Kathleen FraserTo book as in to foal. To son.

Kathleen Fraser

This paper is excerpted from Kathleen Fraser’s recent book, Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity, University of Alabama, 2000




1. monologue

Catching two words. Pulling apart and rePasting a paragraph on the same night spiders crowd and come pushing out from the closet door at the actual child. 

Working in the next room without knowing this, to hear him tell of it years later and to hold this. Nights of long fear. 

To sorrow the poem, to sorrow and tear at its lines, to open its vein. Looking for blue. Expecting it. 

Instead, to find red. Scar tissue. Long hollow empty place. Quill of a feather.

Writing lines, watching lines elasticize and tatter, not knowing how to solace the dark, child’s eyes open/eyes awake, with mind yet struck in infant night-terror. An otherness you know nothing of. Can you put this? Can you hold it quietly? 

Deferral. To other’s book.

To work at night to work when child is sleeping is drawing. Each chore that wants you. Assignments marked. To unplug the phone on Sunday when the child is with his father, to not answer a knock, to put away the folders of others, other’s book, put away feeding. To sit in the chair in silence. To place suddenly urgent books on the cleared oak table, to touch the new notebook, to open it at the blank page; lines on the page that mark emptiness. To feel the lines recovering one, into them. Falling into the page. Away from every other. 

To book as in to foal. To son. Those first wobbly legs. To have this actual child. To try to show him how to stand up. The two of them now, instead of the three of them, yet not deleting the father. Being without him now. 

The father at the door on Saturday

or the father with the actual child between them, swinging him along, and then...then the actual child comes home. The poem comes home. She is home.

Through necessity’s trap door. To be with other poets (mothers, among them) sitting in a basement room, ones who can barely speak yet must write. Can sometimes reach into their own & private horde. But some cannot speak because cannot lift out the sleek word into this sudden formal classroom air next to the mother/poet/teacher. Broken thoughtline chatter and humility. Interrupted minute. Someone’s daughter is zipped shut but writing inside of that. You hear her trying. Trying to put it right. Tight squeeze through these neat and tidy lines. Lanes. Starting gate’s official gun. The poem leaning forward. Taut. Not to swing away. To allay fear.

Look at her. In arrears. Delayed.

Taught. To frustration. 

To wake up and know the body is dead. To notice the air is bright but the body is not. To substitute little trays of food with cut animal shapes of sandwich, baked cookies and mother cake with mother chocolate, stories before sleep, “this little piggy went to market,” hands rubbing his feet. To sing : A grasshopper hopped on a redbud tree/and said “Come away, come away with me. Come awaaayyy, come awaaayyy. To lower the light. 

Then to fall into the saved book, her own bed and again to be called back into the dark. Hark, the spider’s interruption. 

Book gone, song again. The mother is singing as her mother sang, putting the sound in her. Now she rocks him or is a bird and does not know who is who. 

Then remembers the weight of the first little book her father gave her, with a father’s silly drawing inside it, bird named ODAROLOC standing on one foot, leg long, head hidden under wing. Now the bird appears again, in sleep. In its beak an empty book. She opens it.

To book again, to son. To teach him al dente pasta and first-pressed oil, the garlic and parsley tossed in. Not to be helpless, yet to weep helplessly in front of him, not to dissemble. To choose this particular quill for making shapes and marks. To give him that dropped feather. A crayon, a brush and paint, a wall of paper endlessly unrolling. To give him red and blue jars of thick paste color. His hands in it and the brushes making their mark. 

To admire and want. To want to say, but feel chagrin for obvious saying, but to be urgent, defying, pinning together and sewing, to be ripping apart and wiping, to be cooking soup and typing, often to be starting and not finishing, but to be planting in the garden with him, watering and digging, watching for the spider, but to be edited out, but “to submit” and to be “rejected,” but to choose a desk and a chair and to feel the singleness of it, the actual child of it coming home. 

The child howling with hunger of her, anger at her going out the door, not wanting the others to take her, but pushing her away from him (her coming in the door for him). Himself unto himself. More himself.

Then her feet shod with shoes of red to be danced, coming and going, saying “Look how we work beside each other,” she with her hollow door desk and he with his solid child desk. They make pictures and cross out words and everything is in pieces all over the desk and the floor and scribbled over pages drawn to their edges with Spiderman moonwalks, weaponry inventories...whatever is needed.

