Kathleen Fraser


Kathleen Fraser

It was much like the night when he and Tarrou had come to the terrace to forget the plague.  Only, tonight the sea was breaking on the cliffs more loudly and the air was calm and limpid . . . From the dark harbor soared the first rocket of the firework display organized by the municipality, and the town acclaimed it with a long-drawn sigh of delight . . . And it was in the midst of shouts rolling against the terrace wall in massive waves that waxed in volume and duration, while cataracts of colored fire fell thicker through the darkness, that Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people. . . and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.

—Albert Camus, The Plague

Until September 11, we had remained largely innocent and untouched as American writers, in the sense that we had never—in actuality—been required to so fully understand the meaning of vulnerability to physical attack and siege in our own cities...and its on-going fall-out, as experienced in our daily level of wariness.  With recent terrorist assaults, all terms have changed.  We have been leveled and, in one profound way, can begin to imagine more deeply the fear and daily pain of that greater part of our human species.  Our psychic bearings are now shaken, our trust in language is under intense and on-going scrutiny.  I cannot imagine this changing for a very long time.

As I’ve tried to think of what I could possibly say, with surety, in this public context, I find that I’ve come up against silence.  I do not want to rush into anything or pretend to sure-footedness or an aspiration to any particular model of new/newer/newest poetic language.  I am not ready, nor will I be ready for some time.  The elements that have served, up to this point, to alert and stir me have not changed that much—those of fragment and disturbed syntax and visual cognate, but I am even more wary now of anything that recommends itself as “speaking with one voice.”

Every day, I need clear thinking and attempt a language that supports this, but I am suspicious of narrowly prescriptive behaviour in any community of thought or writing practice.  I know that writing helps us to focus and to bear witness and for that reason, it is the place where no one should dare to imagine they could tell any one of us what appropriate behaviour is in our writing practice.  For a poet, the lens hovers, goes out of focus, returns unexpectedly...but what it leads one to is always provisional.  These days, I often take a sketchbook where I go. I may or may not write in it.  Last week I pasted in pieces of instruction from the SF Water company, printed in Japanese script, Arabic and Russian because I found the visual characters of each written language discretely beautiful even though their meanings carried parallel information.

To try to speak of what one feels, or how one wants to construct work in the future proved elusive until I concluded that I could not pull a plan together that fast.  I have not been writing poems in these weeks.  But I have been aware of the poignancy of human event in ways I’d lost connection with, convinced I didn’t have—or shouldn’t take—the time.  Now I am back inside time, in a different way.  While I could not bring myself, with sufficient focus, to the questions I imagined as being of acute interest to this earlier constituted gathering, I decided that anything I’d noticed in these last days could now be considered as relevant to our considerations of language and its survival.  I thought, then, that I might share some randomly chosen bits from daily notebook entries over the last month...including several brief narratives, a meditation on Oppen, and observations on media language collecting in my sketchbook.

 Tuesday, 9/11

The phone rings early and wakes me up. It’s Richard wanting to know if I’ve heard the news.  He gives me the headlines and I hang up and turn on the radio, not wanting to wake Arthur who is still sleeping; his heart rhythms are irregular and I don’t want to risk the unknown effects of sudden alarming events. Timing, information, priorities, language.  Everything has changed in the beat of a heart.  All day we sit in front of the TV, trying to determine the difference between the real and the surreal. Yesterday they seemed clearly legible categories.   During the day we watch Peter Jennings.  At night we watch Ted Koppel and Charlie Rose and the apparently thoughtful cross-section of experts they interview.  For the first time in my life, I am grateful to these men for their candid questions and calm demeanor, listening through them for any new shred of analysis or differing perspective that might import an enlightened moment.

Thursday, 9/13

Woke up at least ten times during the night...finally rose, with jaw aching from stress.  Another day glued to the TV, still unable to focus, summon the will to think about previously intended work.  My British friend, having been a child during the Second World War, emails me condolences & writes “One gets used to anything, finally, my dear Caterina...”  I cannot find words to write back.  I don’t want to learn to “get used to anything”.

