Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Remembering Kathleen Fraser, 1935-2019

NOTE: I was invited by Stephen Motika of Nightboat Books to contribute this brief tribute to a lovely festschrift his press put out in 2017.

Dear Kathleen,

If I were given only one word to describe Kathleen Fraser, it would be “ebullient.” Kathleen, my dear, you are a natural dazzler – not in the egomaniacal blowhard sense of so many major writers, who can’t rest till they’ve sucked all the O2 out of the room. No, your ebullience is just that – an actual and very welcoming overflowing, a kind of ecstatic invitation to share in a continual conversation, one constantly renewed by some fresh perception, some vivid sense of surprise. This is not to say that you aren’t also a rascally Scottish imp. One never knows what you’ll say next. So it is with your poetry. It radiates from a deep concern with the most audacious inquiry. Radical lyric – a sense of experiment as investigation – has always marked your work with its boldly magnanimous spirit.

My first encounter with you, Kathleen, was in 1975, in your poetry workshop at SF State. That didn’t work out so well. First there was the fact that I was an utterly lousy poet, more enamored of Keats than O’Hara (whom I’d never even heard of that point). And second. Well, second, your kindness could not recall me from whatever drug-induced redoubt I’d withdrawn to. We did not meet again till some twenty years later, when, as chance would have it, we both found ourselves in Boulder, Colorado, in the backyard of Jane Dalrymple-Hollo and Anselm Hollo, standing on line for Naropa’s catered chow. I remembered you instantly, of course – how could one not? From that moment on, a delightful and immensely gratifying friendship was struck up. But it was more than that, of course. Kathleen, you mentored me. Not just by graciously giving me pointed advice on my work and then blurbing my first real book, Burn, or generously securing an invitation for me to read with Jeanne Heuving at Canessa Park through the good offices of Avery Burns, but in so many other ways, too.

Case in point. About ten years ago I succumbed to the delusion that I was falling in love with a poet of our mutual acquaintance. I was married at the time and so I turned to you, Kathleen, for sage advice, advice, naturally, that was spot on and that I utterly failed to heed. More importantly – in a tradition that has been largely lost, I think – you have, perhaps without even knowing it, counseled me on how to live.

I think some of this comes through in our exchange of letters, collected and edited by Jennifer Firestone and Dana Teen Lomax in their wonderful "Letters to Poets: Conversations about Poetics, Politics, and Community." I wince a bit now whenever I re-read them. My contributions to the conversation are shot through with grad school wonkiness, while yours overflow with lessons in how to see. Your letters are refulgent with the most enticing details of lived experience – the color of light on a brick wall, or how a painting struck you. I felt humbled by this exchange. It taught me a lot – which frankly I’m still absorbing. But the generosity of your gesture I take to be typical of you: the invitation to enter into a conversation. The dismissal of hierarchy. The sense of acknowledgement in a shared life in poetry and the commitments it entails, the demands it makes, the rewards it gives.

How adequately to express my gratitude to you, Kathleen, for all the largesse you’ve so casually strewn my way? I’ve written about your work several times, trying to articulate just what it means to me and its impact on the larger cultural landscape. So I’ll close these remarks with links to our collaboration and an excerpt from my piece, “White Blink,” written for Jacket 25 (2004) as a response of your extraordinary poem, “WING” (first written, as I recall for Linda Russo's journal, "Verdure").