Online Edition: Spring 2005

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Discrete Categories Forced
Into Coupling

Kathleen Fraser

Apogee Press ($12.95)

by Laynie Browne

If (woman) is a whole, it's a whole composed of parts that are wholes, not simple partial objects but a moving, limitlessly changing ensemble…an immense astral space not organized around any one sun that's anymore of a star than others.
               --Helene Cixous, The Laugh of Medusa

Kathleen Fraser's recent collection, Discrete Categories Forced into Coupling, is divided into six sections and includes verse, prose, and a brief play. Throughout this carefully structured book is a unifying project in which all of the forms employed are versions of the same intelligence attempting to cross discrete categories. Or, as implied by the title, to couple. Diaristic details convey sense of place, relationship, and artistic endeavor with an emphasis upon visual art and images. Yet the intimate tone suggested as speakers proceed at various speeds through modern life (to brood, to rush) is fused with what lies behind or between utterances, what remains implicit within speech. Each act, whether mundane or transcendent, is infused with (rather than determined by) the racing and stalling of the mind, the chatter or clutter in a room. In other words, the moment is entered without a sense of limitation. In this way, Fraser creates an expansiveness at times seemingly without moving at all, and often in the midst of mental or physical flight.

In the opening poem, “Champs (fields) & between,” one is immediately launched into movement with various relations to time, and yet awake to these doings in a manner which elevates scurrying. “The air came down like rice. It scattered through unevenness and uneventfulness,” writes Fraser; as if time were matter which could fall and surround us tangibly, this work is “attainable in the private ear.” Fraser depicts a world which is bigger than, but does not exclude the personal. This text has a musing quality, at times philosophic, but there is no narrowing of the lens in order to achieve this effect. Details which are, in Cixous's words, “parts that are wholes” scatter meaningfully through Fraser's text as easily and plausibly as air becomes rice. The machinery of life is not neglected, nor is it glorified, nor does it take over to become the work. Instead there is a unity in the way daily life is woven into circumstances such as “One felt a lift of hope beyond the opposite building's surface attached to a resin of deep amber…” No hierarchy of being is suggested.

The longest and perhaps most impressive accomplishment in this book is a prose piece titled “Soft pages,” which begins with a photograph of a foot, and moves cinematically through one interior the poet inhabits to include writing implements, the “receptivity of cheap paper to soft lead,” and intimate attire, tossed upon a radiator to dry. Fraser does not separate the thinking mind from material surrounding. Fraser is cognizant of, and adept at rendering, the foot which appears again and again as motion in a blur. Is one walking towards or away from the listener? Mind mimics this confusion which cannot be concealed by the body's longing to place itself in one place while existing in many locations simultaneously. “What shoes was she wearing, walking up and down hills…Her feet inside and outside of her grandmother's feet, the unbreathing ligaments of even earlier feet in courtly brocade bindings.” The foot is: the foot in poetry, the foot to the visual artist who renders an image, the foot in a yoga class where the poet learns to interlace fingers and toes. The foot here is a means of locomotion and also a foundation.

The sense of trying to retrieve something in motion reaches an unexpected crescendo when a place for a sentence which Fraser describes as missing or unlocatable is marked upon the page in the form of an empty rectangular box. In hope, or in memoriam, this blankness gleams upon the page, or as Fraser writes, “a geometric memory bank, not so much to contain or trap the sentence, but to give it a place to rest.” This space for what is perhaps temporarily irretrievable is also a form of meditation which Fraser practices throughout her work within visual constructions on the page. In this instance, strikingly placed within prose, the box creates a location where the event of the sentence, or its lack, is remembered and therefore safely abandoned. In other words, a place has been accorded for what we cannot at once recall, reveal, or restate. A silence may mark the song one once sang. The transparent sleep of the unsaid is afforded a discernible space.

In the short play titled “Celeste & Sirius,” which falls next in the collection, Celeste says to Sirius, “Whenever I paint a picture, it's called at least six things before it's finished.” The finished piece represents the culmination of the many layers of process, the complexity of thought, of being or endeavor. Nothing here is one dimensional. There is no scanned experience which lies flat and dictatorially along a surface (an admirable and consistent quality in Fraser's work). Within this brief play, two characters consider: “If you're talking about the purpose of a life, then probably we should put on our hats before continuing.” They discuss the necessity of the creative act without hesitation: “I need to stand in a room with a brush or pencil in my hand and feel the paint or the line coming out of me.” And also without pretension: “I think you're going down the wrong road—more like a few wrong roads.” Though the dialogue is abstract, the movement between humor and seriousness is fluid.

In “from Fiamma's Sketchbook” we find various settings where the everyday meets “the interior stress of a leaf.” Here “the dirty bathroom” or “eating your sandwich” become photographic frames within “a private pink human in a cosmic field.” “Sketchbook” is an apt title in that the brief pieces are renderings of contained scenes--somewhat visual but not at the expense of interior delving. The moment moves and is constricted by thought which pins something, at times uncomfortably, to the eye of the reader. A small detail which makes a distant scene easy suddenly enters, “Not wayward nor bottled, containing foam from any excess.”

The section titled “You can hear her breathing in the photograph” is a suite of five prose poems which at times illustrate how “a gesture intended as an opening can turn everything in another direction.” In “The cars” we find the reappearance of the image of the foot, carefully threading through “the four-lane parallel rush of metal” of a freeway, and in the section's title poem we are presented with the question: “What causes a person—say, in a family—to feel he or she is different from the other members…?” Elasticity is brought to light, regarding intimate relations. What compiles the person? “Is arrival focused by admirable intention or by an off-camera genetic predictor…?” Again we are brought back to the foot with the image of Daphne and Apollo, and we learn that this image is the one discussed earlier in “Soft pages.” The poet asks, “Why must the photograph of the two of them come out of its envelope every year and be pinned to the wallpaper?” It is Daphne's breathing we can hear in the photograph. Thus, the gesture that turns everything may be Bernini's chisel lodged in Apollo's foot, or it may be “laying two fingers across the inside skin of the wrist at various points.”

The collection concludes with the moving “AD Notebooks” written for “Willem DeKooning and Marjorie Fraser, stricken by Alzheimer's Disease [AD] in parallel time.” Here falling is a new mode of perception. A history of drawing is explored, the life of the image, the line. “I could draw a line with my crayon,” Fraser writes, “but the other lines are swallowing it.” An image is clearly delineated while simultaneously being effaced, “red passages in crystalline absence and array.” The poem creates absence as it proceeds. Dropping hesitantly, confidently, that which is given over to loss, cessation, as if by succumbing to the passage of time and illness, one were to create a portrait by various unconventional means including erasure, “oozing fresh pigment,” “plaques and tangles,” and “silence.” Fraser enters the phrase, the line, sitting with possibility, unafraid to linger within “Grains of going away,” leaning into each image or stroke, and “Frequently dragging dust into white.”

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Spring 2005 Table of Contents