DAN RAPHAEL Reviews
Selected Improvisations by Vernon Frazer
(Beneath the Undergound, 2015)
Selected Improvisations by Vernon Frazer is an amazing work in its fusion of and creativity with poetic elements of the last 100 years or more, including e e cummings, projective verse, cut-ups, language and visual poetries. We’re dipping in a soup that’s a world of language across time. I see the beginning piece and think Maximus in its physical shape, even before I see “Gloucester’ (or is that a line from Lear?), with another significant evocation near the bottom—Cecil Taylor. Improvisation and spontaneity. Yet Frazer is also dedicated to the page—his canvas, “Ecstasy occurs at the point of pre-construction,” from the Prelude, which comes at the end. Everything’s in play here, play is in play, splay and display.
Note the “selected” in the title. As Frazer explains in the Author’s note (at the beginning), this “can’t incorporate all the elements and nuances of the full length, it introduces the reader to the core thematic and structural element.” Evolving elements. Think of the various ways words and phrases can be arranged, shaped and spaced (cohesively, legibly, usually right-side up) and its most likely in this collection. Pages of solid text, significant spacing between letters, vertical words, 3-7 parallel columns, diagonal falls—sometimes a handful of these elements on the same page. I love creativity and invention, and in those terms Frazer's work here is so beyond A+.
As the text arrangement/exploration continues, after around the first third he starts including symbols and graphic elements, as well as light gray words and graphics in the background, and some more unusual/visual type faces.
How does one read a book like this? The progression of elements and styles is informative, with some reflection of phases of 20th & 21st century poetic exploration. Or is it a matter of jumping around, island to island, to get a sense of the archipelago, of the mountains (frozen eruptions) of language breaking the surface. Many of the pages can seem like puzzles that Frazer has created and solved. Take LXVII which has a large RELAX arranged vertically in the center, going about 2/3 down the pages, with strong parallel lines on either side. In the other two columns is text, in 5 stanzas of 3-5 lines; the large letter of RELAX in each stanza is part of the text flowing through. For example in the first stanza you have heaRing. constRucts, offspRing and whetheR.
I’ve long advocated for poetry that more fully explores the possibilities of language as a medium. Music went outside the 12 tones over a century ago, as painting went beyond visual representation even longer ago, but poetry remains the most conservative art form. A recent rejection letter said I should proof read my work more carefully to avoid errors in punctuation and capitalization. In many of his works, Frazer uses the page as a canvas—you can view it holistically, you can see it as collage, or focus in on the ‘brush strokes’ of words and phrases.
And, yes, the view of language as medium can be taken to an extreme of letters, things that could be letters, shapes, et al. But this book would be worth our attention for the language alone—dense, inventive, with great pairings and groupings of words. Opening at random to page 82:
“crossing the quotidian referendum
a panel seeking fleet oblations,
or recognized hagiography for plagues
of battered texts. . .”
Frazer has not only the mind and eye for this kind of work, but the ear as well—all the channels of the language medium.
This is breakthrough, important work. Learning from and incorporating many ideas from the last decades, fusing them with his own vision, vocabulary and mysterious energy. Track this book down, buy copies for friends, see what you can learn to infuse and expand your own writing and reading.
Everyone in this Movie Gets Paid, dan raphael’s 19th book, will be out this summer from Last Word Press. Current poems appear in Otoliths, Caliban, of-with, Basalt and Section 8.