New York-based poet Philip Fried’s Interrogating Water can be read as an intense critique of the ethics of modern day American warfare, tackling themes of political ambivalence, military torture, weapons and those who wield those forces. With references to waterboarding, drone strikes and the Kandahar massacre, the poet does not shy away from casting the US government in an impervious, negatively- conspiring role in our post 9/11 society.
Interrogating Water is the 6th book of poetry published by Fried, and he is no stranger to tackling such major subjects with a wry, searing exposition. His previous instalment, Early/Late, delved into Christianity and its view of God. In Interrogating Water, the poet now faces the monster that is man with multiple references to unnamed shady organisations which report to “the Boss”, such as in “Dear Citizen”. He also juxtaposes military technology and soldier drills with materialistic fashionable imagery (“Catwalk”) and console gaming jargon (“The Long war”).
Fried uses varied sources, from contemporary newspaper articles to biblical psalms, implementing a wide range of poetic forms. He has a particular preference for free verse, but uses formats ranging from letters and press releases to the ballad and sonnet. This flexible style leaves the impression that there are multiple voices in this collection, and adds to the sense of divided and conflicting identities at war with one another.
The collection’s titular piece, “Interrogating Water”, is a prime example of employing dual voices, where instructions on how to undertake a home-made electrolysis experiment cuts between stanzas describing the movements of water. This blends the alchemical, elemental and military language running so strongly throughout the collection and it creates an image of the warping of nature when it is placed in the wrong hands. Here the water is put in a position of one being tortured, interrogated and having the bonds which makes it whole split apart should they not “give up each other”.
Fried’s diction imbues the water with a human spy-like role which “flows secretly over borders, precipitates, infiltrates”, whilst also equipping it with a natural dangerous force which “revolts in tsunamis, riots in floods, takes part in uprisings”. Casting water as a protester evokes images of rebellions against dictators and emphasises the recurring theme of the controlling anonymous superior. The implication of what is most likely to be the savagery of a military response completes the image.
In “A New Doctrine”, Fried sees an apocalyptic world in a similar vein to William Butler Yeats’ vision in “The Second Coming”:
Delivered from low earth orbit, tungsten projectiles, lobbed
From space, cratering at hypersonic speeds,
To obliterate a cross-haired target. Rods from God.
Whereas Yeats’ poem presents the actions of humanity in encouraging the rise of the anti-Christ to wipe out society, Fried suggests that it is we who play the God-like role – firing attacks to Earth from satellites and equating those with “rods from God”. One can read this poem as castigating governmental hierarchy and power, and also the dangers of using advanced technology in warfare. Powerfully, the poem questions whether the human race can be entrusted with such unmitigated power.
Fried’s highly visual poetry shows a mastery of wit and intellect in the structuring and formatting of his verse. His unflinching mockery of the robotic actions of soldiers and his distrust of the “red-white-and-blue” is imprinted thoroughly in this collection. The poetry is often instructional and straightforward, with a sense of no going back. The last line of the collection ends with “the story begins again”, serving as a bleak reminder that war is an endless cycle. Fittingly this leaves the reader to question the moral ambiguity of military violence and the civilian’s role in conflict.