The signal ambit of Kathleen Fraser's remarkable poetic career has encompassed the feminist concern with exclusion, marginality and the generation of "voice," as well as the poststructuralist intrigue surrounding the construction of the self through language. Throughout, she has reveled in the liberating play of words themselves. Fraser's devotion to discovery, her willingness to risk, and her profoundly lyrical sense of the intimate place her not only among our most daring poetic innovators, but also mark her as one of the pre-emiment poets of the past thirty years.
A Selected Poems is a summing up: of poetic vectors and their stratigraphies, of political strategies and deployments, of continuities, fissures and fictions. Readers new to Fraser have the opportunity to discover here the richness and complexity of her work, while her longtime admirers can re-assess her accomplishments in the new light of this beautifully produced volume from Wesleyan/New England.
Fraser's lifelong poetic project may be summed up by the simplicity of her bilingual title, "il cuore: the heart." The subtle suggestion contained in the "facing" of Italian and English is that a subversion of the binaristic codings of language is achievable, not by reducing the terms on either side of the colon to an identical meaning, but by an imbrication of these two words - so that what is irreducible about them in sound, in shade of inference, in cultural nuance and history, takes on a multivalent and harmonic reverberation in which difference and identity are conflated, broken down, and re-configured.
From the outset, Fraser's sense of poetic inequity with regard to form and its political (read patriarchal) proscriptions has led her to what Kristeva calls the distinctly feminine "moment of rupture." As Fraser writes in the second poem of "il cuore," "To Start," (from the 1974 "Seven Uneasy Songs"): "At a tremendous speed my throat makes its door slide./Open. Pure guesswork ... /To think is simultaneous." Rupture induces rapture. That is, the foregrounding of process opens a new understanding of and relation to poetic praxis. No longer a repressed element, subordinated to the poem's content, its message, the means of composition becomes an integral part of the poem, form returning with a gigantic laugh, an "incandescence," as Cixous's described it.
The outcome of such a praxis is radical: a rejection of the epistemological center of conventional cognition and a movement toward its periphery; a recognition of the co-eval relationship between language and self; and a commitment to both the dissolution of gender and identity, and to their ongoing re-mapping through a pro-visional, open-ended poesis. Fraser embraces the uncertainty this brings with it. In one of the "Magritte Series" (1978) - "Les Valeurs Personnelles" - passive succumbing becomes active engagement: "She felt the boat tipping. She felt the possibility of doing nothing to stop it."
Such a poetry has often displayed, among Language Poets for instance, a level of linguistic abstraction in which the body often, if inadvertently, is relegated to a secondary, even invisible, status. In Fraser's work, however, the body remains in situ as an originating locus of poetry, an entire panoply of being/breath arising in a lyric modality for the em-bodying of new tensions and their articulations. Again, in "Les Valeurs Personnelles," we find her speaking of,
. . .
"The limits of language present us," Fraser has written elsewhere, "... with the limits of what we might know about ourselves." Not content to push only for a competent reading of feminine experience, Fraser has trespassed on the sacred centrality of our culture's idea of language as a transparent, a-political medium in which experience is somehow naively reflected without mediation. Of no particular school, hers is an abiding and re-invigorating preoccupation with the energizing mysteries of the polysemically charged word. For those who complain that experimental poetry is too abstruse, too dense, too hermetic, the work of Kathleen Fraser stands as a bracing rebuttal in its affirmation of lyric’s self-renewing power. There was never a clarity worth having that did not come at a price. Celebrating the erogenous prolixity of the word itself, she has redrawn the contours of the legible, in the process creating a Protean poetics in which the poem's "rejection of closure," as Lyn Hejinian puts it, acts continually to re-inscribe the self’s relation to itself and to the other in the field of the Open.