I first encountered Kathleen Fraser’s work in the early 1980s, in her “Partial local coherence,” an essay published in the late, lamented, and, as she accurately describes it, “ever-foraging” journal Ironwood that examined the then-still-emergent phenomenon of Language poetry. That essay concluded with her poem “Medusa’s hair was snakes. Was thought, split inward,” still one of my favorites. (The essay is reprinted in Fraser’s collection Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity, though the book version omits the poem.) I then encountered a substantial selection of her poems, plus a self-interview, in Philip Dow’s inspiringly eclectic anthology 19 New American Poets of the Golden Gate, published in 1984 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and now sadly out of print. That anthology organized itself around place rather than school or movement, and its combination of substantial selections from each poet with prose introductions from each strongly influenced the structure of my Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries.
Fraser began writing in the Nineteen-Sixties as a more "conventional" poet and, as a result of her immersion in the evolving San Francisco Bay Area poetry scene, transformed herself into a more “experimental” poet.* (In the manner of Derrida, I would like to put such terms under erasure [sur rature], simultaneously deploying them and cancelling them out.) As both a poet and an editor of the journal HOW(ever), she has become a leading figure in contemporary American innovative poetry and poetics, especially in the area of experimental(ly) feminist poetics.
Medusa’s hair was snakes. Was thought, split inward.
I do not wish to report on Medusa directly, this variation of her
writhing. After she gave that voice a shape, it was the trajectory itself
in which she found her words floundering and pulling apart.
Sometimes we want to talk to someone who can’t hear us.
Sometimes we’re too far away. So is a shadow
a real shadow.
When he said “red cloud,” she imagined red
but he thought cloud (this dissonance in which she was feeling
trapped, out-of-step, getting from here to there).
accounts for knowing what dead words point to,
a face staring down through green leaves as the man looks up
from tearing and tearing again at his backyard weeds. His red dog sniffs
at what he’s turned over. You know what I mean.
We newer people have children who learn to listen as we listen.
M. wanted her own.
Kept saying red dog. Cloud.
Someone pointing to it while saying it. Someone discovering stone.
Medusa trying to point with her hair.
That thought turned to venom.
That muscle turning to thought turning
to writhing out.
We try to locate blame, going backwards.
I point with my dog’s stiff neck
and will not sit down,
the way that girl points her saxophone at the guitar player
to shed light
upon his next invention. He attends her silences, between keys,
and underscores them with slow referents.
Can she substitute dog for cloud, if red comes first?
As if all of this happens on the ocean one afternoon in July,
red sunset soaking into white canvas. The natural world.
Darkness does eventually come down.
He closes her eye in the palm of his hand.
The sword comes down.
Now her face rides above his sails, her hair her splitting tongues.
Flashes of light or semaphore waves, the sound
of rules, a regularity from which the clouds drift
into their wet embankments.
These labdanum hours
You couldn’t find it in the bird’s weight
pulling an arc through the twig. You must
catch yourself somewhere or fall anywhere.
Four cherries, red showing through
green webs. This surprise may not catch you
and that is the trouble. A whole new life
may be just another tree. Now the floor
is as clean as vinegar. It shines
from rubbing. Sleeping inside your little
and constant coughs, you could hear
someone helping you, finally waking.
The helper has her rags and tools.
With tenacity she hangs on to the dimming
vision. You are trying too hard
to enter this world. The door is open.
What can you find in this
that is yours, wholly? A belief,
not to be divided into silken strands
in air. This childish hope. I give you up,
each day, to another. Abstract acts
of generosity, as we dream in two positions
on the bed, with the softer, lighter pillows
just under our heads, some slight elevation.
Whole sentences are subtracted from
conversation. Darkness moves continuously
behind that line where the sun presses.
To let go of shapes held in peaches,
the bruise of a thumb and forced sweetness.
You were the lightest of all the silver-white metals.
These poems are from Kathleen Fraser's il cuore: the heart: Selected Poems 1970-1995, published by Wesleyan University Press in 1997.
*Contemporary American poetry is rife with such conversion narratives, from Lowell’s abandonment of rhyme and meter and turn to confessionalism in Life Studies to James Wright’s rejection of narrative in favor of the “deep image” in The Bough Will Not Break to Merwin’s turn from a measured classicism to the apocalyptic, visionary poems of The Lice. All of these breaks and transformations were both less abrupt and less total than the conversion narrative can allow or account for. “I once saw not quite as clearly as I could have but now I see somewhat better” just doesn’t have the same ring as “I was once blind but now I see.” In the Nineteen Sixties and Seventies, to write in free verse, throwing off the formal and mental shackles of rhyme and meter (“To break the pentameter, that was the first heave,” as Pound wrote in 1920), was considered a moral and even political act (a redemption/liberation from sinful formalism celebrated in such "open forms" anthologies as 1969's Naked Poetry) by many of those same poets now condemned in some circles as obviously and irredeemably reactionary. This can serve as a dictionary example of irony. As Marx observed some time ago, history repeats itself, the second (or third, or fourth) time as farce.