'The fact of her witness'
Kathleen Fraser and the poetics of empathic witness
As I begin writing this essay, a fragment of an interview that I conducted with Kathleen Fraser more than two decades ago mysteriously pops up on my screen:
finding my own pen to do my work, in order, I think, to embody “a self,” in order to discover that there is an evolving being in there, living, changing, breathing.
I have a manuscript file of this interview, archived somewhere, but I hadn’t looked at it. I am writing in February, almost a year to the day after her death. The eeriness of the coincidence is that I’m contemplating Kathleen’s thinking about the sensation of the present absence of the dead, as housed in language, which I’m considering in relation to the philosophical notion of empathy. What I’m feeling at the moment, however, is Kathleen’s own present absence in these lively, earnest lines that have appeared so inexplicably on my screen. Their liveliness stays with me, the words not letting me be as I write, as if they had a life of their own.
In some of her major serial poems written in the tumultuous decades around the century’s turn, Kathleen Fraser gave hard-won, exploratory form to themes of loss and grief in poems which I argue are structured by an empathy organic to her thinking about poetics, as I discuss in some detail in the pages that follow. I propose to explore this insight as productive for understanding an important aspect of Fraser’s poetics that has yet to receive critical attention. I will consider the turn in the poetry from attentive empathy in the decade prior to 9/11 to a mode in the years following 9/11 that I term empathic witness. The sequences on which I’ll draw for my analysis — “Etruscan Pages” (which was collected in when new time folds up ) and WITNESS (2007) — illustrate this shift and help us to consider its significance.
Formally, both sequences share with Fraser’s oeuvre as a whole an alignment with schools of experimental poetry in the US, such as Black Mountain, Language, and Feminist avant-garde poetries. Neither poem narrativizes its material. The compositional elements of poetry that have always compelled her, “those of fragment and disturbed syntax and visual cognate,” as she explains in an essay written soon after 9/11, remain the same. Although both poems are exploratory, fragmentary, and characterized by their interest in empathic inquiry, the earlier poem, “Etruscan Pages,” is more lyrically cohesive than the stark, fractured later sequence, WITNESS. In “Etruscan Pages,” Fraser responds to a personally unsettling visit to the Etruscan ruins in 1991, during which she feels the site-specific presence of a vanished people. She seeks to record not only details of her powerful response, but also to excavate fragments of a lost world, bits of quoted archeological information and visual linguistic remnants (hieroglyphs). Empathy helps her create an imaginative bridge to the Etruscans, and contemplate the ruins she visits. In WITNESS,written in the years following 9/11, Fraser is concerned directly to engage — and as the title indicates, to witness — the historic moment of the tragic attack. Although she was not previously known as a poet of witness, the catastrophe catalyzed a dramatic shift in her approach to writing about such an event — however a difference in degree not kind — by mobilizing a process of empathic witness.
This turn in Fraser’s poetry doesn’t change her poetics, as noted earlier, but it does sharpen the focus of approach to her material. To appreciate the fact of Fraser’s poetic empathy, as well as the significance of her turn to empathic witness after 9/11, it is useful briefly to contextualize the notions of empathy and witness as they are generally understood. Although, as philosopher of the emotions Martha Nussbaum states, the broad question of how empathy operates is still much debated in philosophical tradition, she contends that empathy entails “an imaginative reconstruction of the experience of the sufferer.” Empathy is less emotional, however, in the sense of one feeling compassion for another’s misfortune, than a distinct stance which balances both an affective awareness of another’s experience and one’s separateness from that other. Holocaust historian Dominick LaCapra similarly theorizes in his groundbreaking work on the role of empathy in historiographic notions of witnessing that this imaginative capacity enables a subject to put herself “in the other’s position while recognizing the difference of that position and hence not taking the other’s place.” According to LaCapra, the ability to both imagine the experience of another and also refrain from claiming that position as that of the self is crucial to any attempt to understand those affected by traumatic events in the past.
