from "A Poetics of Emerging Evidence': Experiment in Kathleen Fraser's Poetry"
by Eileen Gregory

Though experiment implies deliberation, it also implies uncertainty. "The tension builds through endless failures in the lab," Fraser says of the [1944] film story of Madame Curie, "as she uses what has been proposed by traditional scientific method thus far, then finally discards it to consult the further reaches of her imagination for what might work."i This willingness to let go of — or deliberately to defy — prescribed ordinations and to enter into uncertain verbal and formal play is a constant emphasis in Fraser's writing: "Repeating the known is acquisitive; it surrenders, as a collector does, to 'good things,' rather than hazarding uncertain territory; it narrows the range of attentiveness, neglects the unacknowledged" (Translating 205). Though resistance to the bounds of the known and the certain propels Fraser's work, however, one should note that knowing and ascertaining remain very compelling needs-though pursued at the edges and on the wires.
           To these emphases one must add the aspect of Fraser's experimentation indicated in the title of her selected poems: il cuore : the heart.ii In the context of contemporary experimental poetries — heavily inflected with theory and conceptual explanations of innovation — this title may be seen as a gesture of rebellion and provocation. Fraser does not mean here an affiliation with conventional lyric qualities or with the subjective lyric "I," nor does she invoke any kind of intellectual naivete. Nevertheless, the title is meant to distinguish her project from conceptually-driven poetic practices, and to insist upon its rootedness in desire, pleasure, emotional difficulty, affection, sensuous response. The image on the cover of il cuore — an abstract painting by Jo Ann Ugolini — speaks to the form of the "heart" in Fraser's poetry. It is a primitive line-image of the features of a face, against a background of blue/purple and black. The empty, iris-less eyes are set apart within a rectangular frame, and painted in contrasting, bold colors, red on the right, green and white on the left: two eyes as two chambers of the heart, as two distinct pulsations of life. The roughly drawn mouth seems to be uttering something, indicated in lines going down and outward. This is a contemporary version of the classical Dionysus mask, though it also gives the impression of ephemeral, scrawled graffiti on the walls of an (Italian) city, since the words "il cuore" appear above the image as though stenciled on a poster. It is a sober and disturbing image, in its suggestion of great emotional depth and, at the same time, impermanence and fragmentation.
           Fraser's reference in a recent interview to "a poetics of emerging evidence"iii highlights a persistent practice, at once empirical and experiential: to establish figuratively a kind of deliberate laboratory space, the writer assuming a position of speculative observation, the poem noting the "evidence" generated within these imaginative parameters and projecting its implications. Though the sites of investigation vary greatly in Fraser's poetry, one can nevertheless note two large contexts which she persistently engages. The first, especially present in poetry of the sixties and seventies, is the laboratory arena of erotic relationship; another, emerging particularly in her late poetry through her part-time residence in Rome, is a concern with the cultural artifact of the city and the complexity of historical layering. Each of these contexts is especially significant in offering a "structure of difficulty"iv analogous to the difficulties — the trust, danger, and labor — of the experiment of writing. In both these contexts, knowing, finding-working through manifold evidence toward provisional clarification — is a thematic concern enacted at the level of syntax and form.

* * *

           A recent prose poem by Fraser, "Soft Pages," arrives within the first lines at this meditation: "This was not about desire or choice-the two preferred categories of explanation for my life, in conscious moments of trying to make sense (or at least an admirable clarity) of things-but about dropping into a place after that."v The poems surrounding erotic relationship carry the charge of this ethical trajectory, desire and choice themselves in the process of becoming apparent. The initial poem in il cuore, "What I Want" — first in a series entitled "Six Uneasy Songs" (dated 1972) — represents such a process of emotional discrimination, propelling and propelled by poetic exploration.

Because you are constantly coming to begin,
I suggest solutions and
am full of holes. See through me
when my back is turned.

A hotel is the notion of entrance
by thought. Your love is

constantly a solution,
criminally full
of no difference
when my back is turned.

