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Meredith Quartermain reviews

Discrete Categories Forced into Coupling
by Kathleen Fraser

68pp. Apogee Press. 0-9744687-3-8

Meredith Quartermain’s most recent book is Vancouver Walking (NeWest Press). Other recent books are Spatial Relations (Diaeresis 2001), Inland Passage (housepress 2001), A Thousand Mornings (Nomados 2002) and The Eye-Shift of Surface (greenboathouse, 2003). Her work has appeared in West Coast Line, Raddle Moon, Chain, Sulfur, Tinfish, Ecopoetics, Potepoetzine, East Village Poetry Web and other magazines.

This review is 1,000 words
or about 3 printed pages long

Lyrical Prose

Wary of settling into comfortable habits, Kathleen Fraser once told me that with each new project she tries to explore a new form. Thus in her last work, Hi ddevioleth i dde violet, she zoomed in to the phonemic level of language, exploring minimal to huge font sizes and the meaning of language at the edge of its sensual experience. In Discrete Categories, she again launches into uncharted formal areas — for this book contains a short play, a lyrical essay, prose narratives, and poems involving extension of the line into lengthy paragraphs.

The title, however, suggests a thread that runs through much of the book, and that is the categorical aspect of language. To speak is to assign one or another category to experience which might otherwise occur as a seamless whole or in amorphous blurrings of the senses. Humans as languaged beings have lost access to such a whole, though we can imagine its possibility and perhaps vaguely connect to it through glimmerings from the subconscious. The coupling of experience to words is arbitrary, just as there’s some arbitrariness to the coupling of one word with another. Fraser considers this in “Soft Pages,” a lyrical essay, which concerns among other things, her writing experience in Rome, where she lives for half of each year, and where she speaks Italian as a second language, thus doubly aware of language’s arbitrary quirks:

An earlier war could attach itself to the odd assignment of time before now, not yours, called “Turn-of-the-century,” as could the spliced image of a centaur attach itself to a monster, the new construct borne into overlay as word, or demonstration of the mind’s ability to jump or grasp more than one thing at a time, this horse/ man turning away from or leaving us with its (his?) path of motion as inadmissible evidence. But also the blur of discrete categories forced into coupling.

Fraser’s concern with gendered experience also underlies this discussion (the “you” in her pieces often seems to be a male companion), and in a sense her work explores gender as a forced coupling, a forced divergence of humans into two categories, two differently socialized experiences. The essay also considers two particular categories: desire and choice, commenting:

This was not about desire or choice — the two preferred categories of explanation for my life, in conscious moments of trying to make sense . . . of things. . . .This was before desire, but after choice.

The photographic image of a man’s foot blurred in motion as it moves from one place to another haunts the essay, and becomes an image of desire and a way of extending the blurred passage of being through time:

this image from another’s postcard photo — or it may have been a painting meant to reassemble the accuracy of photography, now both itself, and the fifty word statement I’d prepared for my friends who gathered to share their sentences, limited only by the number of words we’d agreed upon, as if in surprising ourselves skidding into the next arbitrary place, we might extend presence . . .

In “Soft Pages,” as in the other pieces in this book, Fraser acutely and sensitively observes the intimate relationship between language and being, tracking the jolts and jarrings of sensibility in the nuances of articulation, and making the poet’s relationship to language part of the poem. In “Champs (fields) & between” she extends the gestalt or field of perception by extending the poetic line to last for full paragraphs:

The air came down in its teacup shape of Japanese porcelain, light dropping through it with disturbing regularity like dry rice falling through water as if a dream state had collaborated with the concept of “grains of rice,” her observing it at just that moment when she imagined there might be something inherent in the weave of the curtains, that some bit of drawn thread, if pulled back, would fold up beneath a lens coming into focus

Some of the most interesting pieces in Discrete Categories are vignettes or stories in the New Narrative slice-of-mind sense. In these Fraser shows her connection to writers like Bob Gluck and Gail Scott in her creation of narratives that are poetically cross-cut with collaged details surrounding the central action. The piece “in his white tennis shorts and blue t-shirt,” for instance, folds into a single one-page sentence a life-time’s materialism and self-centredness, caught mid-stride. In “The Cars,” Fraser again catches her subject mid-stride, this time crossing a busy freeway, but watched by someone who cares a great deal:

He’s made it halfway, she thinks, but she can’t stop the cars rushing towards him even as he scans with concentration the worn lanes for the thing he’s lost as if he’s walking through the dark and shining his flashlight wherever the object might have landed, his right knee still lifting purposefully upward and forward.

“You can hear her breathing in the photograph” similarly catches something mid-stride, this time Bernini’s carving of a statue of Daphne and Apollo, just as Daphne is changing into a laurel to escape Apollo’s advances:

Bernini works in marble without knowing what it may deliver. He’s in love with the slow revelation of the chase: Apollo’s concentration, Daphne’s uneasiness. She’s disappearing. He knows that much. Apollo’s claim of certainty should be gaining on her, shouldn’t it? You can hear her breathing in the photograph as it’s unpinned from the wall and put away in a box, exposing the anatomy of imagined capture, even when you’re not looking at it.

Capture and certainty — this is what language, with its clear grammatical structures, lets us think we can have. But Fraser suggests the certainty and capture are only imaginary, whether they involve casual descriptions or the myriad social distinctions we cope with every day. What we think we’ve caught with words disappears the moment we utter them. Fraser never lets us forget that our relationship to language must always be negotiated.

See the Barbara Guest and Kathleen Fraser feature
in Jacket 25

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