LaCapra offers distinctions among positions that are categorized under the general term “witness,” which Fraser invokes in WITNESS, and which it is useful to review. He defines three distinct positions the term references: “victims” (those generally silenced by the event); firsthand “witnesses” (often, victims who survived, or eyewitnesses); and those in the position of attentive “secondary witnesses” (which includes historians and artists). Victims and eyewitnesses experience the event firsthand, because they are there, whereas secondary witnesses accede to the position of witness through research, investigation, and empathy. It is this last position that poets who bear witness are most often assuming, which for clarity’s sake I have defined, but will now abbreviate to the term Fraser employs, “witness.” Like the historian, the poet opens herself to the other’s experience, but at the same time recognizes the difference of that position and hence the importance of not taking the other’s place. LaCapra terms this act of opening to the other on the part of the secondary witness “empathic unsettlement,” which he characterizes as “a desirable affective dimension of inquiry.” Empathy is as important for poets to cultivate for certain projects as historians, whether writing as secondary witnesses of such catastrophes as the Holocaust or some other more localized trauma or loss.
In a comment apropos Fraser’s “Etruscan Pages,” art historian Juliet Koss contends that the capacity to empathize on an artist’s part promises “a constructive theoretical approach that … allows for the possibility of bridging radically different subject positions, both within and across historical periods and geographic zones.” Theorist of artistic empathy Anna Veprinska states, moreover, that “the bridge that empathy constructs between self and other can be fruitful.” She issues a caution that while specific to poetic empathy, is analogous to those advanced by both Nussbaum and LaCapra in philosophy and history. The empathic subject position, and all the delicate operations it undertakes as it opens to others, can risk losing its focus on the object of empathy by shifting its attention to the empathic subject itself. In this way, it can subsume the other. In such cases, when empathy for another is invited and subsequently foreclosed by operations of identification or appropriation, the text can evidence what Veprinska terms “empathic dissonance,” where poems — for example, Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust — struggle with “the role of empathy in the face of the crises to which they respond.” Thus, a text that opens to empathic unsettlement may incline toward empathic dissonance, however ethical the intentions.
Although a work such as Holocaust both gives voice to and risks appropriating others’ words and perspectives, Veprinska explains that in such cases, the conflicting concerns themselves can nevertheless help structurally to open the poem to empathic inquiry. This structural opening itself makes room for others, giving them ground. When distinctions between poet and other collapse, moreover, as when the empathic subject presumes to know the empathic object’s feelings and intentions, and the distance between them disappears, empathy becomes “the structural tenet of the text’s witnessing.” Thus, importantly, as problematic as linguistic appropriation is, Veprinska observes, it is “also instructive” of empathy’s role.
I have found Veprinska’s thinking useful in considering what is distinctive about Fraser’s mode of empathy, as well as in assessing significant differences between her foray into a more deliberate empathic witness in the post-9/11 work WITNESS and the latent textual witnessing manifest in the pre-9/11 “Etruscan Pages.” Both works evince an empathy generally understood to be a subjective stance, in which empathy is an act of attentiveness charged by the imaginative capacity simultaneously to cross and to maintain boundaries of difference between self and other. Fraser’s mode of empathy is a dynamic stance, moreover, formally investigative, functioning not only as a responsiveness that opens the text to others in resonant ways, but also as an exploratory linguistic process on the field of the page. She creates through a process of intensifying layers of attentiveness, which radiate extratextual perceptivities generated by the energetic transferal of artistic vision through the material concentration of empathy.
In rendering responses (emotional/intellectual/psychic) to a trip to an Etruscan burial site as multiple linguistic and generic “layers,” “K,” the poet-subject of Fraser’s “Etruscan Pages,” excavates the “marks and evidence of events” of a vanished people. The sight of fragments of Etruscan material culture — erotic urns hidden away in a museum, cliff tombs at Tarquinia and Norchia — was such a deeply moving experience that initially, she was at a loss to write about it. In one of two epistolary sections of the poem, K writes to her friend “Susan,” who had visited the Etruscan site with her, describing her conflicted state: “I wanted to write about the trip but I couldn’t find words for those places at once so peaceful and full of what was & wasn’t there” (26). “Etruscan Pages” explores a compositional process of finding the words for such a powerful empathic response to the traces of a lost culture, to her strong sense of their site-specific present absence, which she characterizes in an essay describing the writing of the poem as “their absence informed by presence.”
