I am not of that feather: Kathleen Fraser's Postmodernist Poetics
by Cynthia Hogue
Breaking rules, breaking boundaries, crossing over, going where you've been told not to go has increasingly figured in the writing of the contemporary woman poet as a natural consequence of the restraints placed upon her as a child being socialized to the female role her class and culture prefer. The poem becomes her place to break rank[.]
Kathleen Fraser, "Line. On the Line."
we know no rule
we are voyagers, discoverers,
Influence is a mysterious process of invitation, trust, and intuitive intertextual engagement, as Kathleen Fraser's 1996 talk on her relationship to H.D., "The Empty Page: H.D.'s Invitation to Trust and Mistrust Language," details. The talk gives us a fascinating insight into a postmodern woman poet's coming-to-consciousness of a "lost" Modernist foremother. As such, it provides the basis for what will be my point of departure in this essay, that H.D. did not "influence" Fraser, in the conventional sense of reading an older writer as model in a young poet's formative years and absorbing (and denying) that predecessor's style. Rather, devoted to "intellectual curiosity," productive of an oeuvre that tracks and investigates process, that thoughtfully challenges and linguistically reforms itself, Fraser encountered H.D. as "enspiriting guide" at a crucial transitional period in her career.
The changes that feminist consciousness-raising brought about by the 1970s enabled her to trust her own artistic intuition and to explore possibilities of creative process which H.D. helped her to hear (in her talk, Fraser repeatedly casts her response to hearing H.D. in terms of trust). As Fraser remarks about her long sequence, "Etruscan Pages" (1993), for example,
Without H.D.'s precedent, it is very unlikely that I would have trusted my own particular rendering of the clues and layers of the Etruscan culture, nor understood the urgency of articulating another sense of it, in the face of all the officially recognized texts preceding me . . . including that of D. H. Lawrence.
Hearing a literary mother after a generation of silence encourages Fraser not to mute her own "rendering" because of a powerful paternal precedent.
Absent from the college reading lists of the 1950s and 1960s (like most of the other great female-authored Modernist texts), H.D.'s work was represented in anthologies, if included at all, by a few of the early, Imagist poems by which she often remained anthologized until quite recently. In the New York of the 1960s, "swarmed as I was by every possible kind of intimate, innovative or jazzy poetic example," Fraser simply couldn't "hear H.D.'s voice." Moving to San Francisco by the end of the decade, however, Fraser began to encounter H.D.'s voice indirectly, filtered through prominent Black Mountain poets like Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley. By the 1970s and 1980s, feminist critics revealed for Fraser "a different grid, a detour meant to flaw the convenient, intact, uniform story of influence"; their critical work helped Fraser to understand H.D. in a way that opened up poetic possibilities:
H.D.'s linking of "hermetic" assignations with "secret language" and her conscious rejection of single-version narratives would become central in helping to define my own poetic process. . . . I began hearing her urgency and experiencing in her work a kind of female model or enspiriting guide that I'd been lacking. . . . I finally understood that she used the scaffolding of locked-up myth to regenerate lopsided "human" stories with a new infusion of the feminine. . . . There was a place to put my trust."
It is clear that Fraser never aspired consciously to imitate H.D.'s honed, signatory style. Quite the contrary: "The Empty Page" celebrates H.D. rather for her invitation not to imitate, for her blanking out of inherited structures and her multiplying of "single-version" fictions. H.D. gives Fraser the poetic means to possess herself ("enspirits" her), to generate her own poetic structures, in turn, helping her to define and orient herself. H.D. does not place her (as in locking her into place, fixing her in relation to Eliotic Tradition), but gives her a place for her "trust." This placement enables Fraser to gain confidence in her own "particular rendering." She headily celebrates H.D. for helping her to leap, as it were, into an emptiness she also sees because of H.D.'s work (H.D.'s "blank page" emptied of previous presence).
