The first poem in Ashley Elizabeth’s chapbook sets the collection up as a Dear John letter, ending with the words, “you are hurting me. i am letting you. i do not want to anymore,” (“the picture that started the fall”). There it is, cut and dry: a breakup. Except it’s not.
Contradictions arise throughout this collection, beginning with the title: you were supposed to be a friend. The speaker refers to herself as many things—“concubine,” “collection plate,” “mistress”—but she only calls the John of the Dear John letter one thing in relation to her: a “best friend.” It’s in the first line of the first poem and, tellingly, in the past tense. Because she’s referring right to the moment he asks her to send a nude, the moment he becomes something other than a friend. And there isn’t really a word to define him after that; she rarely calls him anything other than “you.”
There’s another contradiction in that first poem, too—at first, she refuses to send the photo, until he convinces her to do it anyway. She says, “there should not have been a / negotiation, but you know your power and you own it and you use it / accordingly,” setting the tone for the power imbalances in the rest of the collection, the messiness that comes from trying to extricate herself from a situation she only half wants out of.
Most of these poems teem with rage, spilling out in cutting lines that go in for the kill. In the poem “non-reciprocal,” the speaker says, “i get disposable parts of you / and when you’re finished / you throw me away too.” And in “not prayer,” she says, “what i do to you / is not prayer.”
This anger—pointed at a toxic, uneven relationship—is key to the collection but only half the equation. Whereas “not prayer” is the height of the speaker’s anger and a succinct rebuke of ill treatment, it’s not the whole story. The poem “liminal” completes the picture with the lines:
and you like it as such coming and going at 3 am when things are magical and only half exist.
Here, the speaker describes herself through his eyes as a place to go when he doesn’t want to be defined by a wife or family, a place that “only half exist[s].” On the speaker’s part, it’s a negation of the self, but the word “magical” makes it sound almost wistful. Like it’s that wistful quality that keeps her there in the relationship, even among all her anger.
The contradictions and complexities come to a head in the final poem, “i love you,” which repeats the lines, “i love you / and i lie.” It’s an admission and a refusal all at once, and in contrast to the first poem, is decidedly not a breakup. The collection never was. Instead, the poems in you were supposed to be a friend are the speaker’s act of laying her relationship bare in front of the person she shares it with, defining the undefinable, and gaining something—not authority, not power, but something—from calling things as they are.