I read your thoughts because
you are constantly changing and
coming through me
when my back is turned. And

I want something
for something, constantly.
Coming. (il cuore 3)

The poem is itself a syntactic experiment, something like a postmodern villanelle, with words and phrases repeated in shifting contexts. In the accretional small shocks of this displacing echo, Fraser has indicated, she aimed "to undermine any single understanding" of certain The echoing serves to expose the "uneasy" apprehension of betrayal and duplicity. Fullness, for instance, is associated with void: "full of holes," "criminally full / of no difference." The painful permeability of the self — "See through me," "coming through me" — is accentuated in the refrain suggesting treachery: "when my back is turned." The most resonant echo is in the word "constantly." It means first "repeatedly" ("constantly coming to begin"), with the sense of fruitless re-initiation; it then means "invariably" ("Your love is // constantly a solution"), here suggesting an ever-present option for the obliteration of choice. The third use presses the irony within the situation of erotic duplicity: "you are constantly changing" — invariably variable. The last use is the only one suggesting an ordinary moral sense of the word: "And // I want something / for something, constantly. / Coming." The word here carries the other usages in the poem — repeatedly, invariably — but it also suggests a permanence rooted in self, a recognition of the constancy of desire itself, arising precisely out of frustration with illusory gestures. This last line, too, communicates the nervy edge of frustration and desire, in both erotic and lexical contexts. The difference between the first and last use of "constantly/coming" is precisely this tense, estranging linguistic event, pushing and distorting boundaries to find an opening.

* * *

           Fraser's recent writing engages more consciously a method begun in earlier series, beginning, perhaps, with the "Magritte Series" in New Shoes: to set up deliberately a lexical and formal context and to note the generated evidence: thus, "Four voices telling stories about dark and light," and thus "re:searches / (fragments after Anakreon)"; and thus "Five letters from one window, San Gimignano, May 1981." In these the laboratory arena is clearly delineated. With this increasing self-consciousness about the act of experiment comes an enlargement of the sphere of observation and analysis, coincident with Fraser's residence part of the year in Italy beginning in the early 1980s. Living in Rome, Fraser says in a recent interview, "has given me a much more living sense of history, and perhaps of the human habitation of myth . . . the 'livingness' of architecture, of historic events."vii
           Fraser's experimentation has never been bolder than in these recent poems. As Carolyn Burke points out: "While the theme of openness to the motions of the mind had long been key in her poetics, it was not until its means of expression joined form and content in this radically new work that Fraser's preeminence became apparent."viii The four long poems in when new time folds up — "Etruscan Pages," "Giotto : Arena." "frammenti romani," and "when new time folds up" — as well as the more recent "WING," operate in one form or another through a textual, spatial layering of "evidence," which Fraser herself and Cynthia Hogue have associated with H.D.'s concept of palimpsest.ix At the same time, however, the experiment in these poems is more powerfully than ever a line-sketch of il cuore. In fact, Jo Ann Ugolini's image of the heart — a kind of postmodern tragic mask — figures with sharp accuracy the emotional seriousness of Fraser's recent writing, as well as the sense of an improvised, rough, impure urban form. One of the most insistent figural and formal explorations of recent poetry is, indeed, the urban space of European cities.
           The ragged and layered city represents another "structure of difficulty" analogous to that of the poem, in particular as it suggests the experience of "layered or constellated time" that Fraser has sought to investigate in her poetry.x Several poems replicate formally the complex experience of fragment and ruin, of broken-up and palimpsestic time that Fraser refers to in her comments on Rome. Many of these recent poems are, in fact, tied to Rome: "Etruscan Pages," written in "Trastevere (Rome), once called Litus Etruscus"; "when new time folds up," drawing from a circular path of travel, "Rome — Berlin — Wannsee — Rome"; and "WING," structured, in part, according to streets in Rome (Via Tasso, Via Vanvitelli, Via della Penitenza).xi The city serves as an arena where the poet excavates the surfaces of the present, finding evidence of the missing and dead. In a sense, then, some of these poems are not only concerned with palimpsestic layering, but also with the loss and catastrophe residing within ruin and fragment. They are like H.D.'s imaginative engagement of the shattered city in the poems of Trilogy, where "ruin opens / the tomb" and where "through our desolation, / thoughts stir, inspiration stalks us / through gloom."xii H.D. is revisited in this late poetry not only in providing a model of technical innovation — as Hogue has made clearxiii — but also in presenting an imaginative engagement with the devastations of this century.
           These recent poems, even more than earlier ones, suggest the sober and dark qualities of il cuore: the experience of grief is evident in many of them, as both context and theme. In poems such as "frammenti romani" and "Giotto : Arena," Fraser finds pleasure in the "marks and evidence of events" of life in Rome or of art in Padua,xiv manifesting the sensuous exuberance and formal/syntactical playfulness that have always characterized her poetry. Even these poems, however, have an edge. "Gesture of damp gnawing grief" surfaces in "Giotto" (133), which is predicated upon the artist's (and the poet's) acceptance of the risk of accurate human notation. And "frammenti romani" concludes its exploration of tactile/verbal pleasures with an edge: "what is mortal / in this body."xv But in other poems — such as "Etruscan Pages," "when new time folds up," and "WING" — the engagement with "marks and evidence of events" is darker in its implications. The author's notes to "Etruscan Pages" and to "WING" given in il cuore (196) suggest that with these poems a private grief has been crystallized by particular external encounters. But with all these poems, the feeling of loss is complex and manifold, coming from an awakened sense of history — the destruction of the civilization and language of the Etruscans, the residual memory of the Holocaust in both "when new time folds up" and "WING." Here, indeed, "new time folds up": the process of the poem, excavating the past, unfolds the pain of loss, but then folds it back in, so that, though hidden and unresolved, it forms part of the amalgam of the present.

