the play of silence and space in Kathleen Fraser's "Etruscan Pages"
by James McCorkle
In Kathleen Fraser's "Etruscan Pages" one finds spatial arrangements
that allow for heterogeneity in the levels and genres of language and for degrees
of lyricism. Her work, as she describes it in "The Tradition of Marginality,"
is "a listening attitude, an attending to unconscious connections, a backing-off
of the performing ego to allow the mysteries of language to come forward and resonate
more fully" (59). Fraser notes in a 1996 interview with Cynthia Hogue that
what most interested her "was always a project of language textures and invention.
. . . the particular research of the language. How it placed itself on the page"
(23). What follows is a series of meditations on various aspects of Fraser's poetics;
simultaneously the essay tracks "Etruscan Pages" to provide a partial
reading of the poem.
"Etruscan Pages" opens with a meditation on error. In its grammatical
alignment the poem's opening line compresses location, "Norchia," a
site of Etruscan cliff tombs, with temporality, "day of error." The
place name "Norchia." becomes translated or qualified as "day of
error." Signs are unreliable in Fraser's travels. In the second line, isolated
on the page like the first line, the poet, who is like the reader a traveler,
comes across a tin sign that could provide direction. However, it is broken and
only part is available to be read: "'olis' of necropolis hanging there."
In her essay "This Phrasing Unreliable Except As Here," Fraser questions
"Does that static resting place ["the scrubbed and well-brushed historic
formulas of the known"], often regarded as 'the perfect solution,' actually
function as the carrot dangling from the stick, the lure urging us forward with
its possibility of temporary sustenance so that we may go on to risk our own idiosyncratic
depictions and commit our own perfection-resistant 'errors'?" Perception,
it may be argued, becomes possible only when in error. Error is a redundant process.
Recognition of error requires the re-tracing of the earlier process against which
it is compared: "Same wrong direction, again, olive groves / running backwards
through rented window." In this pair of lines "again" acts as a
fulcrum balancing the abstract with the physical as well as positing an ethical
evaluation, committing the same "wrong" (direction) again.
As Linda Kinnahan notes in her Poetics
of the Feminine, "accident" is a "matter of language interpretation
or translation-or, more precisely, a revisionary openness to mistranslation"
(194-5). To be in error, to mistranslate, or to invite accident becomes a means
to re-present and re-iterate the possibilities of process. To invite this condition
is to be, in Fraser's words from an earlier poem "Flood," "imperfectly
ready / to re-write." This revisionary process is intermeshed with the feminist
project of the retrieval of neglected and marginalized histories, texts, experiences,
and indeed, bodies of women. To "re-write," for Fraser, parallels Adrienne
Rich's famous invocation of "writing as re-vision." In her essay, "When
We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision," Rich states that "Re-vision-the
act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a
new critical direction-is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it
is an act of survival. . . . how our language has trapped as well as liberated
us, how the very act of naming has been till now a male prerogative" (35).
Rich and Fraser exemplify two different responses to the phallocentric poetics
they were challenging: Rich's poetry evolved toward a didactic, to use Willard
Spigelman's term, poetry: a public poetry with the rhetorical purpose to persuade.
In this process Rich, despite her use of fragments and journal entries, does not
challenge the topography of language except as a transparent social force.
Fraser's separation from the feminist
poetics represented by Rich is detailed in her essay "The Tradition of Marginality."
Central to Fraser's poetics, and clearly in resistance to both the feminist projects
represented by poets like Rich and more mainstream poetics, are such processes
as the openness to accident, the recovery of accident as a way of perceiving,
an insistence on the margin as the place of apprehension. "Accident"
and "error" are not devices synonymous with automatic writing, for instance,
but the exploration of syntactic and semantic slippages, mutations, and metonymies
as well as the re-presentation of the condition of being-in-error or of losing
one's location or of being in dis-location. This dis-location of sound, time,
and textual fixity is exemplified in the lines "mulberry mare, mar Tirreno
/ lean spare Tyrrhenian sea" from "Etruscan Pages." Sound becomes
a movement across the lines: this not simply internal rhyme, but a form of rhythmic
slippage. We move from the specific object: mulberry to mare as horse or sea in
Italian to the Italian name and location "mar Tirreno." Fraser then
re-translates the place-name back into English while also re-iterating the sounds
in lean/Tyrrhenian and spare/mare. These slippages and translations give rise
to other readings: mare as horse or sea? mar as sea or effacement? Fraser resists
syntactic and semantic closure, instead (mis)translation becomes the pleasure
of reading, if not also the place of the reader's ethical prerogative. Error thus
becomes simultaneously a spatial event and a temporal event. The "Prologo"
continues with the repeated descent of a "grey-headed carrion crow"
and Fraser's note, "A traveler, not understanding the bird's motive / notes
the beauty of its ruffled, fog-colored hood / as it rises." Is the traveler
Fraser recording her own previous error, or a version of Dante on his own travels
to meet the dead, or the tourist whose error is never made known and who thus
conflates pure description with knowledge.