Friday, 9/14

Email from Manny, 14, just starting his freshman year at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, 4 blocks from the WTC...comes in on the subway from Brooklyn every morning...arrived on the 11th about an hour before the first tower was hit.   He writes:  “I was in school when a voice crackled over the loudspeaker reporting that one of the World Trade Centers had exploded for some reason or another.  We looked outside but, being on the north side, could see nothing except a constant stream of fire engines, ambulances, and police cars rushing down the West Side Highway.  At this point the depth of the situation hadn’t sunk in to any of us, so we all proceeded to third period.  It was there that my teacher, being the heartless, ignorant pig that he is, committed a series of acts rivaled in evil only by the suicide crashes themselves: first, he closed the blinds and turned the lights off to prevent anything from distracting us from his precious lesson, the most important thing in the universe.  Then, he proceeded to resume the lesson of the day.  And, to top it all off, when a girl innocently asked what was going on outside, he responded by saying that ‘the World Trade Center was bombed once before; how was this any different or more important?’” 

I admire Manny’s disgust and am relieved that he didn’t buy into the authority sham.

Monday, 9/17 

Six days since the attack.  Decide not to start the day with TV.  Only hear NPR when crossing the city by car. Torn between the need to stay abreast of latest developments and its opposite—to reclaim some simple daily rituals. Compelled only by personal contact: email, telephone calls, shared texts—emotional, spiritual, political, medical information being passed around.  Warnings of computer viruses. Reading in all directions, trying to educate myself, understanding huge gaps of information...and our willingness not to know.  Looking at the paper and wondering which of today’s stories have been planted to soften us up, how much of it is propaganda...and whose?

Thursday, 9/20

When I open my notebook to track what is beginning to come through in the media, I find two pieces of paper.  One has a printed quote from Simone Weil.  The other is a faded xerox of pages 134 & 135—the final section of a discussion of H.D.’s writing by Marianne Moore, which ends with this distinction:  “...we have heroics which do not confuse transcendence with domination and which, in their indestructibleness, are the core of tranquility and of intellectual equilibrium.”

Saturday, 9/22

I partly blank out on & partly recognize the excited voices of the guys who do the play-by-play broadcasts of football games every weekend, all autumn long. Their excitement leaks under my study door and then I realize it’s actually media reporters interviewing CNN’s military strategist.  They are yelling out their questions at him like stock exchange traders; they are trading bomb tonnage statistics.  Minutes later, it IS the football game...language sets rattling on, from channel to channel, with the same sense of urgency.


In today’s Arts section of the paper, Steven Winn reviews John O’Keefe’s currently running play on Robert Graves and Laura Riding Jackson.  The two principle characters are described as “A haunted Graves” and “the self-dramatizing writer Laura Riding”.  O’Keefe, we are told, has “cut and fit the historical record to keener dramatic purpose”.  The story ends with this comment: “Graves’ terrible memories of the trenches hover and shadow everything.  ‘I liked the feeling of really being frightened,’ Graves says with a dreamy intensity.  Nothing can ever be the same after living through a war.”

Monday, 9/24  

Megan calls with an extra ticket to the Friday night Giants game.  She knows from an earlier conversation that I’ve been dying to see Barry Bonds in-the-flesh, against the backdrop of the new baseball stadium just recently plunked down right at the edge of the Bay.  Megan’s family has tickets because her son, Reese—whose parenting she shares with Bob and her partner, Angie (Reese’s birth-mother)—is scheduled to sing “The Star-spangled Banner” with the SF Boys choir, who’ve been chosen to open the game’s festivities.  Angie’s seat is now mine because she must cover third base for The Flying Trouts—her own softball team—on Friday night.  Bob, my long-time friend and Reese’s father, is coming along too so we decide to meet at the entrance early and walk up the various ramps and through as many tiers and seating charts as the door guards will allow, just to check-out the crowd, the angle of visibility from behind home-plate, the famous garlic fries & Krispy Kreme donuts & the Polish sausage varieties for later purchase.  We end up just below the giant fielder’s mitt next to the monster COKE bottle sculpture pouring continuous neon.

And the rocket’s red glare
The bombs bursting in air.
Gave proof through the night
that our flag was still there.

Down on the field, the children’s matching red knitted t-shirts seem to hold them upright as their choirboy voices pierce the air with the song’s final question.  We can barely see them, from our perch in the open bleachers. 