* * *

[R]eflections on the contemporary city in "when new time folds up" and "WING" are, once again, simultaneous with formal experimentation. And, as much as any poems in il cuore, these carry the form of Ugolini's fragmented image of the heart, an image at the threshold between private and public experience. These poems are in some senses companion pieces: both set in contemporary Rome but enlarged in reference to modern European history, specifically the Holocaust. But thematically and formally — one might say — they represent the two sides of the Dionysos mask. In "when new time," the compulsive and disintegrative rubble of daily life is rendered as disturbing, tilted-forward-and-falling lineation; in "WING," the constructive and transformative agency of change figured in art is rendered at times in the form of strictly shaped geometrical segments.xvi
           "when new time folds up" might also bear the title of one of Fraser's early poems: "Uneasy Songs." The form and lineation of these curtal sonnets — a half-line short of sonnet form, and usually a syllable or two short of sonnet line-length-reflects a sense of the contemporary moment. Here is the opening sonnet, entitled "understood and scrupulous" (il cuore 138):

I would have stayed at home as
if a bystander plated in gold,
understood and scrupulous among
metal bowls, but a doctor goes
to the Gymnasium where scale is
brick to the heart and air com-
pletely empties itself, without
gender'd regard, thus I tried
my luck as "you," in neutral,
running with you as we talked,
inside the blue grape hyacinth
where nature reproduces its
mechanical force, rughetta
wild in tomb grass,  (il coure 138)


