Online Edition: Spring 2001

Translating the Unspeakable by Kathleen Fraser

Translating the Unspeakable

Poetry and the Innovative Necessity

Kathleen Fraser

University of Alabama Press ($19.95)

by Charles Alexander

Kathleen Fraser takes poem as space of revelation. This is the self. This is reality. Not clear. Not even repeatable, paraphrasable. The poem translates the unspeakable by bringing it into language while leaving it unspeakable. Robert Grenier in 1972 wrote "I HATE SPEECH," against the comfortable voice-based poetics that still dominates American poetry. Such opposition is necessary. Yet Kathleen Fraser opposes nothing; rather, she illuminates the possible, the page's verbal explosion, with wide-eyed openness. These eighteen essays combine an adept and mature poetic vision with an almost-naïve sense of coming into a poetry for the first time. In this particular combination she joins Robert Duncan as an essential companion in our late and continuing poetic adventures.

Fraser's approach to poetry begins and ends in experience--the particular life of a woman, a life of "non-presence," finding its way "within the inhibiting field of established precedent," toward an articulation that in no way recovers it for that established field. Fraser never felt at home with acceptable and prescribed definitions of poetry, and was both shattered and enlivened by the entry into her world of "exploratory works by modernist women writers," yet also "did not feel comfortable pursuing the combative tone that often accompanied the arguments" for a radicalized poetic practice. Fraser thus enters the territory not from the standpoint of polemics, but rather out of necessity. Experience won't be tamed. It requires a poetry that allows for ellipsis, palimpsest, nonclosure, disruption, and all possible radical methods known or to be invented by women and men who can not be cordoned into neat corrals.

To create essays that explore the relationship of life to poetry, Fraser has invented a way of proceeding that is both discursive and filled with intuitive leaps. The book begins with Fraser's recreation of her entry into poetry and its destabilization by the idiosyncratic idiom reinventions of Wallace Stevens, his poetry's undoing of all ideas of order; it continues with the most compelling meditation on motherhood and art-making that I have ever read. From there we move to Fraser's creation of poetic community through her editing of the influential 1980's journal, HOW(ever), and to essays on the development of her practice of poetry. Her poetics of error, where she has chosen "to incorporate the sight and citing of a literal error or ‘typo'" as poetic material, lead her to commit to a writing process "based more in close scrutiny and attention to what was going on in the writing itself," rather than on notions of authorial intention or acceptable poetic form. Once in the open (the open field, the projective space), Fraser commits to it entirely. Her poetics thus concludes the opening section of the book, followed by an accounting of modernist women poets (Fraser's natural forebears) who had been erased, and a final section of essays on the poetics of line, time, poetic form and shape, field, and the necessary instability of poetry.

If there is a flaw in this book, it is in the regulated flow of its essays. One might imagine less progressive structure and more stunning constellation, in which the poetics, the autobiography, and the recovery of modernist women interpenetrated one another, rather than being kept separate in neatly honed sections. Such a structuring would parallel Fraser's sense of the possible space of the poem, in which centrality, digression, and speculation all work together as a translation of the unspeakable.

I want to attend to some specifics in Fraser's essays. In the opening section, "Auto . Bio . Poetics," Fraser's autobiographical accounting of her work as mother and writer begins as an immersion in language.

I. monologue

Catching two words. Pulling apart and rePasting a paragraph on the same night spiders crowd and come pushing out from the closet door at the actual child.

Working in the next room without knowing this, to hear him tell of it years later and to hold this. Nights of long fear.

To sorrow the poem, to sorrow and tear at its lines, to open its vein. Looking for blue. Expecting it.

Instead, to find red. Scar tissue. Long hollow empty place. Quill of a feather.

Writing lines, watching lines elasticize and tatter, not knowing how to solace the dark, child's eyes open/eyes awake, with mind yet struck in infant night-terror. An otherness you know nothing of. Can you put this? Can you hold it quietly?

Deferral. To other's book.

What may be most striking here is the absolute refusal to create a dichotomy of mother and artist as separate spheres. Artist is an act of motherhood, tearing, fear, blood. Mother is an act of catching words, pasting paragraphs, living language. The stance allows one act to interfere with the other, but not to separate. "To book as in to foal. To son" is the essay's title. Even motherhood's lack of time and space for writing is what creates writing:

To let the poem pour from the closet, long erratic music-tugging lines and word horde of the broken-in-on nightlight.

This essay is singular in its abjurance of discursive form. It pauses, breaks, meditates, changes--moves as the kind of poem Fraser elsewhere calls for, "the movement of poetic language as investigative tool. An open field, not a closed case."

Part two of the essay, "dialogue," presents "A" speaking with "B," where "A" is the mother/author of the earlier monologue, and "B" is a more traditional questioner who begins by doubting that mother and artist might intertwine in a positive way: "B: But in the story, the child seems to be an obstacle . . ." For the mother, "A", the struggle of art with mothering leads to a breakthrough in the conception of the poem as something in which "everything kept breaking-in on continuity" eventually even to a poetics in which "Beauty, as I'd been taught to think of it, no longer interested me in the same way." Instead,

Unexpectedness, chaos . . . That mark of a seismograph across an empty score.