Such a profound empathic responsiveness enables K imaginatively to build a bridge across time when she visits the Etruscan necropolis site of Norchia. Where other visitors had found “‘Nothing, nothing there’” (12), K and Susan find something — “tomb hum / where more than one dancer // lifts a muscular red thigh” —
head carved to wide bone enigma
matched by carver
to any stone torso’s likeness
inscribed with the hidden
particularity of one still alive
I am Larthia
Mixing ekphrastic description and direct statement, the passage dis/orients us, shifting abruptly from museum to necropolis, until the linguistic energy is concentrated into the quotation. In lyric tradition, the statement “I am Larthia” would be an assertion of embodied presence, an imaginative possession of Larthia’s voice on the poet’s part, and as such, expressive of the poet’s power. As the distance between poet-surrogate and other disappears, however, Fraser refrains from claiming such power. She makes typographically evident that she is quoting an inscription, not inhabiting Larthia’s words. The statement is isolated, occurring in a dropped-down line by itself, doubly emphasized by being both indented and italicized, free-floating, separated from context, but in spatial proximity to the other words. Our awareness is directed by the lines preceding — an observation following the sensual descriptions of “muscular” curves, the constructive specificity that carved heads particular to each of the dead were placed on generic torsos like ready-mades — which lead into the identifying quotation. The statement’s assertion of a “particularity of one still alive,” something of the person’s life-force conveyed into the carvings, extends to the inscription, not to any sense of a reanimated presence but to its material vestiges.
In quoting the inscription, Fraser doesn’t assume Larthia’s perspective, but urges awareness of the language announcing her being — to, as Linda Kinnahan has so richly discussed, its “graphic presence.” As Fraser recounts in “Etruscan Pages,” reproducing in the poem individual letters in the Etruscan script, archeologists “know what each mark is equal to / but not, in retrospect, what was intended.” Like the archeologists, she can respond to what the hieroglyphs look like visually, but she acknowledges the limits to any claims to knowledge about the Etruscans from their writing, least from a lone tomb inscription. She emphasizes that fact by quoting the inscription in italics and in literal translation, shorn of any living context but its physical location on the tomb. By focusing empathic attention on the “graphic presence,” she references the other in name only, the name holding the place of the once-living person to whom the inscription refers. She underscores that there is literally no body to embody, no voice to possess or ventriloquize, no bridge to the full presence of the other that could be built between them.
The clear distinctions between empathic subject and object in this passage blur in the next, however, as tone and perspective shift with the voice, from first person to the second person of apostrophe. This particular poetic trope is often employed in elegiac tradition to address — and thereby conjure — a sense of the person who is gone. The section layers the mode of address with lines of lush ekphrastic description. Thus apostrophized, Larthia seems redolently present-absent, not quite a marble Galatea coming to life, but nonetheless a sculpture of sensually enlivened particularity:
You lie there semi-recumbent
with extravagant, elongated
limbs and weight of belly falling
always more away
refusing cold white grief
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
or you choose a stone lid look-alike
a kind of mirror
that later will cover the urn
in which your body is light and porous
as volcanic ash (14)
Narrated in present tense (as was the quotation in the previous section) as if out of an eternally renewed continuum of lyric time, this section vividly evokes an impossibly distant other. This “you” is memorialized in a tomb sculpture, which we are invited to presume serves as mirror image of a Larthia who has been accorded agency and desire. “You” is portrayed as “refusing” grief and “choos[ing]” a “look-alike” tomb lid. The emotional affect is intimate, and in contrast to the previous section, knowing. The glimpse offered into Larthia’s perspective is as eerily inviting as it is illusory.
Taken in tandem, the two passages illustrate Fraser’s pre-9/11 empathic process. Over the course of the poem, K’s deepening emotional engagement with the lost Etruscan culture, for which Larthia stands in as metonym, works both to open the poem to others via empathic unsettlement and also to create moments of empathic overreach. To wit, the claim to read Larthia’s mind comprises in its assumptions an empathically dissonant moment, to recall Veprinska’s term. As she points out, however, such moments — in which the distance between empathic subject and object disappears — exemplify how empathy structures what she contends is the text’s “witnessing.” K describes herself as concerned to “conjecture” about Larthia, to be imaginatively present to her in some meaningful way, which is a stance that acknowledges the boundary between empathic subject and object, even as it at times oversteps. Fraser works to mitigate such dissonant moments by focusing on the other’s graphic image. At the end of the section quoted above, we are returned to Etruscan tomb iconography, the “heavy mascara” of Larthia’s “look-alike” painted on the urn, and awareness that it contains Larthia’s bodily remains (14).
