem in 1950, he was (as Field states) “one step ahead of the American authorities” who were planning to revoke his passport, due to his brief membership in the Communist Party. He remained in Israel for the rest of his life.
Over the years, Friend became a respected poet, translator and mentor to many poets who attended his classes at Hebrew University. In addition, (according to Field), he developed an “understanding and appreciation of the Muslim world…sexuality was the bridge to understanding, for Palestinian lovers introduced him to life in the West Bank.”
In time, Robert’s adherence to formal styles of poetry lessened, and his free verse reflects a more openness (combined with a sharp wit) about his sexuality. according to Gabriel Levin in his Introduction to Dancing with a Tiger,” Undoubtedly his willingness to speak and write about his own homosexuality was connected, as well, to changes occurring around the world in gay communities, including Israel.”
The poems that follow are examples of how Friend’s sexuality is reflected in his work. In “Boy on a Bicycle,” from Selected Poems (The Seahorse Press, 1975), he writes,
He balances my dreams, that dewy acrobat
who balances upon those dazzling wheels,
riding no hands to the summer of her smiles;
balances and how precariously
my heart as his dizzying delight will weave
fickle constellations for his freckled love;
and in his mindless whirls so weaving me
that I must circle though invisible
the world astraddle on a flaming wheel.
In “Seashore,” from Somewhere Lower Down (The Menard Press, 1980), he writes,
Whatever grows here grows wild:
cactus and sudden nettles in the dunes,
boys in careless constellations
scattered, or shyly fugitive.
Passive to my look they lie
while dreamless fish leap long bows in the sun,
and lean birds stalk the seas
tempting their tongues of foam.
In “Out of the Closet,” taken from After Catullus (The Beth-Shalom Press, 1997), Friend states,
A closet-queen of words
who hid his meaning
in fashionable ironies
I now declare myself
in shameless clarities
all my tailored “she’s”
into naked “he’s”.
In “The Practical Poet,” from After Catullus (The Beth-Shalom Press, 1997), he writes: “To assure his love poem’s/ widest circulation,/tenderly he tattooed it/ On his lover’s ass.”
The poems self-published by Friend in After Catullus show us a writer who had grown to fully embrace his sexuality. When he died in 1998 of cancer, one of his last poems reflects a sense of peace. In “My Cup,” from Dancing with a Tiger: Poems 1941-1998 (Menard Press, 2003), Friend states: “They tell me I am going to die. /Why don’t I seem to care?/ My cup is full. Let it spill.”
After Robert passed away in Jerusalem in 1998, I was surprised to learn that he had left me his copyrights. With the help of three of my uncle’s close friends—poet Edward Field, poet and translator Gabriel Levin, and the Publisher and Editor of Menard Press, Anthony Rudolf, we set about to get Robert’s work before a wider audience. His poems now appear in Dancing with a Tiger: Poems 1941-1998 (published by Menard Press), while two books of translations of Hebrew poetry have been published by Toby Press (Found in Translation: Twenty Hebrew Poets and Ra’hel: Flowers of Perhaps). His most popular poem is undoubtedly “My Cup,” which I see quite often on the internet.
One of the joys of having a literary inheritance has been learning about my uncle’s life and work from family as well as friends of his who have now become my friends. From my mother I learned of Robert’s rivalry with the famous critic Alfred Kazin, with whom he grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn during the Depression. In his memoir A Walker in the City, Kazin turned my uncle into “Isrolik” (not a favorable portrait). When my mom met Mr. Kazin at a banquet shortly before he passed away, he brought my mother to the head table, where they discussed the old days. Kazin told her that he hadn’t been fond of Robert; “He didn’t like you either,” my mother replied.
I wish I could have asked Robert what it was like to be Robert Frost’s official escort when the famous poet visited Jerusalem. We could have discussed his co-writing the BrooklynCollege official song with Sylvia Fine, the wife of Danny Kaye, in 1933. And I would have asked about his memories of artists and writers he met at Yaddo in 1947. While looking at the official portrait of that year’s guests, I discovered to my delight that Robert was sitting next to Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was holding his Leica!
As it is, I have made many discoveries on my own while going through his archives at Brooklyn College, from which he graduated in 1937. I treasure my photocopies of letters Robert received from Marianne Moore, Iris Murdoch and Paul Bowles.
Ultimately, I would have loved to discuss with my uncle his thoughts about being gay (and being a gay poet) during the repressive 1950s and 60s. In the end, his work speaks for itself, and I hope that on the occasion of his 100th birthday, Friend will be increasingly recognized for his contributions to poetry, the art of translation, and gay literature.
Happy Birthday, Uncle Robert.
A version of the essay originally appeared in Tears in the Fence, Issue 58
Copyright © Jean Shapiro Cantu
Photo courtesy of Jean Shapiro Cantu