In 1983, Kathleen Fraser founded HOW(ever), a journal established to bridge the gap between feminist scholars and experimental women poets, providing a place for "commentary on neglected [modernist/postmodernist] women poets who were/are making textures and structures of poetry in the tentative region of the untried." H.D. is discussed often in the journal's pages over its nine years of publication, with entries by such major H.D. critic-poets as Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Adelaide Morris, Barbara Guest, and Alicia Ostriker (among others). Volume 3 (October 1986) celebrates H.D.'s centennial year with an issue "of writings in which the sign, the mark, the utterance of the unconscious comes through into present voice, with ancient echoes hovering." The issue includes a substantial list of publications honoring H.D. (there were special issues, for example, of AGENDA and The Iowa Review) as well as an announcement for an Emily Dickinson/H.D. Dual Centennial Conference to be held at San Jose State University. By HOW(ever)'s final issue in 1992, Fraser quotes the lines alluded to above from Trilogy (which were fast becoming feminism's mots justes); H.D. then gets the last word in the issue, reiterating Fraser's quotation of those lines--
she carries the book but it is not
the tome of the ancient wisdom,
the pages, I imagine, are the blank pages
of the unwritten volume of the new[.]
--which also conclude the publication as a whole! Out of context, the quotation functions not simply to reproduce but to reinterpret H.D.'s original reference to a transformed, and transformative, feminine spirituality, becoming an ongoing and ever-renewing "invitation" to pursue a new ("untried") feminist poetics beyond the frame of both Trilogy and HOW(ever).
The second quotation used as epigraph above, another famous passage from Trilogy, is also employed as epigraph in "The Empty Page," in which Fraser spells out her sense that "H.D. is issuing a literal invitation." In her opening paragraph, Fraser recontextualizes H.D.'s mystical "not-known" (i.e. of esoteric wisdom), rendering it very specifically the "unsaid" of one woman's historical experience. Fraser thereby leaps from epigraph about "no rule" to an opening discussion which contemplates H.D.'s particular refusal of the pervasive, inherited "rules of procedure" that surrounded her in her youth. But the epigraph that refers us to Trilogy also, we discover by perusing HOW(ever), refers us to an excerpt of Alicia Ostriker's essay on H.D., "No Rule of Procedure: H.D. and Open Poetics." Asking how the poem's music contributes to its meaning, Ostriker suggests that "we are being invited to trust not a still point outside of ourselves, transcending this world, but our own interiority" (emphasis added). Astutely characterizing Trilogy's paradoxical formalism as "neither rhymed nor not-rhymed," Ostriker goes on to enumerate some of the many "interior sound-echoes":
(here) there / (your) square / colour / hare . . . (there as here), enter / doors, (here) there, endures, (everywhere) air; fissure / endure fire/ floor / terror / ember / what for?
"By intensifying the overlap of sound," observes Meredith Stricker about H.D.'s signatory, Imagist poem, "Oread," "H.D. creates expectations that the reader rushes to fill. . . . Every rhyme invokes the reader's consideration of semantic as well as sound similarities." Stricker aptly calls the reverberations of semantic, aural, and visual associations "ghost rhymes": "the aural equivalent to palimpsest." Thus, readers experience this "sound-play," as Ostriker terms it, not only as rhyme but also as formal and thematic premise:
that order, beauty and meaning remain permanently present in our shattered world, but not permanently obvious, and that the way to recover them is through the receptive psychic states of dream and vision.
Having accepted H.D.'s invitation to trust our "interiority" (our dreams and visions), we open to hearing the meaningful "sound-echoes" of the poem, which, Ostriker implies, reverberate beyond the poetic frame.