To have this actual son in this child. To try to explain absence, the two of them now, or often a different three of them. Flying out of his sightlines. The book of her and the foal of him without deferring to one of them. To find this peculiar path and follow its constant changing. To sit alone at the table. To revise a passive construction. To choose the ticking body parts and the knocking poem unable to speak. To talk to it. To mother it. 

Violets from the lover the woman in her wants and is given...and the child is also given plastic models and metal toys whose hooks and claws soon break. But he glues together parts of monsters that don’t fit the cheaply printed instructions. He unfolds hybrids. Nobody tells him how, his being a child and curious. And used to glueing.

To get lost, then to look for the true pact between them, teaching herself the motherpart, how to think and to learn that grammar of his lengthening. To revise. To leave him alone. To worry. To give him a push. To book, to foal, to write partial sentences. Hiding her worrying. To glue each sentence together with parts of its making. To have written the sentence’s smooth beauty and, later, to break it apart. 

To let the poem pour from the closet, long erratic music-tugging lines and word horde of the broken-in-on nightlight. 

To tango. 

To monster.

To let the lover into the mother world.

And that boy, what a boy, what a gorgeous boy, what a soul in that boy, what a poem in that boy.


                “The pen runs along the page like a seismograph, its motion alternately evoking large, ominous crags and thin, immaterial crests which run, uphill and down, across an otherwise white page like notes on some monumental orchestral score.”

                [Michael Gibson, “The Landscapes of Raffi Kaiser,” International                Herald Tribune]

2. dialogue

A: So what do you think?

B: About what?

A: About the monologue.

B: I was glad for the last line.

A: What do you mean?

B: Your story was so sad, otherwise.

A: Sad? Maybe sometimes....but mostly we were just trying to figure out how to find what we needed, being two strong individuals and such a tiny family. We were in the car a lot, in the summers. I remember the red rock canyons; he took pictures of the dinosaur statuary. Sacred Indian places, country music on the radio, dust storms. We always had a cat or two, wherever we lived. He would name them for how they looked—Gum-camel, Witchy, Watermelon. And then Maynard kept coming from over the back fence and finally stayed, completely devoted to him.

                He liked to wander loose in malls, I preferred friends’ kitchens. We both liked museums and Chinese food, camping-out for awhile and then, after a few nights, thick white towels and TV. Once we woke up to a bear prowling in the next campsite...

B: Hmmm....

A: Why hmmm? Do you mean I shouldn’t talk about those times?

B: I just don’t see the point of writing about it. 

A: But it’s part of how we grew up. Side by side. Looking back, I think it was a pretty good model—showing him how to “work,” by stealing time to do my own. I was close-by. That wasn’t sad. What was sad was each of us losing someone out of our daily lives, someone we loved and needed. One way or another it happens, but ideally not so soon in a person’s life. But he didn’t lose me and I didn’t lose him. He helped me to pay close attention. I learned to let him grow up. We both had our own long journeys going on inside us. Whenever we hung out together—especially in the car, when the motion seemed to loosen us up—we had some great talks. And laugh! Sometimes I had to stop the car. But when he was drawing he was often in planetary space, whereas when I was writing I was attaching myself to the page as if I were driving or drawing all over it.

B: But in the story, the child seems to be an obstacle...

A: You mean, to the writing? Everything was an obstacle. That was part of the problem of trying to write outside of a vacuum—that is, to have always imagined the poem as something that could be written only inside perfect, uninterrupted time, an air-tight vacuum: quiet. Waiting for the day when this moment would finally arrive. But everything kept breaking-in on continuity; everyone wanted your attention, if you were a mother. Each person imagined he or she was the only one. Apparently the maternal image is in there, pulsing pure neon. You could be carrying a dozen other lives inside you waiting to unfold. But it seems unavoidable, this leaning towards motherlove. This wanting to be held and listened to. This continuous presence of expectation.

B: You mean signed and sealed in the genes? 

A: Or the years of someone before you, showing you....I don’t know. 

B: I never had trouble like that. I could just sit in the front room and write, with the kids playing and their friends tearing in and out.

A: Not me. I wanted a door. I had to get completely closed off from someone else’s waiting and needing. It kept hovering. The phone was always ringing. You wanted to be available, to be a generous person. Especially to your actual child. But the milk kept running out, so it was off to Safeway again, instead of to the desk. I’d hear something starting up inside my brain, trying to get out—even just the desire to think anything, to find words for it, move them around on the page...and I’d run for a pen and begin but it was mostly disruption and intervention, arguments and pardons, hugs and little cups of custard meant to last a few days in the fridge. 

