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Geraldine McKenzie reviews

Translating the Unspeakable:
Poetry and the Innovative Necessity

(Essays by Kathleen Fraser), University of Alabama Press, 248pp.
ISBN: 0817309896, 2000 C $44.95 S
ISBN: 081730990X, 2000 P $19.95 S

Translating the Unspeakable is a collection of essays spanning almost twenty years of a remarkably full poetic life. Two main threads run through it: Fraser’s development as a poet, and her involvement in the poetic community, a project to restore to women poets their past and simultaneously encourage a present/ future where women are liberated in the public and private spheres of poetry; on the one hand, participating with confidence in public discussion about poetry without feeling the need to assume the ‘combative tone that often accompanied the arguments I imagined as necessary to these public exchanges’ (p.3); on the other, moving beyond traditional models of expression, discovering the freedom of the blank page, the open field — a journey Fraser herself makes.
      But it is Fraser as facilitator of others’ journeys that I want to address first. The variety of roles she takes on strikes me as admirable in part because my own contribution to poetry doesn’t extend beyond reading it, writing it and, occasionally, reviewing it, whereas Kathleen Fraser is all those plus teacher, editor, essayist, speaker and one who has not only recovered the erased work of earlier women experimental writers but also, through the publication of Working Notes in How(ever) in particular, helped engender a dialogue about poetics among contemporary women poets. The latter seems especially important given that many women have felt even more excluded from poetics than from poetry itself. Notice, too, that the majority of these essays originated as papers, a reminder of the active role Fraser has consistently taken, a role inviting the participation of others.
      When Fraser writes about the inception of HOW(ever), there is clearly a developing sense of the necessity for women to engage with poetics on their own terms. Meeting with Frances Jaffer and Beverly Dahlen to read and criticize each other’s work, the three came to realize that, although their writing differed, ‘it did appear that there were certain gender-oriented preoccupations and distinctions we shared’ (p.33). This experience offers a model for all poets, especially the marginalized, by showing the benefits of writing within a community that engages in mutual criticism and discussion. ‘Without each other’s support at that time, none of us would have written as much or as well’; she goes on to say ‘But the more we wrote, the less we fit into anything.’ (p.33).
      This helped provide the impetus for HOW(ever) but it also led into questions about a feminist poetics and specific difficulties associated with a magazine ‘devoted solely to the publication of women writers’ (p.36), a project necessarily exclusionary but not conceived in a spirit of narrowness rather as ‘an added source of information and stimulation... a vision’ which would ‘help in creating a community that has been waiting to come into view’. All those women, like Fraser, Jaffer and Dahlen, who had felt ‘isolated for years – excluded from the aesthetic or political mandates of existing poetics’ (p.36) now had a space, had contemporaries.
      HOW(ever) was also engaged in rebuilding the ‘pre-existing tradition of modernist women who need us to acknowledge them as much as we need them to fall back on for daring and spiritual renewal’ (p.38), and Fraser devotes a number of essays to the work of such writers — H. D., Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker and Barbara Guest. This is both an act of reclamation, an attentiveness to the erased voices of women modernists, and an examination of their influence on Fraser’s work.
      H. D. is a particularly interesting example of the difficulties even the most assured woman poet can encounter. Her ambivalent relationship with Ezra Pound shows how limiting even approval can be, naming and containing as it praises – ‘Ezra would have destroyed me and the center they call “Air and Crystal”’ (p.54) Her ‘gift’, and it’s one she extends to others, ‘was an ability to see the empty page waiting to be inscribed and to imagine... a contemporary model for the poem that would recover a complex overlay of erotic and spiritual valuings variously imprinted, then worn away... then, finally, re-discovered and engraved inside her own lines’ (p.54)  Fraser writes of herself, ‘I have been called back to this blank page again and again’ (p.55) and it’s a recurring concept throughout these essays – ‘a literal invitation of breathtaking immensity and independence... the page is there and yours to re-make’ (p.55).
      What H. D. also offered was a ‘profound connection to the contemporary relevance of ancient cultures’ (p.55) which encouraged Fraser in her visits to Etruscan sites and the poetry that emerged from those experiences but, in a more general sense, led her to understand how myth can be used ‘to regenerate lopsided human stories with a new infusion of contemporary perspective’ (p.62). What this signifies in Fraser’s work is a commitment to using experience, using the self (though not self considered as a single entity). It’s at this point she parts company with Language Writing.