Writing of Stevens, Fraser comments
"It is this aspiration to locution that Stevens articulates, this lyric pressure
of the moment's assembled meanings that makes up his rendering of sensibility
in flux. It is the construction of what he discovers and how he knows through
attentive observation, multiplied by the sound and velocity of what he imagines"
(Fraser 148). Fraser continues, citing "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,"
that the poem was not only representation of a Cubist subversion of a unitary
perspective, but "a series of warnings signalling the inevitability of error,
the flaw that waits patiently to undue one's 'idea of order'" (148). Not
only in these comments on Stevens, but also in "'This Phrasing Unreliable
Except as Here,'" Fraser invokes error as the source of change and as the
force of resistance to accepted ideas. Error is what critics rebuke, for it counters
perfection, which Fraser argues "implies at the least a pre-existing model
of writing practice, a model of structural aptitude and acclaimed excellence as
well as a particular stylistic signature that has been named, admired and awarded
the serious attention of a like community" (210).
To accede to a "pre-existing model"
is to close off possibility-and indeed the lyric's condition of ecstasy. Thus
in Fraser's lines "Quick finches scale air / In the ravine, a presence"
(10) we find a doubled movement into air and plunging into the ravine as well
as the compressed succession of k/c/s sounds. These lines take one out of one's
place: presence is not the knowledge of self but an awareness of presence beyond
the bounds of one's self. The ravine is an opening in the literal terrain, but
also an interruption and hollowing out that provides the space for another presence.
The final sections of the Prologo bring
the traveler closer to the Etruscan script: "wind sifts iron filings' / carelessly
drawn script . . . above the place they lay the dead one" (11). The script
is over the body-the body is over-written, but in such a way that both the script
and the body become equivalent in their mystery. Fraser is at a point of intersections:
the awareness of the neglect or the historical effacement of Etruscan history
collides with that lost history's presence and the traces of its script. Here
Michel De Certeau's thoughts prove illuminating, for he notes that memory embodies
"two contradictory operations: forgetting, which is not something passive,
a loss, but an action directed against the past; and the mnemic trace, the return
of what was forgotten." Furthermore, what was forgotten "resurfaces,
it troubles" the present system or order that sought to eliminate that past
or otherness (3-4). De Certeau's distinction between the "space of memory"
in psychoanalysis and historiography provides an analogue to Fraser's poetic:
psychoanalysis distributes space in terms of imbrication, equivocality, and repetition
whereas historiography relegates space in terms of succession, correlation, causality,
and disjunction (4). Indeed, "historiography is the inverse of the poetic"
project, for the "law of historiography functions to obscure nothingness,
to suppress the void, to fill the gap" (31). Nothing has authorized the poem;
there is no pre-existing knowledge that possesses the poem. Hence, as we read
the Etruscan script that closes the Prologo, we are radically, ecstatically moved
or dis-located. History and its referents cannot intercede, instead we must confront
a textual ravine, openness, or unknowingness.
And yet that script asks to be read. It is an invitation, a greeting, or an opening
The next two sections of "Etruscan
Pages" is a traveling into that space, dismissed as "'Nothing, nothing
there,' / someone said / of the places we longed for" (12). Fraser invokes
the landscape with precision: "Wind skidding grey Maremma / wide and water-logged"
or "Sheep's cloudy asymmetry." Details are provided but "episodic,
chromatic." As also found in the Prologo, these descriptions are often monostiches
and couplets. These single lines or compressed gatherings of lines inverts the
sense of spatial opening and moves toward a concentration of the reader's eye
upon the text. Thus a process of decentering is balanced by a centering upon a
word or phrase, leading in a sense to the interiority of language.