That return, which restores the distance between subject and object, is a poetic shift of focus made possible by Charles Olson’s poetics, as Fraser discusses in a major essay examining his influence on contemporary experimental women poets. She argues that Olson located his writing “in and with BODY — its breath, energy, and synaptic activity — [but] chose to transfer his perception of all these simultaneous functions … to the page.” The insight offers an approach to such passages as those discussed above in “Etruscan Pages.” The sparse lines which follow the italicized statement highlight their status as script: “first words // found.” The poetic effect generated at both textual and extratextual levels through emphasis, lineation, and spacing, infuses a linguistic synergy of concentration on the page, produced by an empathic creative process. I’ve gone over these brief passages rather carefully in order to explore the radiating resonance of textual awareness that a heightened empathy on Fraser’s part enacts.
Later in “Etruscan Pages,” in a moment acknowledging the distance between her perspective and the object of her empathy, K materializes the imaginative bridge she can make but not cross:
Etruscan foundation, Roman arch (severe parabola)
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
as if the bridge had formed, half way over
a scar in air
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
calling up grief (30)
K’s evocative response to the bridge of grief, described as “a scar in air,” is as layered by history and memory as the architecture of the actual bridge itself. Like the bridge, moreover, the original Etruscan foundation overarched by the conquering Romans, more recent emotions come to overlay and blend with her earlier response at the tomb site — an anticipatory fear, as K admits, of her own future loss:
as if it were foretelling everything coming toward me … paths moving with choral inevitability towards all I would love and finally lose … my own path calling me. (30, Fraser’s ellipses)
Although the responsive “grief” isn’t localized, it has overtaken Larthia’s place. The empathic subject of the poem has subsumed the place of the empathic object.
That empathic dissonance is intensified in the penultimate section of “Etruscan Pages.” Momentarily, the poem shifts from site-specific place indicators to sudden direct statement, before returning to concrete detail:
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
a possible emptying (33)
The statement defining grief has a concision that concentrates the force of Fraser’s emotional response to the Etruscan burial site. The definition of a more personal grief is made present with the use of the deictic (this bridge), but the claim of simplicity is surely complicated. The possibilities are multiplied, at the least, by the use of the conjunction which follows (or hidden field, or your face). One site of loss, the image of Susan’s face in the taxi window as she leaves, parallels another, the actual field, which is also the conceptual field of the page.
This subtly multivalent moment works to dissipate the empathic dissonance that has welled up with the feelings of sadness at the end of the poem. The swerve to address evokes the sense of presence (your face) even as presence is attenuated (a possible emptying). Susan’s present-absence has catalyzed a strong emotional reaction on K’s part that supplements (and momentarily supplants) her empathic response to visiting the Etruscan tomb. In the final section, she wistfully acknowledges her need to know: “I am needing proof,” as she states simply, facts, evidence, perhaps the impossible reassurance that what had existed once “may again” (34). The line overlays past loss (the erased people) with present (the dear friend who has left), and historical with personal event. As the series resolves, however, the text graphically reestablishes the delicate, contradictory difference between self and other. As the empathic subject, K has claimed access to Larthia through an imaginative reconstruction of her, as both Nussbaum and LaCapra define the empathic process, but as K realizes at the end of the poem, not only her opening imaginatively to Larthia but also her foreclosure on that access are, in essence, of her own making:
No one passes Vulci or crosses her bridge
(this boundary you make up in your mind) (34)
K has, as she reminds herself in the parenthetical line, created the very boundary that has structured her empathic inquiry. Fraser pairs in this passage a determinative statement of fact with a parenthetical qualification that calls into question the status of the factual statement. In doing so, she evinces an awareness that exemplifies, to recall Veprinska’s point, how attentive empathy serves as a structural principle of the text’s witnessing in Fraser’s pre-9/11 poetics.
Kathleen Fraser reading from WITNESS at Poets House in 2007. Courtesy of Poets House.