Invitation, hearing, trust. These recurring words indicate a process of attention catalyzing poetic invention. Coincident with her learning about H.D., Fraser speaks in her 1989 essay, "The Tradition of Marginality," of encountering a "different kind of attentive [in the works of postmodern women poets]: . . . a listening attitude, an attending to unconscious connections, a backing-off of the performing ego to allow the mysteries of language to come forward and resonate more fully." Stricker writes that the "more I read H.D., the more I feel loosened from categories." She suggests that H.D. created a "new species" of literary form. Being receptive to "the other world" of "what wants to be said," as Fraser describes it, involves "a new structure of trust in one's discovered (not received) relationship with language and all that language encloses," Linda Kinnahan asserts. Hearing H.D. enspirited as well as coincided with Fraser's own process of discovery as she began to write poems that "make us see the world through a lens that would subvert, at their linguistic-perceptual root, habits of consciousness comfortable with the predominant cultural givens," as Marianne DeKoven puts it. Fraser readily acknowledges that in her work she tries to "do something syntactically that will disturb or shift [a] person's way of reading," as she remarked during a 1997 MLA roundtable discussion on the long poem, in order to maintain what Peter Quartermain has described as "a vital perturbability."
I have been exploring a few of the Brief Commentaries, Alerts, and Postcards from HOW(ever)'s pages in some detail, to give a sense of how much H.D.'s work and aesthetics permeated Fraser's intellectual and artistic milieu from the mid-1970s to early 1990s. As I leafed through the issues of HOW(ever), I was struck by how often H.D. was discussed; every few issues, there was an entry or two, throughout the years of publication, as well as announcements about scholarly and critical publications (some excerpted briefly in HOW[ever], like Ostriker's essay). In addition to some of the very specific reconsiderations and astute formal analyses of H.D.'s work, there are myriad kinds of other references: fascinating, informal scholarship (one entry by Virginia Smyers, for example, the librarian cataloging Bryher's books, detailing Smyers' discovery of H.D.'s annotations of a book on Christian mysticism [October 1986]); an extension of H.D.'s primary methodology to her poet-biographer in a lovely "Palimpsest for Barbara Guest," by Dale Going (Summer 1991); even H.D.'s response to a 1929 questionnaire "What would you most like to do . . . ?" (H.D. was making films at time: "I should like more than anything to . . . . . . wander in and about Italian and Swiss hills making light do what I want" [April 1988]). I suggest that the layers of such references, in the context of the flowering of Second Wave and poststructuralist feminist scholarship on H.D. and other women writers, as well as feminist experimental writing in the 1980s, comprise a sort of cultural palimpsest, in H.D.'s sense of the term.
In her important essay on the line in postmodern poetry, Fraser in fact invokes the term in order to build on H.D.'s work as model for postmodernist women's writing:
H.D. introduced the concept of the palimpsest: writing "on top of" other writing which . . . has been imperfectly erased . . . ; this moment in history is re-inscribed over the faded . . . messages of a female collective consciousness, a spiritual and erotic set of valuings essentially ignored by the dominant culture.
Fraser's revisionary "female collective consciousness" engenders linguistic traces ("messages") that coincide within the palimpsest, not only creating imaginary intersections where there could be none in history, but also reinventing in the present what has been lost. Such a reinvention can never be whole or precise, however, and is achieved not through reproduction (the erasure of significant differences), but by having established affinities: a shared "spiritual and erotic set of valuings." Noting that a Fraser poem works like "a linear poem [but] in a deconstructed space," Kinnahan suggests that the structures of Fraser's work require "a reading and thinking in layers"--that is to say, a palimpsestic, critical reading strategy.
