Chax Press


when new time folds up, Kathleen Fraser.
A Reading 8-10, Beverly Dahlen

 Beverly Dahlen's A Reading 8-10 and Kathleen Fraser's when new time folds up, both from Chax Press, offer exquisite meditations on the simultaneity of life and death, memory and experience, memory in experience, and on the interplay of culture, history and the poet's subjectivity. Since Chax Press is run by an artist-printer-poet, it is not irrelevant to point out that both books are very pretty, featuring cover paintings that promise the perception and exuberance that the contents deliver. Both draw on multiple intertexts, including Keats's urn (Fraser explicitly, in her "Urn Pictures," which describe fragments of sexual tableaux; Dahlen also explicitly but more understatedly, in the fleeting phrase "thou still unravished"[31]) and Derrida's writing and differance (Dahlen explicitly by repeating the italicized word "differance;" Fraser implicitly by referring to an "abandoned road mapped with their cultivated huts and path," evoking the many ways that writing is always already present even in a prehistorical, now "abandoned" setting), to find a relationship between inner psychic lang(uage)scapes and outer time/space landscapes.

 Dahlen's book is fun, beautiful, and smart. The cover, Cynthia Miller's "Red Chair/Tree of Life," shows a child's painted and decorated chair with a more abstract but equally exuberant, flowering "tree of life" rising from behind it. Joyous, childlike artistry combines with natural cycles of production and reproduction. (The waitress at the cafe where I read the book stopped to exclaim with excitement, "I had a chair just like that when I was a kid!" In a sense the book made her day.) The "contents" comprise three longish chunks of writing identified by time/place of completion and revision; the book addresses and speaks from an explicitly gendered experience of power, frustration, creativity. Her meditations include observations like: "she has mistaken it, mistaken the call. the brotherhood will not include her. it is madness for her to think so. and for him also madness, or pious sentimentality. she has a different story"(60); and the provocative apokoinu "guiding his hand, please me, since I am your mother, all women are"(8). Throughout, Dahlen invokes fictional, mythical and historical women such as George Sand, de Beauvoir, Austen, Eve, Cordelia and Mary Shelley, in order to explore the interplay, through language, between socially patterned relations and creativity. "What is language?" she asks, and answers catechistically, "a pattern, an archaic heritage" (120).
 This q&a could easily serve as epigraph to Fraser's book. This volume is more contemplative and fragmented, though equally beautiful. The cover art work, by Mary Hark, offers a photo of an assemblage of blue rectangles, a handmade paper painting that suggests the traces and artifacts of ancient cultures – Etruscan, Roman, and medieval Italy – along with present-day Europe; the cultures that Fraser works with in the four poems that make up the book. Fraser uses a traveler's curiosity to receive intuitions about how past and present cohabit consciousness and the material world, how sensory traces of memory/culture resonate but remain tentative and mysterious: "temple rubble abandon... Grief is simple and dark/ /as this bridge or hidden field/ where something did exist once/ /and may again, or/ your face receding behind the window..." (32-3). Figuring Etruscan as "she," Roman as "he," Fraser also genders memory and art. She also juxtaposes her own letters to women friends with a poem on Giotto's and Dante's artistic correspondences, not for contrast but for resonance and mutual illumination. In the final piece, "when new time folds up," we are in the present, in the presence of a muted violence (car accidents overheard from indoors, urban construction sounds) that, retrospectively, has also accompanied all of the Western civilization she honors. This personalizing of cultural loss and/or survival is ethereal, grounded, haunting.

—Maria Damon