LaCapra observes that in their role as secondary witnesses, historians and artists bring empathy to their investigations to help them to understand traumatic or disturbing events and the experiences of the victims. He adds, moreover, that “it may (I think, should) have stylistic effects in the way one discusses or addresses certain problems.” “Etruscan Pages,” like other empathic works of poetry, adopts a structural principle which makes a place for other(s) and encounters the challenges of the mode. Fraser’s reaction to visiting the Etruscan site, moreover, illustrates how seamlessly the components of the empathic structure can interchange, the subject so quickly taking the place of the empathic object. However, the style of her poem, as well as its approaches to such challenges as opening to another (empathic unsettlement) and subsuming the other (empathic dissonance), differ from other works of attentive empathy. “Etruscan Pages” offers neither a voice study nor a cohesive narrative. Fraser’s exploratory compositional methods — the fragmenting of source material, the assemblage of quotation and visual hieroglyphs, the layerings of old and new visual and graphic elements — comprise a poetic process that distills its emotional energies onto the field of the page.
The process of how to write the poem was not immediately clear to her, but rather emotionally intuitive and meta-poetically exploratory. The arrival of the form was organic to her investigations: empathy as discovery. In an interview that Fraser gave a few years after publishing the poem, she spoke in detail of how she was initially filled with a sense of “deep sadness for everything that had once existed there”:
The Etruscans had been such a living and such an erotic and celebratory culture. I think that the experience of being in the Etruscan burial grounds … heightened my awareness of being alive and of being taken from life.
The “awareness” of which Fraser speaks exemplifies the capacity to be imaginatively present to another, which becomes, by the end of this passage, self-awareness. As Jeanne Heuving remarks, Fraser describes the poems of other contemporary women poets in ways that pertain to her own poetry in the 1990s, as a “determination to inhabit the present, while marking absence.” That dual awareness is generative for Fraser. In the instance of preparing to write “Etruscan Pages,” she is fully present both to “being alive” herself and to the sorrow she feels for an ancient culture eradicated by a conquering nation. This particular awareness is tinged with a new sense of her own mortality. As Fraser describes it, the experience haunts her: “It would not let me be.”
After the visit, still in its spell, she has two dreams of writing, which help her to approach the material. It is the second of these dreams in which occurs the statement that would not let me be, since I happened upon it again when I was reading through some of my letters and manuscripts from Fraser after she died. Here is the passage:
The second dream, two nights later, was of being with another friend, who had invited me to collaborate on a lithographic project, clearly a metaphoric parallel to engraving names into the burial tombstones, naming one’s own identity. I dreamed that I began scratching with my red and black ink, and all the marks were fragmentary. The dream was about collaboration, about assembling evidence, presence — literal, psychic, and historic — and about using my own pen, a theme of mine for a very long time, finding my own pen to do my work, in order, I think, to embody ‘a self,’ in order to discover that there is an evolving being in there, living, changing, breathing.
The thinking that closes this passage is so strangely vivid that returning to the interview after decades, I was struck by what it says (also by what it doesn’t say). The documentary activity described in this dream, “assembling evidence, presence — literal, psychic, and historic,” details a process found, as it happens, in the poetics of witness more generally propelled by empathy: collecting proof of a life or an event, being present to the signs of what happened, deciphering the fragmentary notations which mark the passing of that life, or alternatively, the covering over of an event. Seeking such “proof” is one of the gestures, as we’ve seen, on which “Etruscan Pages” closes.
Following the account of the dream in the interview, the marvelous statement of exploratory writing practice occurs — “finding my own pen” so that she can “name one’s own identity,” as well as “embody ‘a self’” — and those actions taken “in order to discover that there is an evolving being in there, living, changing, breathing.” Writing not to express something stable and known but to discover what is, as Fraser puts it, “in there,” and thereby to be able to name (place-hold) and to embody a self (to posit a unified subjectivity). Writing in order empathically to be present to this not-known, a self who not only isn’t yet inscribed in words — oneself-as-other — but also a self-in-process, self-made. How to convey this evolving, living, changing, breathing being if not in a continuum of participles?