                Time kept running out. You could either stop and cook or point at the refrigerator and fight the guilt. And always there was something new to track down, to keep that child’s mind open and flexible and muscular, to honor its curiosity and persistence...(but oh, the tedium of playgrounds and birthday parties...my god, the chat could drive you to the edge!). I used to wince when I heard men—usually writer types—talking about “the abyss”...as if it were an immense set of cosmic jaws lying in wait, in some abstract future oblivion. Whereas, I felt that darkness hovering around the corner, almost every normal day. And I knew what it was. It was the bleakness and frustration of no time alone, no free path into the forest, no access. 

                It was the problem of feeling trapped with no way out...feeling one had lost one’s hold on an authentic self. I mean, if a writer can’t find time to make notes and shape the perceptions and voices unravelling inside her, she can get very crazy. Most of the time, it was just the two of us and somehow that made for more interruptions than less. And of course there were the problems of earning a living—dentist bills, the car payment and the mortgage—thinking ahead, before sleep, about the next morning, the order of what must be done to get us both to school on time: his day, my day, his night, my night.

                Meanwhile, art supplies, guitar strings, Star Trek uniform...only one certain color and fabric would do. The riding boots were researched for weeks. The kid’s mind was avid. He loved beautiful things, quite particular things, and TV junk-hype and the terrifying, invented stuff he made up in his drawing books. 

Food and objects gave him a safety zone, proof of having enough of his own...that I would be there, through any question and every sorrow, to help him figure out his turf.

B: You didn’t have to do all that...

A: But I wanted to...Except for writing, I was probably happiest in those moments, helping him feel taken care of and safe...yet, later, torn with guilt anyway, worrying I’d never done enough for him...or for me.

B: If you were enjoying it so much, why the grief? Why couldn’t you just accept being a mother, since that’s what you’d chosen...I mean, how many books do you need to write to make you feel o.k.?

A: It’s not a question of numbers, some abstract measurement of accomplishment. It’s really about survival...how one stays alive to one’s private art, one’s particular connection to being and making something new out of—okay—the life you’ve chosen, but also what is choosing you. How do you stay alive to that? By working. Alone in your work space. If you are a writer, you must write. To only think about it, and wish for it, without sitting down to do it, is to deny your gift, to damp it down. Either way, the muscle of the mind atrophies and the intimacy of one’s relation to one’s work (the pleasure of doing it) diminishes proportionately. Self-diminishment is painful. Poor mother, poor child—they both feel its effects.

                I had to find a way to write. Writing was different than loving him or working for us or all the big and little shifts of fiction and passing romance which kept going on above and below the life of me and him and of writing. Loving and writing and earning a living were the priorities. I had to find time enough for all three or I felt I would not survive. Bottom line. Still, my students kept arriving for conferences. Their manuscripts and mid-terms piled-up on my writing desk. The weekends were entirely eaten up by being useful and resourceful. Necessity. Consolation. Transportation. One day it hit me. It wasn’t going to stop. There wasn’t going to be the perfect vacuum of silence and continuity. So I had to invent another way to capture the poems—a place I could walk into and back out of. Trust with a phrase or a sentence. Accretion of parts, maps of disruption.

B: But what about beauty and form?

A: Beauty, as I’d been taught to think of it, no longer interested me in the same way. 

B: I really don’t see...

A: ...how you can write a poem without it, right?

B: Right.

A: I had to keep my eye on things. I had to remember for two. The old idea of “beauty” no longer served—neither the question, nor the answer. My thoughts were blips and scrolls and departures. The task was to catch them just as they came up to the surface. Unexpectedness, chaos, pressures and breaks. Everything seemed to tilt, to barely maintain itself. In spite of all effort. I thought, why not write that way? While the beautiful, seamless poem stopped being relevant to my own way of working, the open field of the page became more and more compelling. That mark of a seismograph across an empty score.


Gestation: (1) the act of carrying young in the womb from conception to delivery.
                 (2) the development of a plan in the mind.
                              [Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, Second edition.]

3. pedagogy

                Catching two words...pulling apart and rePasting...to tear at its lines, to open...watching lines elasticize...recovering one...often to be starting and not finishing... and scribbled over pages drawn to their edges...to find this peculiar path and follow its constant changing...to choose the ticking body parts and the knocking poem unable to speak...to talk to it...to glue each sentence together with parts of its making...to have written the sentence’s smooth beauty and, later, to break it apart...

to let the poem pour from the closet, long erratic music-tugging lines and word horde of the broken-in-on nightlight.                                                                  

                                                                             —for David, 5/30/1997

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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