I find this essay courageous and unlike anything else I have ever read concerning how poetry is made, and how art and living might encompass each other.

Fraser's embrace of an "open" poetics, one that acknowledges Charles Olson's conception of "composition by field," yet differs significantly from Black Mountain poetics, is worthy of note. It is in the background of every essay in this book, even in memories of youth when Fraser felt that the traditional, formal, left-justified and regularized poetic form simply did not fit what she needed to write. A significant antipode of Fraser's formal dynamic was to be found in the work of women writers whose works were not available to Fraser as a young woman, because their contributions to modernism and early postmodernism had been ignored or erased. The work of Dorothy Richardson, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, H.D., Lorine Niedecker, and Barbara Guest, and that work's recovery by feminist scholars at the same time that Fraser was developing her mature poetic, gave Fraser a launching pad. Stein's "re-grammaring--its refusal to submit," Richardson's "abstinence from conventional plot and the avoidance of verifiable climax," H.D.'s use of palimpsest and reinvention of myth, Loy's "discretely ecstatic pleasure in the dense thicket of uneasy word/song/syntax" that willingly asserts the value of being "out of place, contingent, never to remain static or held in thrall by another's personal or poetic agenda," Niedecker's condensation to "reveal the radiant power of individual words minimally framed," and Guest's requirement that a reader must "put together ‘a meaning' via the subject's angles, materials, functions, and planes; we must read the gaps, the overlapping clues," all lead Fraser to enter her own open field, and to investigate and celebrate, in HOW(ever), the work of women who are willing to jump into the gaps, the interstices, the unknown--to proceed "without a net."

The marginalization of the women mentioned above, as well as her experience as writer and mother, gave rise to a feature that distinguishes Fraser's open form from Olson's. While Olson states that there is only one possible form for the material under hand, and one senses a firm establishment of authority in his pronouncements about and practice of field composition, Fraser's experience of "contingency," "the incidental," "the inessential," and "instability" (all concepts addressed in the book) lead her to an embrace of open form as the only possible way to translate uncertainty, hesitation, and a radical sense of dislocation--ideas that seem foreign, if not antithetical, to our sense of Olson, although ideas whose application to Olson may lead to a revelatory deconstruction of his work. In addition to opening the page up to a visual/structural dynamic for the poem, Olson also is a key figure because of his "declared move away from the narcissistically probing, psychological defining of self," which "helped to provide a major alternative ethic of writing for women poets who resisted the ‘confessional' model for their poems."

Translating the Unspeakable also illuminates the work of Fraser's contemporaries who embrace the visual space of the poem as space of enactment in which meaning is discovered or engendered rather than portrayed, a space in which closure is never a necessity, and which may even be seen as the space of "the real."* In the essays "Line. On the Line. Lining up. Lined with. Between the Lines. Bottom Line." and "Translating the unspeakable: Visual poetics, as projected through Olson's ‘field' into current female writing practice," Fraser presents the work of Hannah Weiner, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Susan Howe, Barbara Guest, Frances Jaffer, Beverly Dahlen, Ntozake Shange, Maureen Owen, Dale Going, Laura Moriarty, Myung Mi Kim, Meredith Stricker, Mary Margaret Sloan, Norma Cole, Catherine Bowers, Susan Gevirtz, and others who turn "to language as an active principle." Taken together, and contextualized with relation to early writers like Emily Dickinson as well as to visual artists like Agnes Martin and male colleagues similarly willing to write from the margins of approved poetic discourse (and Fraser writes eloquently of many of these men in this book and in other essays not collected here), the writing Fraser illuminates constitutes a poetic endeavor that beautifully complicates our poetry by bringing to it a dimensionality that "invites multiplicity, synchronicity, elasticity . . . perhaps the very female subjectivity proposed by Julia Kristeva as linking both cyclical and monumental time."

I want to end with a word about Fraser's poetry, excerpts from which provide epigraphs for the sections of Translating the Unspeakable. Fraser has always been a poet whose lyric transcendence and devotion to beauty (such as the painting of Giotto) have obscured for some readers her formal radicalism. Yet precisely what Fraser finds in Giotto's details is his "break from the artistic conventions of his time." Make no mistake--Fraser's poetry provides an entry into a radical arena in which meaning is contingent, uncertain, in which our cherished preconceptions are unhinged.

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 . . .

("Wing," 1995, reprinted in Translating the Unspeakable)

Her poetry is only the most imaginative part of a project that includes this book of essays, the editing of HOW(ever) and the website how2, and which embraces the work of innumerable colleagues, the totality forming what we may see as one of the most significant poetic enterprises of our time. It is a project of and from the margins, a project that will not be tamed:

"Telling it slant," slide-rule poetics, improvising one's relation to language as often as is necessary, graphics of recursive inquiry, determined & indeterminate cadence. Not to be tamed.

*For a discussion of "the projection of a new realism" that is critical to innovative contemporary poets such as Fraser, Hejinian, and many others, see Hank Lazer, Opposing Poetries, vol 2 (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, pp. 29-30).

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Spring 2001 Table of Contents