Although Kathleen Fraser has long divided her time between San Francisco and Rome, her most recent collection, movable TYYPE (Nightboat Books), reminds us of her poetry’s New York roots. She glosses the title of the volume’s first poem, “Orologic,” as proposing “a particular time frame for entering memory-life, NYC mid ‘60s / Lower East Side,” and recalls the intoxication of “new push-back urban energies delivered via paint, dance and music specifically American-made as in John Coltrane, John Cage, Yvonne Rainer, Joe Brainard, Joan Mitchell…. Sentences dangled in one’s ear of such surprise you could only seek the solitude of your journal and try to break the code.” What Fraser has taken to transcribing in her poetry is not emotion recollected in tranquility but rather a particular fluttering of the nerves, carried over into the act of writing.
After her immersion as a young writer in the ferment of 1960s Manhattan, Fraser has engaged with myriad other influences — among them George Oppen, Barbara Guest and the once scandalously neglected modernism of women poets H.D., Mina Loy and Lorine Niedecker — and the evolution of her feminist-oriented poetics has brought her to techniques involving collage, erasure, found material and typographical experiment. What has never waned is the characteristic responsiveness honed by her New York education, the delight of imaginative “code-breaking” as both the work and reward of keen awareness.
Fraser’s openness has led her to embrace collaboration, and at the heart of movable TYYPE, which gathers poems from 2000 through 2011, are texts from four limited-edition books, three originally published with accompanying works by the artists Nancy Tokar Miller, JoAnn Ugolini and Hermine Ford. (The first version of Fraser’s 9/11 poem “Witness” was created in conjunction with the Spanish painter Gonzalo Tena for an exhibition at Barcelona’s Galería Maeght; Miller’s drawings and prints were included for the artist book version, published in 2007.) Other poems address artists’ struggles and breakthroughs. Studio visits with the painter Rebecca Quaytman in Rome in 2000 became the foundation for “20th Century,” an ekphrastic meditation that seeks not to describe Quaytman’s work but to inhabit her process, her quest for a means to sidestep and subvert male strictures: “she turning / turns his verticals (law / he made)” … “her private height his / ‘death of painting.’” Watching Quaytman’s “hesitancy become physical” in the studio, Fraser endows the painter’s search with a Steinian music: “she is, nor is she / interested in being either / nor summoned directly into one / into one other, but is / two and dark and richly dark.”
In poems like these Fraser gives herself over to the suggestive interplay of word, music and the basic gestures of visual form. “L i g a t u r e, for Mr Coltrane” ventures further than mere homage. Envisioning the saxophonist’s sessions at the Half Note on Hudson Street in 1965 from the vantage of a twenty-year-old Belgian expatriate, it is structured by an unexpected correspondence between jazz and typography: “One night I imagined I could hear Mr. Coltrane thinking in air and it occurred to me that songs could be like old alphabets, going back and back, and someone with a horn and his own way of thinking in sound could cut an old song out of the air like a new typeface finding its inner balance just at the place where a horn player feels something pulling and suddenly changes keys.” The equilibrium imagined here is not an endpoint but a moment of turning, the musical modulation yielding a glimpse of a new alphabet.
Since the early 1980s, Fraser has been interested in the generative power of errors, so that a poem’s drafts submit themselves to the animating energies of chance mutations. One poem in movable TYYPE begins “A photo is often identified incorrectly” — not misidentified, because for Fraser, there is no such thing as a misperception: the only failures are lapses in attention. She has opened herself to “faulty copying,” as she put in in the title of one of her essays, because “perfect copying held less allure as I began to savor the reliability of the unexpected.”
This practice of welcoming slippage, of incorporating random mistakes and miscues into the writing process, has determined the ultimate versions of poems such as “La La at the Cirque Fernando, Paris” (1998), where an accidental capital letter in the name “FernanDo” set her to play with full words found in the final syllables of the draft she’d written, with a transformative effect on the final outcome. But most of Fraser’s poems have not been written this way, and her courting of error is best regarded as an attitude that typifies her larger receptivity. She is committed to investigating “the potential plasticity of language,” and by her own account her furthest experiment in this vein is hi dde violeth i dde violet, the 2003 book (collected in movable TYYPE) with its origins in a few pleasant days spent with Italian friends around Easter 2003. The occasion was, she recalls, “so Roman — sweet, bourgeois, and nutty,” and elicited a poem that serves up a feast of visual and typographic inventiveness. Intentional misspellings and other verbal distortions make every page a field of aural and lexical wordplay:
slice of nowwhere
Here a passing impression — irritation at what’s coming over the radio from next door — lacks the weight of even the slightest domestic anecdote, but it is nonetheless delved into: because of the repeated w in “nowwhere,” we read the word as marking the disembodied presence of the offending broadcast, its being “nowhere,” “now here,” and “now where?” all at once. And the page’s spare music — all those o’s resounding with each other, as if echoing into the white space surrounding the text — dispatches a gentle rebuke to the “bOther” of the radio’s blare. In a mere ten words Fraser absorbs what’s been given to her, unbidden and unwelcome, and responds in a counter-linguaggio of delicacy and wit.
Even the seeming triviality of such a moment is belied by the larger intention of hi dde violeth i dde violet, which was written for Fraser’s friend, the poet Norma Cole, after she had suffered a stroke and was unable to speak: the radio’s exasperating logorrhea is set against the misfortune of Cole’s imposed silence. In a note, Fraser explains how an earlier version, “a condensed, highly polished poem that finally felt beside-the-point,” had led to a dead end, as Fraser found herself “writing from the impossible position of saying something real that might acknowledge [Cole’s] situation yet possibly amuse her.” hi dde violeth i dde violet emerged out of an Oulipian repurposing of this stillborn ur-text, when Fraser enlarged the manuscript, cut-and-pasted its letters, words and punctuation into new combinations (nothing was discarded), and hung the resulting thirty-one sheets on the wall of her study.
There’s no missing the relish Fraser took in assembling this poem-object, with its nonsense, bilingualism, contrapuntal type-sizing and jokey liturgical allusions. And yet its irreverence is never at odds with its aim to be a gift for her suffering fellow poet, and the Easter setting accords with the offering of hope that concludes the poem, cast in a simple and gorgeously lucid utterance:
by unseen hand. Light
opens over trees’ abundant
The poems in movable TYYPE show Fraser tuned in to higher frequencies: “In empty expectancy,” she writes, “what movement may reveal itself stepping from behind the cypress sending signals out to its planetary rings.” Such heightened mindfulness calls forth an enlarged subjectivity. Fraser has resisted the lyric impulse, grounded in the poet’s ego: even in her autobiographical poems, the self seems effaced (thus the experience of 9/11, which has yielded much overwrought writing, is pared away to haunting spareness: “You will always be there and it will be collapsing”). What bubbles up through the “impersonal” surfaces of her poems is an unmistakable sensibility, generous in its sympathies and restless in its explorations.
Kathleen Fraser’s movable TYYPE is available at Nightboat Books and other online and independent booksellers.