in key


The just-too-shortness of each line propels one vertiginously into the next, and the just-too-shortness of the sonnet as a whole — each last half-line ending with a comma — also throws one forward to the next in the series. At the same time, the lines shift and slide abruptly from one facet of consciousness to another; Fraser calls this a kind of enjambment of perceptions, without "a linear or logical development."xvii The form succeeds brilliantly in creating a kind of temporal claustrophobia, refusing to the reader any point of pause or deliberation, and rather giving the impression of imbalance, compulsion, relentlessness of forward movement — "a certain uneven panic" (139) as time crazily folds up, line by adumbrated line. In keeping with this sense of confinement, and with the violence alluded to in the poems, some fragmentary words and phrases are blasted to the right margin, a visualization, in Fraser's words, of "a condition of rubble and disintegration in the language."xviii
           The syntactical play in the poems resembles that in the early poem "What I Want," in that words and phrases are repeated from one poem to another with disturbing shifts of context, so that eventually certain irrepressible images and questions emerge as points of serious engagement in the series. The figure in the first poem of the woman doctor insecure in her own authority, falling back upon clinical detachment, becomes a reiterated motif finally associated with the position of the poet herself: "small body / . . . runs / for stethoscope sanction" (140); "never sensing her struggle for / authority" (141); "caught in rescuing / the authority of her task" (150); "In the authority of my task" (151). So, too, in the first poem, the "heart" crushed by oppressive scale and impersonality becomes a motif: "where scale is brick to the heart"; "heartbeat crumpled neatly / on white card" (139); then the word "crumpled" is repeated, suggesting this sense of private poverty in the context of overmastering authority.
           More broadly, this first poem opens questions that gain increasing seriousness as the scenes jump recurrently to Wannsee, where Hitler contrived the "Final Solution," to images from the German concentration camps, and, back in Italy, to the violent murder of Judge Falcone in Palermo by the Mafia, and, throughout, to images of the rubble of buildings. The opening poem initially poses the choice of remaining "a bystander plated in gold, / understood and scrupulous"-the choice to be the eternal, disengaged attendant. But a similar detachment of the doctor in this initial poem resembles the objectivity of those directing Jews in the camps: "Come forward five at a time" (144). In contrast, the poet chooses a more difficult witness position, testifying to the vulnerability of the heart, of "rughetta / wild in tomb grass" that stands as "resistance" to nature's "mechanical force." In later sonnets, she refuses the position of bystander, engaging images of the terror of those in the camps, the courage of Falcone confronting the Mafia: "decision to / persist, no kinder even, passion / vigilant, this amore per la vita" (147). The sonnet sequence enacts the ruthlessness and pathological distraction that seems to compel contemporary life (Rome, Berlin, Wannsee, Palermo). But in so doing the poet confirms a role of moral accountability in acknowledging repressed layers of violence and vulnerability: "In the authority of my task, a city's constant / and hidden remorse beneath construction" (151).
           The powerful recent poem "WING" continues this emphasis upon the "authority of her task," and it also leads us back to a consideration of Fraser's consistent orientation and practice. Taking cues from contemporary artwork, from a contemplation of the iconography of angels, and from her own personal mourning,xix Fraser in this poem reflects upon the startling emergence of the New out of a matrix of contingencies and accidents. She figures the construction of the New in art is a coming-into-body of the angel — the ancient messenger who breaks through the mundane and shattering its boundaries. What she considers here is not the angel as a metaphysical concept, but the angel's wing as a constant sign in iconography of the mortal particularities out of which dreams of annunciation and epiphany come. The wings particularize themselves out of the complex needs, desires, and pain of the human.
           The prolonged, suspended opening lines themselves give the sense of startling emergence:

The New comes forward in its edges in order to be itself;

its volume by necessity becomes violent and three-dimensional
and ordinary, all similar models shaken off and smudged

as if memory were an expensive thick creamy paper and every
corner turned now in partial erasure,

even bits of pearly rubber, matchstick and lucent plastic
leaving traces of decision and little tasks performed

as if each dream or occasion of pain had tried to lift itself
entirely away, contributing to other corners, planes and
accumulated depth (il cuore 184)