To understand how Fraser's work responds to H.D.'s poetic project, it is useful to think of the "layers" in Fraser's work--the "bits and pieces of language, single words, alphabet fragments," to borrow Fraser's own description of "the palimpsest notion"--as "potent" fragments full of insights discovered through or during, despite or even because of, the accidents of interruption. As she puts it in her "Afterword": ". . . that in fragment lay potency" (Il Cuore 195). "The fragmented, broken up, interrupted time" out of which women writers have always tried to write--the traces of which Fraser conceptualizes and integrates into her work, rather than attempts to erase--works for her as an important creative principle. We can approach these layers archeo/logically, as excavations of levels of socio-cultural experience embedded in and juxtaposed among personal and literary intersections. The creative/formal interactions produce--and are produced by--discovery: flashes of insight often catalyzed by the "merely" accidental. "The accidents/ interest me," Fraser writes. A prose poem, "this. notes. new year.," for example, records the process of a woman's realizing, through the accident of a typo, that she has a very different relationship to "flaws" than the one she has inherited:
wanted a "flow" she thought, but in the translation
(Il Cuore 39)
In Fraser's ironic corrective of tradition, "flaw" (as in, traditionally: of feminine character) displaces "flow" (as in: aesthetically pleasing), and conscious desire is "corrected" not by punishment but by "translation" (a typo leading to metaphor and insight [the self-as-gift]): an "accident" to which the woman can "give herself."
I want to consider specifically how Fraser's postmodernist work extends H.D.'s modernist poetics, by turning to the last poem included in Fraser's selected poems, Il Cuore: The Heart (1997), a serial poem in ten parts, entitled "WING." As Fraser details in a recent interview, the series emerged from "seemingly disconnected levels" of social and historical context (several of which remind us of H.D.'s traumatic residence in London during the Blitz): the illness and death of a close friend from AIDS; two exhibits by artist Mel Bochner in Rome (one at the Museo Storico della Liberazione) that caused Fraser to ruminate about Italian Fascist and Nazi imprisonment of Jews, Gypsies, and resistance fighters during World War II; the archeo/logical remnants of imperial Roman history evident in the architectural layers of Roman walls (becoming Fraser's palimpsestic arche/text); and (perhaps the most unconscious coincidence of Fraser with H.D.'s Trilogy) Fraser's fascination from childhood with the spiritual iconography of angels and wings. Produced with visionary intensity during the London Blitz, Trilogy poignantly enspirits "WING," I would like to suggest--with its "haunting" by the history of Rome and World War II, by angels, by death, and not least, by its invitation to inscribe "the blank pages/ of the unwritten volume of the new."
"WING" opens with this direct allusion to Trilogy:
volume by necessity becomes violent and three-dimensional
Because of "the new" at which H.D. arrived, Fraser is able to open with "The New." Most obviously, of course, Fraser's "New" isn't "unwritten" but writerly--"in order to be itself," it has "shaken off and smudged" all other, "similar models." Where H.D.'s work pauses conceptually ("the unwritten volume"), Fraser continues with a graphic description of the palimpsest as material object on which new writing smudges and partially erases the earlier scripts. Fraser's text inscribes "The New" by describing what has for her become its concrete "volume" (through concretized wordplay)--imaginatively materialized, an entity both with real edges and edged with rhetorized play between the abstract and concrete ("as if memory were an expensive thick creamy paper and every/ corner turned now in partial erasure").
In Fraser's "New," the palimpsestic fragments of thought, observation, "nested" quotations, phrases, sentences, words separate from each other, coincide, sometimes combine. The four verbal cubes of Part II, "First Black Quartet: Via Tasso," for example, depict what Fraser describes as "the breaking up of matter and its reformation":
(Il Cuore 185)
The four spatially-related cubes of Part II illustrate a number of Fraser's formal innovations which echo H.D. (with all of the aspects of distortion that accompany the phenomenon of echo). In Fraser's serious wordplay, "the New is used." Patterns of thinking, the mindset of line and power which H.D.'s Trilogy contemplates urgently as well, are shattered and reassembled ("that which is known to us"). Formal improvisation and visual/aural association ("picking, pecking") expand upon the semantic possibilities explored in H.D.'s aurally excessive, but visually "contained" poetics. H.D.'s revisionary "Tribute to the Angels" becomes, in Fraser's postmodern layering of loss, much less certain or reassuring: "ghost or angel" come to tell us what "we didn't want to know"; a body-of-words (also a body-in-pieces) intersecting spatially so as to interact visually and semantically. Part VI, "Crossroads," for example, ends--"messenger: : wing" (Il Cuore 189).