The use of space to suspend text creates
both a distinct fragmentation of language as well as a concentration of perception.
Such fragmentation posits a thesis, as Julia Kristeva notes in her Desire in
Language, "not of a particular being or meaning, but of a signifying
apparatus; it posits its own process as an undecidable process between sense and
nonsense, between language and rhythm... between the symbolic and the semiotic"
(135). Writing is made material, as Kristeva notes; thus, scriptural practice
has been defiled and rendered other in opposition to the phonetic and discursive,
and reserves for the text the position of other (58). Fraser creates rhythm by
drawing together sound, the passage of time through sequences of sounds, and chromatic
as well as textual space. Neither this rhythm nor its constituent parts is purely
descriptive or representational; to be so would be to accede to historiography
or a possessed pre-existing knowledge. Being outside representation, Fraser's
rhythm exemplifies the chora: "Neither model nor copy, the chora precedes
and underlies figuration and thus specularization, and is analogous to vocal or
kinetic rhythm," writes Kristeva in Revolution in Poetic Language (26). Such
a choric process, Kristeva further argues, must be restored on the level of the
socialized body. "Etruscan Pages" enacts a pre-poetics. Fraser's poetic
project in "Etruscan Pages" is to retrieve or re-engage the chora. It
is the irruption or incompleteness of a syntactic ordering that maintains alterity
or resists a homogeneity. From the vocal kinetic of "tomb hum," Fraser
travels into the tomb's semiotic to regain what has been, in Kristeva's words,
"repressed in the social mechanism: the generating of significance"
where more than one dancer
lifts a muscular red thigh
head carved to wide bone enigma (13)
Ostensibly, the journey into the tomb is a journey to the dead and to a dead
language. However, Fraser contends that language is never dead in that it is always
open and available to be read. It is in the practice of reading or generation
that Fraser focuses her attentions. The double to the dancer is the text this
passage concludes with:
matched by carver
to any stone torso's likeness
inscribed with the hidden
particularity of one still alive
I am Larthia
What is intuitively recovered is assertion of presence without its representative
or signified double. Through the declarative statement of being, language makes
itself a presence. Furthermore, conjoined with the image of the dancer, the declarative
"I am Larthia" frees the female body. Then, within this declaration,
Fraser reads or over-writes a portraiture:
You lie there semi-recumbent
With extravagant, elongated
limbs and weight of belly falling
always more away
from us (14)
By interrupting the text with a gaping space, leaving "You lie there semi-recumbent"
isolated and severed from its narrative descriptions the text insists on its own
awareness of its physicality or "how" it is placed on the page. Yet,
within this portraiture, Fraser registers the presence of death, where the body's
weight turns "light and porous / as volcanic ash" (14).
The following section, Urn Pictures,
turns to ekphrasis to retrieve-or better, to read into being-this mystery of a
lost culture. Fraser retrieves from the recesses of a museum Etruscan urns depicting
erotic scenes. Set on the page in diagonal counter-positions, the sequences suggest
urns as well as the gold page-sized rectangular plates covered with writing and
"with nail holes distributed around the edges" described later in her
letter to Susan. Whether as urns or tablets, Fraser's writing covers and re-covers
the original while also attempting to create a structural and semiotic equivalent
to the original. Each stanza or single line forms an isolated figure on the page's
in squeeze of light
one on her knees
in front of
the other standing
holding the lamp
to shine on
her lover's curiosity
The irruption of silence and space slows the temporal process of reading and
seeing the whole. The interrupted lines in fact resist the notion of a total or
complete understanding or perception. Reference becomes unstable-what, for example,
does "curiosity" refer to, a state of being or a physical attribute?