Earlier in the week, Bob and I bump into each other at a friend’s reading at City Lights and decide to have dinner together afterwards at one of our favorite restaurants in North Beach, a place called The Helmand (named for the longest river in Afghanistan), with its exotic cuisine of brown-sugared pumpkin and melting eggplant, where the lamb shanks fall off the bone every time.  Most of the happy eaters are already digging-in when we come through the door.  We sit down amidst a full house of regulars who’ve gathered to show solidarity with Daud and the local Afghanistani community.  We are told that two days before, someone ripped away the beautiful curved tubular awning leading to the door of his restaurant.  They’d spat at the front window and yelled insults at him as he stood behind it.  But we were lucky. A week had passed since September 11 and people were beginning to gain a little equilibrium.  A guy from a neighboring table was passing the hat, collecting money for families of firemen killed in the Twin Towers collapse. We opened our wallets gratefully and breathed in an air filled with the scent of turmeric.

Thursday, 9/27

My Pilates instructor tells me that two planes have crashed into the airport terminal in Rome, so I rush home to turn on the TV, assuming the story will be covered.   I feel how Rome is my second home; I’m worried for friends just as I’d be for friends in NYC.  Over the next hour’s viewing, I see only the last half of a single-sentence headline moving—once—across the bottom of the screen.  It tells me only that the crash was in Milano—foggy air field, smaller plane turning Left instead of Right, causing collision. Not a terrorist action.  Meanwhile, I’ve begun to notice the odd pecking order of media events and begin to write down the language:

“Military stocks UP on Wall St.”  marches by next to “Rush Limbaugh says he’s going deaf...will be completely so within two months”—this news strip, looped-in, over and over, with major world events.  Rush gets equal billing, that morning, with Colin Powell.  Fifteen minutes later, a CNN reporter agrees with his interview subject, “We should speak with one voice.”

“Only ten percent do not support the President...who ARE all these people, anyway?” the excited voice of the sportscaster asks his news buddy.  Later, reporting the 2nd day air strike, a voice narrates sound bites behind the images: “No British presence. It’s all an American show”;  “New chief of ‘homeland’ defense, Tom Ridge.”  Since when did “homeland” enter our description of the U.S.?  I get a Second World War feeling at the back of my neck...what was that German word?

Friday, 9/28

 I keep thinking about Oppen...why I’ve persistently remembered his voice reading his poems, over these last days since September 11.  It was just before Christmas in 1966, when I first heard him read.  It had been snowing heavily for several days and the sidewalks in front of St. Marks Poetry Project had been shoveled and re/shoveled at least three times in twenty-four hours. I was more than a week overdue with my first child and wanted to believe in the possibility of continuing.  In Oppen’s low voice, that night, I could hear no easy hope...but immense pain, rage, scepticism, resistance—unsupported by the theatre of rhetoric.  Every word seemed fought for—a poetry discovered, cut apart, let go, repositioned.  Certainly a poetry that left ease behind. 

It may be that, even then, I could trust him because he left us with no place for guile or chosen innocence. It was a severity I’d managed to avoid until then. I had no choice but to face a new level of difficulty, holding the dualistic claims of inevitable tragedy, while knowing I wanted to persist and to make a writing of my own signature.  In Oppen’s work I heard a voice of such immense gravity and fragmentation and coherence that it seemed to eclipse all I’d been drawn to in those dazzling and glamorous and witty New York days.  There was no rush into print, no performance or sense of writing for applause.  Instead of facility, I heard words struggling up out of silence.  The survival of Ishmael, of Job: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

He’d survived, but there was no hubris in it.  Just the need—this unavoidable claim on him—to make a true human accounting of his life, severe, even-handed in its carefully joined and separated parts.  He was telling the fact of his witness and his writing practice—a hand-carpentered artifact with the sound of its own making—poised at the edge of a vision that found no comfort in the flag-imbedded codes of a single voice.  The words were minimal; the decisions of line and silence gave evidence of breathing and of presence in that silence—empty tempo even—in which to rest and to take in what had accrued, before rushing forward...weighted with news of still being here, in spite of everything he’d seen and heard as a soldier in the world. 