As a creative principle, fragmentation occupies an acknowledged, even exalted place in Modernism, thanks to its best-known articulation by T.S. Eliot ("These fragments I have shored against my ruin"). Kinnahan persuasively argues, however, that in their paratactic collage and layers of "overlapping differences" (the term is Fraser's), Fraser's experimental compositions trace their roots to the work of William Carlos Williams, whose poetry in turn "carries the imprint of the women modernists"--Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, and H.D. Fraser's process of linguistic reassociation and the forms that "overlapping differences" create work to resist enculturated patterns of thought and to dislodge us from the received assumptions and perceptions to which we are attached. As she explores in "WING," we are very attached to words' attachments to each other (that is, to syntax and sense). Part V, "Color: Via Della Penitenza," for instance, tracks the synthesizing, unifying leaps from partial, "retinal" glimpse to full-blown, angelic vision:
Even the New is attached or marked by attachment
shimmer of wing, which claim may tell us everything
these retinal bodies larger, remarkable for their iridescence
In this passage, the signifying ability of a phrase like "marked by attachment" is enhanced by the very process of detachment, the materiality of which it both records and illustrates. The section refers to both narrative fragments embedded inside it (the cosmonauts glimpse a jet's wings and see an angel) and readers' extratextual, interactive process of (re)attaching syntactically what Fraser's text has detached (as I have here, to discuss the passage, as well). Imaginatively, we thereby hear with enhanced consciousness the levels which Fraser's poem activates, "loosening" ourselves from static "identity," from the "familiar," from the "known," as Section IV, "Line," suggests (Il Cuore 187).
Finally, the poem opens to what Fraser herself has discussed as "covert error leading to unimpeded risk" and unfettered insight. Through an "accident" produced by the formal experimentation that she was conducting, Section X, "Vanishing Point: Third Black Quartet," concretely materializes "WING":
(Il Cuore 193)
Fraser describes the process of writing this last section as the unplanned, formal contextualization of an "out-of-context" experience. An experiment with mechanical/formal repetition leads to a visual discovery (the shape of a wing) and an insight that "being taken outside of my normal frames of reference" catalyzes. As she elaborates in her "Afterword,"
Isn't the typo, after all, a word trying to escape its single-version identity? It wants deciphering. Just as the alphabet is 'at large,' so is the fugitive identity of the poem . . . on the prowl, looking for its next escape from the already known.
(Il Cuore 197; from Fraser's Afterword )
Hearing the reverberations and resonances of (among others) H.D.'s etymological wordplay, loosening her own approach to language and form from the poetically familiar as well as social and cultural hierarchies of dominance, Fraser "break[s] boundaries, cross[es] over," as she puts it in the passage from "Line. On the Line." quoted as my first epigraph. As such, she defamiliarizes world and word through a particular, gendered and historical consciousness, because, she writes in the essay's closing, a "woman wants to fly." In winging it, "WING" opens its wings to the poetically possible--or, put another way, to the ecstatically "New"--"itself the wing not static but frayed, layered, fettered, furling" (Il Cuore 193).