The suppression of these urns from
public view is part of the semiotic condition of any ekphrastic approach: "In
the same back room / another "Greek" vase (16). Any representation of
eros is repressed and disowned: it is labeled "Greek" thus foreign and
a contaminant. This would be also the condition of the feminine, as Fraser has
argued throughout her career. In her 1985 presentation and later essay "The
Tradition of Marginality," Fraser took exception to Johanna Drucker's argument
that women who are experimental poets "should merge with 'the genderless
project of literature'" (64) as well as with Nina Auerbach's fears that any
movement that appears separatist will be appropriated, reduced and institutionalized
by critics (64). Fraser invoked the necessity of retrieval of lost traditions
and texts-"Poets who are unique though quite definitely not uniform, and
who have consistently been neglected by academic, mainstream, feminist, and avant-garde
critics" (64). Questions of exclusivity are countered with the insistence
that what appears as a process of exclusion is in fact an opening of or a making
The Etruscan urns, whose erotic images
reflect a choric rhythm, become transposed with Fraser's critique of her culture
in general and the poetic community in specific. For Fraser, to read the Etruscans
is to also read a history of women and the assault on their daily life. Urn Pictures
closes with the horrific vision: "Rome's greed for metals / / melting her
down" (17). The monostich "melting her down" conflates Etruscan
funerary statues, Etruscan culture, and women destroyed by Rome, the classical
example of imperialism. "Etruscan Pages" thus locates traces of the
past to reveal the fragility of presence.
The inclusion of letters, diary notes, and faux-epistolary is found throughout
Fraser's work beginning with her 1980 collection Each Next. "Etruscan Pages"
includes two letters to close women friends, which were written during the research
and composition of the poem. The letters posit a personal narrative as well as
excavate a personal space in the formal production of a poem.
The letters invoke the epistolary form
found historically in novels, particularly those of women, and further suggest
a resistence to silencing despite the interruptive quality, indeed its very definition,
of the epistolary form. Fraser states that "The compositional strategy of
interruption itself seemed, for me, an extremely accurate description of female
daily life, therefore marking the shape of female thought: the disruptive human
needs and actions that assault one through the day, as one is trying to develop
an idea or complete a project, and the assumption that one can be interrupted;
and further, the average female's habituated availability to interruption as her
response, almost as if there were no choice as part of its makeup" (Hogue
9). This interruptive strategy becomes a kinetic process in Fraser's poetry, ranging
from the positioning of lines in the space of the page to the inclusion of epistolary
openings, which incorporate the daily rhythms of women, a shifting of textual
space, and a repositioning of the reader's relation to the text.
Fraser also problematizes the authenticity
of the letters, revealing in her interview with Cynthia Hogue, that while the
letter to Susan was 'real,' the letter to her Italian friend Annalisa was fictional.
The latter was included because of her work on Olson, Creeley, and Duncan (thus
positing a genealogy and an overlay or linkage to their rich correspondence) and
"because I knew that she would be very interested in this whole thing; it
gave me a chance to speak narratively, as a more relaxed counterpoint to the extremely
compressed poetic language used to track the inarticulate aspects of this experience,
and to notate the exact physicality of the landscape" (Hogue 7). The poem
embraces the letters, nonetheless there is marked difference between the language
of a section such as the Prologo or Urn Pictures and the letters as she suggests
through the use of the term "poetic language." Is Fraser implicitly
accepting Kristeva's position regarding "poetic language" as standing
"in opposition to spoken language, a language whose basic purpose is communication"?
Neither limited to the literary genre of poetry nor including all poetry, Leon
Roudiez elaborates Kristeva's use of "poetic language": "it stands
for the infinite possibilities of language, and all other language acts are merely
partial realizations of the possibilities inherent in 'poetic language.'
From such a point of view, 'literary
practice is seen as exploration and discovery of the possibilities of language;
as an activity that liberates the subject from a number of linguistic, psychic,
and social networks; as a dynamism that breaks up the inertia of language habits
and grants linguists the unique possibility of studying the becoming of the significations
of signs'" (2-3). Fraser's implicit enactment of this differing suggests
a separation from many poetic practices-both mainstream and experimentalthat
seek the erasure of difference or the complete refutation of difference through
the use of "ordinary," "flat," or "plain" language.
