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  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.
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.
* * *
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
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,
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 words.vi
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
* * *
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
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
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.
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
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)
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
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.
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).
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.
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).
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."
"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.
il cuore (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1997). Subsequent
references to il cuore will be given in parentheses in the text.
Interview with Cynthia Hogue, Contemporary Literature 39 (1998), 19.
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
"Soft Pages," Common Knowledge 7, no. 2 (Fall 1998), 76.
Interview with Jack Foley, KPFA Radio, Berkeley, California, February 1998.
Interview with Hogue, 23.
"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.
Fraser, Translating, 144; and Hogue, "To Go Back to the Idea of Process."
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.' "
il cuore, 118, 151, 185, 186, 188.
H.D., The Walls Do Not Fall, in Collected Poems, 1912-1944, ed.
Louis L. Martz (New York: New Directions, 1983), 509-10.
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.
The phrase is an epigram to "frammenti romani," in when new time
folds up (Minneapolis: Chad Press, 1993), 35.
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).
Interview with Hogue, 21.
From "'A Poetics of Emerging Evidence': Experiment in Kathleen
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.