By analogy, of course, it's as if Pound were represented solely by "In a Station of the Metro" and "The River Merchant's Wife." The essay that first posed a question about this oversight is Susan Stanford Friedman's "Who Buried H.D.?" [back to text]
 Duncan began publishing portions of his H.D. Book by the late 1960s. Although teaching in the east, Creeley spent half of every year around San Francisco throughout the 1970s. My own initial exposure to H.D. occurred, as a matter of fact, in the spring of 1974, when at SUNY/Buffalo, I took an independent study with Creeley, who gave me his 1973 New Directions edition of Trilogy, mentioning that I might be interested in H.D.'s work. I have cherished the gift for many years now, although we never talked about H.D.'s poetry, and it was never taught in his American Modernism class (which focussed on Pound, Williams, and Olson). Entranced by her jewel-like images and wordplay, I didn't really begin to understand H.D., until Susan Stanford Friedman published her groundbreaking Psyche Reborn in the following decade. [back to text]
 Fraser, "WHY HOW(ever)?" HOW(ever) 1, no. 1 (May 1983): 1. HOW(ever) was published for nine years, founded by Fraser and edited by Fraser along with Frances Jaffer, Beverly Dahlen, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Carolyn Burke (among others over the years). I am grateful to Linda Kinnahan's groundbreaking critical work on HOW(ever), first presented as a panel paper, "'A Peculiar Hybrid': The Feminist Project of HOW(ever), Then and Now." A longer critical work is in progress. [back to text]
 Ostriker, "No Rule of Procedure," HOW(ever) 5, no. 4 (October 1989): 20-21; excerpted from a talk by Ostriker at the E.D./H.D. Conference, San Jose State University, 1987. The essay's full text was published in Signets, ed. Susan Stanford Friedman and Rachel Blau DuPlessis. [back to text]
 The transcript of the MLA discussion held on 28 December 1997, in which Susan Howe, Harryette Mullen, Sharon Doubiago, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Aldon Nielsen, and Donna Hollenberg (among others) participated as well, is forthcoming in a special Women's Studies issue edited by Kathleen Crown. See Crown (ed.), "A Roundtable Discussion." See also Quartermain, "Introduction" (xi). [back to text]
 Quartermain also discusses this formal principle in Fraser's work. See his "Introduction" (xi). Fraser has discussed "accidents" and "errors" as principles of invention in both the recent interview (see Hogue, "Interview with Kathleen Fraser") and in Crown (ed.), "Roundtable Discussion." [back to text]
 As she remarks in her interview with the author, "I had been thinking for years about angels in Italian art, going back to my childhood connection to certain Biblical passages, and the presence of angels in Rilke's elegies. What were they? Why is it that we have such an extensive iconography of wings, passed down in different religious traditions? What actually has happened to people who experience angels? I'd been collecting pictures of wings." On the pervasive iconography of angels in London during World War II, in the context of which H.D. composed Trilogy, see Susan Schweik. [back to text]
 In her recent interview, Fraser describes at length her emotional response to Mel Bochner's Drawings of "cube forms hurtling through space" and his 1993 installation, Via Tasso, mounted at the Museo Storico della Liberazione di Roma, originally an apartment where the Italian Fascists and Nazis had imprisoned Jews. This installation consisted of three six-pointed stars formed entirely of burnt match sticks. To Fraser, who has dedicated "WING" to the memory of a friend who died of AIDS, Bochner's work catalyzed the memories of personal and historical loss. See Hogue, "Interview with Kathleen Fraser." [back to text]
One need only think of a passage illustrating H.D.'s linguistic, alchemical transformations formalized in couplets, as an example:
Now polish the crucible
and in the bowl distill a word most bitter, marah,
a word bitterer still, mar,
. . . . . . . . . .
and change and alter,
mer, mere, mère, mater, Maia, Mary,
Star of the Sea,
 See Hogue, "Interview with Kathleen Fraser." See also Susan Stewart's superb essay analyzing the attempt to convey within the space of the poem the quality of inspiration and transport that reputedly catalyzed it, "Lyric Possession." [back to text]
 Fraser, "Line. On the Line." 174. For the source of this metaphor, see, of course, Hélène Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa" and Alicia Ostriker's foundational, feminist study of American women poets, which builds on Cixous's metaphor, Stealing the Language. [back to text]
Reprinted from H.D. AND POETS AFTER, edited by Donna Drolik Hollenberg, by permission of The University of Iowa Press, © 2000.
BIO: Cynthia Hogue has published three collections of poetry, most recently The Never Wife (Mammoth Press, 1999). She is working on a fourth collection entitled The Incognito Body. She currently lives in Pennsylvania, where she directs the Stadler Center for Poetry and teaches English at Bucknell University.