Fraser's insistence on "poetic language" parallels her recovery of the
"feminine" or choric in language as well as suggesting an ideological
divide that marks herself off from those who posit language's primacy is communication
so that language itself becomes transparent. It may be because Fraser does insist
on a "poetic language" that Marjorie Perloff does not then consider
Fraser in the context of Wittgenstein's interrogations of language. In fact, Fraser's
work tends to blur the resistance Perloff has in regard to distinctions between
language use posited for example by Roman Jakobsen or Stanley Fish. Fraser's poetics
clearly illustrate, however, what Perloff sees as "poetic 'uniqueness' in
our postromantic age" is a "sensitivity to the language pool on which
the poet draws in re-creating and redefining the world as he or she has found
it"; hence poetry "functions as a heightened form of social and cultural
critique" (187). Nonetheless, Fraser's choric lyricism insists on difference,
which must underpin the presence or possibility of a writing that is in its relational
and kinetic and contingent and self-reflexive elements feminine. The inclusion
of the letters to Annalisa and Susan, despite their differing status, points to
the process of the making of the poem: the letters act as footnotes and records.
The letters themselves deploy collage as do the sections of compressed gestural
language, for they include travelogues, citations from Lawrence and Stevens, reconstructed
conversations, diagrams, research notes, recounted dreams, and snippets of gossip.
The letters comprise a heterogeneous range of language that is also a counterpoint
to the semantically constrained but syntactically complex compression found in
the "poetic language." Inserted in the poem and bracketing the center
section Norchia, the letters are released from an explicit causal reading: they
become further texts, contexts, or places of conjecture. They also reassert the
personal correspondence between herself and the Etruscan landscape and history.
The letters also exist in a ruptured state themselves for they have no reciprocating
correspondence. Their reception goes unmarked; indeed they are only a trace of
a larger implied correspondence.
If the letters are an interruption
and an opening up of a new, differing textual space, a brief note on Fraser's
use of the parenthetical aside in "Etruscan Pages" is also in order.
In particular, the two asides that refer to a film's soundtrack (in the Prologo
and in Ponte dell'Abbadia) form another interruption that initially seems to impose
an impasse. The first aside, introduced outside the parenthesis by the phrase
"Feeling around for something lost. . . ," suggests that human memory
perhaps holds more than personal memory: cultural, environmental, and species
memories are also embedded. The soundtrack of the film is indeed a tracking or
tracing back to another rhythm-that of the perceived landscape or textual echo-that
corresponds to the poem's tracking back and into the ground or into what has been
ostensibly sealed off, whether in tombs or in museums. In the second aside, Fraser
writes, "I feared the music, in retrospect... As if it were foretelling everything
coming toward me . . . paths moving with choral inevitability towards all I would
love and finally lose . . . my own path calling me" (30). Rather than an
impasse or an arbitrarily inserted aside, the parenthetical meditation surfaces
Fraser's elegiac mode that is directed toward her self. Whereas the poem compresses
language so as to release the poet's self as the authorizing voice and the letters
point to a relational ethic, these two brief asides denote the poet coming to
elegize herself. As an elegy, "Etruscan Pages" follows a path that leads
Fraser, in part, underground like Dante or as in classical epics, the event of
nekyia, where the hero journeys to the dead or lost and thereby gains new understanding.
Between the two letters Fraser has placed the section Norchia, which returns to
some of the images and landscapes of the Prologo. Indeed, the opening lines provide
a gloss of the earlier mutation of mare/mar and is a record of the poet's erring
the Etruscan letter into image, movement, poem:
The letter A is a plow
(Mare pulling into mare)
Horse plowing sea
you made and
Unmade your mind . . .
when you doubted
The poem makes and unmakes itself: each line is both movement and hesitation.
Here Fraser meditates upon origins: "Was A / where you made and /unmade your
mind" she asks, locating the poem's source in the physicality of a letter.
The letter is read first iconically as a plow. The physical letter literally opens
up language as found in the lines that follow this segment: "alpha. aslant.
alien. appal. answer. anodic. alum. A." (21). De Certeau's comments on mystic
speech, particularly that of St. John of the Cross, illuminates Fraser's process:
The poem-a cadenced repetition, "generative
palilogy," subtle glossolalia-does not stop at deconstructing meaning and
making music: it is what allows the very production of meaning. The "taste
for echoes" awakened by the poem leads one "to seek a semantic connection
between elements nothing binds together semantically"; it makes possible
the indefinite prolongation of this semantical research as an echo effect. It
says nothing. It permits saying. (99)
The iconic reading of the letter A shifts to a phonetic, sounded reading: "mare
pulling into mare." The "a" of mare is elongated through that wonderful
physical action of pulling (into being) the long "a" of "mare."