      In ‘Partial Local Coherence: Regions with Illustrations’, she writes of ‘a developing  feminist poetics that shares an ambition common to Language Writing – that is, to reinvent, deconstruct, find syntactical and experiential detours out of the dominant and often turgid mainstream’ (p.76). The difficulty lies in Language Writing’s ‘aesthetic distaste for any self-referentiality’, a distaste which seems too much like a ‘prohibition’. One senses that Fraser is eager, as always, to explore those new and stimulating paths that may appear but without compromising what is a hard won freedom, ‘Language Writing directives... often encountered – if not intended – as the newest covenant’ (p.76).
      In ‘Photogenes: “the incidental” & “the inessential” as modernist postscript’, a brief essay on women modernist writers, she also concedes a reluctance to ‘cut loose and move entirely away from certain of modernism’s freeing strategies to a post-modern intervention against an “older generation”’ (p.95).
      The erasure of modernist women poets and their comparatively recent ‘regeneration’ has opened up a rich multiplicity of experimentation which, Fraser argues, still invites engagement. Too soon won to be abandoned. The very action of erasure, by withholding from us the works of such as H. D., Stein, Niedecker, Guest et alia, has in a sense saved these writers from settling into the rigidity of canonicity, so that they could be revived in the late twentieth century in all their liveliness and originality (if one was feeling particularly caustic, one might point to Barbara Guest’s experimental novel, Seeking Air, still pristine ten years after publication, untouched by the breath of review until Fraser came along and recognized it.).
      However, Fraser doesn’t focus exclusively on women writers. Wallace Stevens, in particular, is credited with ‘the long summons into the vocation of poetry, the mysterious yet concrete process of self-recognition that was – and continues to be – crystallized for me in the work of Stevens’. (p.11). She goes on to speak of ‘the unequalled pleasure of re-inventing one’s idiom – that secret encoding of self’s journey’ and ‘the poet’s role as antenna and inventor/ namer of subtle swift sightings that remain absent until caught in words’ (p.11). This has a particular resonance for the woman poet who re-invents idiom not merely for pleasure, but out of necessity, a theme Fraser often returns to.
      She also acknowledges Charles Olson’s role in providing ‘an antidote to a mainstream poetics’ (p.177) in his opening up the page. ‘The excitement and insistence of Olson’s spatial, historical, and ethical margins, while clearly speaking from male imperatives, nevertheless helped to stake out an arena whose initial usefulness to the poem began to be inventively explored by American women – in some cases drastically reconceived’ (p.177). Robert Duncan is also credited for his sense of the poem as a constellation, alive with connections operating beyond the left justified line. Seeing the poem in space, he simultaneously establishes the chordal play of music so that the time of the poem is a ‘continuous present’, to borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein. I’m also reminded of  Mallarme’s ‘simultaneous vision of the Page’ and the result ‘for the person reading it aloud, a musical score’.
      This exploration of the field springs from necessity – the ‘immense necessity to make as well as to express’ (p.177) and is also influenced by a group of women painters – Helen Frankenthaler, Nell Blaine, Elaine DeKooning, Grace Hartigan, Agnes Martin, Jane Freicher and Joan Mitchell. Fraser gives an excellent introduction to the range of women poets who flowered from this cross-fertilization, an introduction which she acknowledges must, of necessity, be partial but giving a sense of the variety of experiment entered into by Barbara Guest, Susan Howe, Dale Going, Laura Moriarty, Myung Mi Kim, Hannah Weiner, Meredith Stricker, Norma Cole, Catherine Bowers, Mary Margaret Sloan and Susan Gervitz.
      Fraser explores similar territory in ‘Line. On the line. Lining up. Lined with. Between the lines. Bottom line.’ She begins with Emily Dickinson, ‘perhaps the first woman poet to provide other women with a formal model of urgency and difference’ (p.142) and she quotes Susan Howe on Dickinson ‘“ a new grammar, grounded in humility and hesitation”’ (p.142) and conveys how other such a proceeding was (and continues to be) to the temper of the time ‘“that confident age of aggressive industrial expansion and brutal empire building”’ (p.143)
      Fraser also writes of an ‘argument of parts’, a ‘fragmenting sense of the world’, ‘the disturbed otherness of a mind not in sync with the assumptions of polite society, whose masculine thought and poetry appeared as seamless events, unruptured, smoothly in control.’ (p.144) Set this along side her own experience of fragmentation, interruption and multiple selves in ‘To book as in to foal. To son.’ and ‘How did Emma Slide? A matter of gestation’ and a clear sense emerges of the woman poet as one who must abandon the chimera of ‘an authentic self’ (p.21), of ‘the perfect vacuum of silence and continuity’ (p.23) and write out of that experience of ‘Unexpectedness, chaos, pressures and breaks’. (p.23).
      It might be interesting to pursue a comparison of Fraser’s sense of disruption and fragmentation, which seems organic, with Charles Bernstein’s “dysraphism” where the poem is consciously disrupted, or to the way John Cage, for instance, uses chance to let in the other (and I daresay someone already has). The differences are, in part at least, due to Fraser’s determination to write out of the self, without being bound to it. To make use of experience without being restricted by it.