Friday, I hear a first alternative view announced over the news: “Doctors w/o Borders condemns Pres. Bush’s attack on Afghanistan. Dismisses ‘million dollar food gift’ as propaganda. General, interviewed on food drop, admits that packets will be dropped deep in the mountains.  Very heavy parcels will have to be found and carted away by refugees.”

We piece together what we read, who said what on which program.  We forward all information from alternative news sources.

Tuesday, 9/30

Sunday morning I go into Top of the Hill market—our local “momma & poppa” store—to thank Frank for the two tickets he passed on to us for yesterday’s Giants game and to tell him my version of why our team lost their chance to move into the finals.

“I heard it was a real lousy game,” he says.  “Sorry about that.”

“Hey, Frank,” I tell him, “it was fun anyway. I already got to see Barry hit his 67th Friday night, so what the hell...it was just fun to be there and watch the guys working out.  I think I’m turning into a fan!”

Frank and his brother lease the store space on the ground floor of the corner building. Hanging from the second floor window of the apartment above them—almost touching the sidewalk and almost covering the fruit-filled window—is an immense American flag, suspended vertically, with its red-and-white stripes looking like a great collapsed tent or awning.  It is major code language and I speculate that, in some sense, it must make Frank’s older brother, Sal, feel safe.  But Frank is more sceptical than Sal. If I were to ask him about it, he’d probably go into a state of quizzical ambivalence—his left eyebrow raised in silent comment above an otherwise boyish grin.

I have to talk extra-loud. Frank is almost deaf, after a series of operations, performed in the last few years before he turned thirty-five. No one is in the store, at the moment, so he doesn’t have to watch the mirror trained on the back aisles.  We begin to talk about the pleasure of watching baseball on home turf at the new stadium—how its architecture gives everyone a shot at views of the bridge and the water.  I can see him visibly opening as he confesses that he still goes to spring training every year. “Baseball...it’s like part of my life...I mean, it’s just something you do every day,” he says, looking sideways at me, a bit sheepishly.

“You workin’ on any books?” he asks me, and I tell him the short version of what’s going on since I know he’s really curious.

But when he begins to tell me about an idea he has for a movie, I can feel myself shifting into fore-shortened perspective—half of me is already leaning back towards my own work deadline, safe and focused behind my shut door.  But something stops me. Frank’s face is telling me something he’s never told anyone.  How we got here I do not know.  The Sunday papers are stacked high and the fresh bagels crowd the plastic case. He’s telling me about his imagination...he’s just so pleased to find out how it works, like someone bragging about their kid’s unexpected talents.

            “It’s like I get this picture—this one idea from which an entire set of events begins to unfold...I don’t have to do nothin’...it just starts coming into my head.  You know, I think I could really be a movie director.”

            “Tried writing any of it down yet, Frank?” I ask out of curiosity.  He looks to see if I’m serious.  “You know me, Frank. Writer, here.  You have to get that stuff on paper so you can look at it. Work it over... Do it, Frank.”  He seems happy and gets a far-off look in his eye.

Frank and his folks came over to the U.S. from Lebanon when he was in sixth grade.  Last summer, he took a vacation from the store for the first time in years and went up to a small lakeside town, north and in-land from S.F., where one of his customers had gone, a month earlier, for her summer break.  She told him about it. She made it sound good...and it was good.  He’d like to go back.  The people were real nice.


BIO: Kathleen Fraser has published fourteen books of poems, most recently il cuore : the heart, Selected Poems 1970-1995 (Wesleyan University Press, 1997), Wing (Em Press, 1995) and 20th Century (a+bend Press, 2000). Her collected essays, TRANSLATING THE UNSPEAKABLE, Poetry and the Innovative Necessity, were published by the University of Alabama Press (Modern and Contemporary Poetics Series).

In 1973, Fraser founded The American Poetry Archives, during her tenure as director of The Poetry Center at San Francisco State University, where she taught as Professor of Creative Writing from 1972-1992. Between 1983 and 1992, she published and edited HOW(ever),which has now re-emerged in electronic form as How2.

Fraser is a Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry. She lives for five months of each year in Rome, Italy, where she lectures on American poetry and translates Italian poets.

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