These lines make clear the emphasis within Fraser's experimental poetics: that "the New" in art is more than a matter of technical sophistication; rather, it is a complex, arduous embodiment, coming into being in the context of memory, pain, and mysterious urgency. The wing — this figure for the New — bears the marks and evidence of events: it "is not static but frayed, layered, fettered, furling and / stony," tattered, intricate, mobile and rigid. However transcendent the angel as concept, the constantly imagined wing points to the contingencies of the mortal being; it is "attached to its historic tendons; more elaborate / the expansive ribcage, grieving, stressed, yet // marked midway along the breastbone with grains of light" (184). Attachment, rather than detachment, is the characteristic of the wing, its claim to truth: "Even the New is attached or marked by attachment // the shimmer of wing, which claim may tell us everything / in a white blink" (188).
           These opening lines also point to another aspect of Fraser's poetics: that art, poetry, represents "traces of decision and little tasks performed." This ethical dimension of choice and acceptance of claims — the claims of others, the claims of the life of writing — is central to Fraser's work and career, tying together the earliest poetry with the latest, uniting the discrete experiments in individual volumes with her teaching and with her public advocacy of women's experimental writing. The "glowing evidence" of the New for which Fraser waits has shifted over time in its character and shape, but her late writing in particular shows an expansiveness and depth of discovery. The last page of Fraser's selected poems (193), a shape form of an angel's wing composed of accumulated fragmentary words and phrases from "WING," presents another figure of il cuore. The descending or diminishing wing repeats a phrase signaling loss: "forward edge itself to be volume by necessity as if by partial erase . . . ." The ascending wing counterbalances this diminishment with acts of attention, "lucent decision and little tasks of pain had tried to lift . . . ." This concluding image is evidence both of Fraser's experimentation, her insistence upon the "New [coming] forward in its edges," and of the rootedness of that experiment in contingencies, in "the wing not static but frayed, layered, fettered, furling and / stony."



i "The Tradition of Marginality" (1989), in Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 2000), 26. Subsequent references to this collection of essays will be given in parentheses in the text.

ii il cuore (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1997). Subsequent references to il cuore will be given in parentheses in the text.

iii Interview with Cynthia Hogue, Contemporary Literature 39 (1998), 19.

iv This phrase comes from Fraser's comment concerning Barbara Guest's poem "Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher": "The poet is not interested in one-dimensional revelation but in capturing this particular structure of difficulty" (Translating 128).

v "Soft Pages," Common Knowledge 7, no. 2 (Fall 1998), 76.

vi Interview with Jack Foley, KPFA Radio, Berkeley, California, February 1998.

vii Interview with Hogue, 23.

viii "Thought, Split Inward" (rev. of il cuore : the heart), Poetry Flash: A Poetry Review & Literary Calendar for the West, no. 277 (June-July 1998), 17.

ix Fraser, Translating, 144; and Hogue, "To Go Back to the Idea of Process."

x Interview with Hogue, 15; see also Hogue's comments on "Etruscan Pages" in "'I Am Not of that Feather,'" and in " 'To Go Back to the Idea of Process.' "

xi il cuore, 118, 151, 185, 186, 188.

xii H.D., The Walls Do Not Fall, in Collected Poems, 1912-1944, ed. Louis L. Martz (New York: New Directions, 1983), 509-10.

xiii Hogue's very insightful comments on Fraser's literary relation to H.D., especially in "Etruscan Pages," emphasize her technical experimentation in constructing a feminist poetics. See note 15. 

xiv The phrase is an epigram to "frammenti romani," in when new time folds up (Minneapolis: Chad Press, 1993), 35.

xv Ibid., 64.

xvi I am indebted to Hogue's discussion of "WING" in "'I am not of that feather'"; see also Fraser's remarks in her interview with Hogue on "when new time"(21-22) and "WING" (24-26).

xvii Interview with Hogue, 21.

xviii Ibid.

xix Ibid., 24-26.


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* From "'A Poetics of Emerging Evidence': Experiment in Kathleen Fraser's Poetry."
by Eileen Gregory: In We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women's Writing and Performance Poetics.
Ed. Laura Hinton and Cynthia Hogue. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama Press, 2002. 15-27
Excerpted with permission of the author and U.A. Press.