      In ‘To Book as in to foal. To son.’ Fraser uses her experience  of raising a child, a period in one’s life that often seems at odds with creative work as if one should put the whole business of writing on hold until parenting is over. Fraser repudiates such demarcation in an essay that moves far beyond the traditional. With intuitive leaps and interrogations, it expresses the multiplicity of perspective, the constant disruption of linear thought and self-absorption, and the necessity for attentiveness that come with motherhood.
      ‘How did Emma Slide?’ factors in the male partner, also demanding the woman’s attention; and there is a sense that the woman in such a household (and I recall my own experiences here) is the centre at which narratives converge, constantly adjusting perspective, aware of the need to maintain a sense of self but simultaneously conscious that self is partial; aware, also, of the way memory and myth overlay/ underlie experience. All of these leading to a sense of the poem that is polysemic and exploratory.
      It’s in this context of living with children and partners that Fraser develops her concept of the Gestate:
The Gestate is a poetic form of unnumbered discrete phrases, unfolding and proliferating as rapidly or as slowly as one’s perceptions do. It takes as its reference the term “gestation” and acknowledges – in this biological/intellectual carrying – all the uneven physical and emotional growth curves that express themselves, recognizing the value of precise detail and the use of formal devices, while welcoming those unexpected and mysterious and necessary leaps in perception.  (p.44)
Many women (and some men) working within the mainstream have used the experience of motherhood via content, what is striking about Kathleen Fraser is her ability to see beyond this to the nature of the experience and to then use these ways of perceiving/ experiencing the world in poetry. In the process she invokes concepts like fragmentation and interruption which recur in various guises in experimental writing but which she derives from experience rather than theory. I can’t help thinking of a line from Architectural Body, ‘ Does anyone really believe that a person could ever be figured out as such in the abstract?’ (p.6) Fraser asks the same question of poetry.
      She also states that ‘the beautiful seamless poem’ (p.23) had become irrelevant to her, but this is an understatement. In the light of her poetry and poetics, and of the tradition of innovation and transgression in which she is located (to the list of innovators in Olson’s field and the great modernists mentioned elsewhere add, from  ‘Line. On the line. Lining up. Lined with. Between the lines. Bottom line.’, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Frances Jaffer, Beverly Dahlen, Ntozake Shange and Maureen Owen), this ‘beautiful seamless poem’ is exposed as dishonest and exclusionary. It lies about the self(ves) and the world, beautiful lies perhaps but how banal such beauty when compared to the complexity, the inventiveness, the let-loosedness of Fraser’s poetics.
      Charles Alexander, in an otherwise excellent review, wrote that ‘Kathleen Fraser opposes nothing’. This struck me as odd. Granted she doesn’t express her opposition as dramatically (?) as ‘I HATE SPEECH”’(Robert Grenier quoted by Charles Alexander). One would hardly expect her to. But this collection of essays testifies to a life of opposition to the ‘class-invested models of formal purity and unity’ (p.95), of resistance to orthodoxy and its expectations, to the repressive tolerance (to borrow an old but pertinent phrase) of male editors, critics and poets and to a voice-based poetics that simplifies and excludes, even in the hands of well-intentioned feminists.
Breaking rules, breaking boundaries, crossing over, going where you’ve been told not to go has increasingly figured in the writing of the contemporary woman poet as a natural consequence of the restraints placed upon her as a child being socialized to the female role her class and culture prefer.  (P.157)
      In ‘Line. On the line. Lining up. Lined with. Between the lines. Bottom line.’ she writes ‘Resistance is an ongoing condition-of-being for most women poets’, going on to talk about the difficulties in saying when the available models are inadequate ‘What wants to be said is both other and of “the other world”’ (p.155) And she spells out the necessity for formal invention again and again, ‘the poet who turns to language as an active principle cannot simply replicate received forms’. (p.205).
      And all the while, ‘more and more compelling’ (p.23), the tug to the page. Its ‘dimensionality... invites multiplicity, synchronicity, elasticity’ (p.175). Fraser hints at an erotic dimension, dropping words like ‘summons’, ‘invitation’, excitement’ but it’s an eroticism of encounter rather than possession/ surrender. ‘Is language, in fact, the pool?’ (p.5). Fraser approaches, an honest, generous spirit, come ‘from the fragments and layerings of incoherence, unsureness, even extreme vulnerability’ (p.76), achieving transformation in attentiveness. Life, art, spilling over.


Alexander, Charles, A Review of Kathleen Fraser's ‘Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity’, Cauldron & Net

Madeline Gins and Arakawa, Architectural Body, The University of Alabama Press, Contemporary Poetics Series, Tuscaloosa, Alabama 2002

Stéphane Mallarmé, The Poems, translated and introduced by Keith Bosley, Penguin Books Ltd. Middlesex England 1977

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