Fraser's generative listings, which are demonstrations of "semantical research
as an echo effect,"are generated from an iconic reading of the transcribed
Etruscan word. Placed as separate segments on the page, the generated lists and
the Etruscan word are in a relational position rather than in a causal equation,
for the generated lists precede the originary and iconic. The paliologic or repetition
of "red paint or black," which often follows transcribed Etruscan words,
echoes the red painted dancers found on the tomb walls, the Etruscan woman dancing
before the young Roman men, as well as Fraser's own archival research noted in
her letter to Susan: "I began assembling evidence after that, scratching
with my red and black ink down the pages of the new ledger you'd given me. . .
all fragmentary . ." (26). Provisional and never complete, Fraser uncovers
the hesitation before meaning and intention: "'we know what each mark is
equal to, but in retrospect. . .'" she writes, collaging a Lawrence quotation
into a response to the transcribed Etruscan word (21).
The poem's phonic precision extends
to a precise and minute observation of the landscape: "another progression
of ants across dry mud ruts . . . deliberate burdens through the temporal"
(22). An acute awareness of the temporal-and hence transitory-develops in Norchia.
Fraser compresses the temporal span to that most liminal of places, the tomb's
retain precipitous bluffs
(ashlars compose a frame for each entering dead one)
Lintel of their own Alpha (23)
The text becomes an entry: the tomb and the letter merge iconically. If mystic
speech rises "in proximity to a loss" and is a "historical trope
for that loss," to cite De Certeau (80), then through her hesitations, the
traversing journey, the trope of error, and the repetition of looking into what
has been dismissed as "nothing," Fraser's process moves toward, in part,
a mystic speech.
In the concluding passage of Norchia, Fraser places this monostich: "Leaves
are massing, green speeding up" (25). The parallel construction of this line,
with its caesural pause, creates an urgency, for even in the most acutely noted
moments of presence there is the process of vanishing. The final two sections
of "Etruscan Pages," Vulci and Ponte dell'Abbadia combine the historical
effacement of one culture by another ("Etruscan foundation, Roman arch"),
the transience of nature ("Trees in slow motion fall to / stagnate puddles'
original green leaking"), and the private urgency to record or last beyond
one's vanishing ("Make copies, please / of each framed motion"). All
this is, in Fraser's words, "calling up grief" (30). Grief echoes throughout
Grief is simple and dark
as this bridge or hidden field
where something did exist once
and may again, or
your face receding behind the window
a possible emptying (33)
This passage, which contains an echo of her letter to Susan ("Today-exactly
a week since your face went by inside the window of a cab" ), exerts
a lyricism that at least on the surface seems conventional. In testing limitations
or boundaries of knowledge, position, and language, the lyric is but one direction
or proposition. Indeed, Fraser's earlier lines from "re:searches" illuminates
her lyricism: "lyric forever error . . . this / language we come up against"
(Il cuore 82). In this earlier poem that re-searches the mutiliation of Dickinson's
letters and fragments of Anakreon, lyricism then is error that allows openings
that are otherwise resisted by the language and social strictures of authority.
While the passage from "Etruscan Pages" is in its lyricism a consolidation
of a self or presence recognizing loss, it is also set into a relational field
of other language constructions: "The car plows through groundhold of tumuli
/ temple rubble abandon / anodic slate light" (When New Time 32). Highly
stressed and physical, the final two lines of this passage, which immediately
precedes Fraser's lyric monoglossia, recall Susan Howe's visionary, stressed lines
that chronicle "Articulation of Sound Forms in Time": "Crumbled
masonry windswept hickory" (Howe 38). The lyric interruption becomes another
error that both locates presence and unsettles boundaries. Like Howe, Fraser in
"Etruscan Pages" is an archivist and visionary who writes in the physicality
of the moment and the corrosive and celebratory histories that in-form that moment:
Mulberry smeared clover
covers an entire field
where once stagnant shallows bred malarial cells
Echoing earlier passages that allude to the malarial Vulci where Romans effaced
Etruscan art as well as mined copper and melted down artifacts at the cost of
human life and expression, Fraser concludes by attempting to recover dancers,
and in their motion and plenitude, the choric and feminine.
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