Fraser’s revisionary reconceptualization of Robert Duncan’s musing about Olson’s “proposition of composition by field” is helpful for understanding how empathy functions in her pre-9/11 poetics. At one point in “Translating the Unspeakable,” she notes that Olson’s poetics remind Duncan of Pound’s explorations of what are in essence field-compositions, Chinese ideograms. He recalls giving himself an exercise as a young poet to write ideogrammatically:
Not only presentation but evocation of a presence [author’s italics] was my own course in the exercise. … The members [words] were felt to belong to an association. … What presented itself belongd [sic] to an epiphanic imprint or template […]. When I read “The Fire” correctly — I am in rhythm with my heart beat … and the space between the “words” is two heart beats …
For Duncan, this playful exercise creates a “company of playmates” formed of the words that show up, and they in turn together produce an associative “epiphanic imprint or template”: “The Fire,” Duncan’s ideographic poem or word-grid. The poem is a formal patterning of the material result of evoking a presence, the epiphany, to which Duncan refers. His description of his performative reading of the poem, moreover, suggests that it is read “correctly” when body and text transcend (per/form) the page and fuse.
In a revisionary interpretation of this passage, which analyzes the implications of Duncan’s thinking about Olson’s approach to the “page,” Fraser’s focus is on the process whereby words arrive on the page:
[W]e can imply Duncan’s profound connection to Olson’s page as a graphically energetic site in which to manifest one’s physical alignment with the arrival of language in the mind. This empathic visual concurrence generated a kind of lithographic “stone,” inscribed over the next thirty-year interval, discharging both the Duncan/Olson ghost print and a variety of original documentation, claiming the magnetic formal shape of the Agnes Martin grid[.]
The deep understanding of Duncan’s thinking that Fraser demonstrates also evinces an active reinterpretation of his words. She focuses on the textual form on the page, notably shifting the connotations of Duncan’s characterization of field composition from epiphanic to empathic, and from a visionary to a magnetically grounded visual process. The slippage is productive, revisionary, casting light on Fraser’s own thinking about empathy. Fraser argues that Duncan understands the Olsonian page as an “alignment” of body and script. This alignment comprises an “empathic visual concurrence,” which is generative for Duncan, because it makes “manifest” the physical connection between the arrival of “language in the mind” and its transfer to the “graphically energetic site” that is the page. Fraser’s reconceptualization of Duncan’s “epiphanic imprint or template” as “empathic visual concurrence,” which generates “a kind of lithographic ‘stone’” (the word-grid poem), characterizes the linguistic function of empathy in her own pre-9/11 poetics.
From this close reading of an aspect of Fraser’s pre-9/11 avant-garde poetics in the context of the philosophy of empathy, we see that what may have seemed a sudden shift into a poetics of witness, catalyzed by the disaster itself, was poised to emerge out of earlier empathic investigations in the 1990s. Although Fraser writes in her essay, “Witnessing,” drawn from a journal kept in the days shortly after 9/11, that with the terrorist attacks “all terms have changed,” she hastens to clarify that her poetics have not. She underscores that her aesthetic transcends the tragedy unchanged, but as the title of her essay indicates, her approach to her material has altered. This shift opens her thinking not only consciously to empathic process, but also to the closely related act of empathic witnessing.
Works of poetic witness, such as Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead and Reznikoff’s Holocaust, often have their roots in empathic inquiry, compelled by a concern to understand the experience of those who have suffered, and in many cases died unheard, their personhood erased by tragedy. Prior to 9/11, Fraser’s thinking about empathy seems occasional, more intuitive than deliberate, but as we’ve seen, such works as “Etruscan Pages” are structured by and rooted in empathic inquiry. Thus, her shift of focus post-9/11 to empathic witness was less an abrupt departure than an organic development in the trajectory of her poetics.
I want to turn now to the experimental sequence written in the years following the 9/11 attacks, WITNESS, first published as a collaborative artist book, with text by Fraser and visual images by Nancy Tokar Miller, in an exquisite letterpress edition by Chax Press in 2007. Several years later, it was included as a text-only version in a major collection of Fraser’s later poems, entitled movable TYPPE (Nightboat, 2011). Although the latter edition does not include collaborator Tokar Miller’s visual portion, in featuring the texts of four of Fraser’s limited edition collaborative artist books, Nightboat Books produced an invaluable selection offering access to Fraser’s twenty-first-century oeuvre. In addition, the edition is meticulous in its reproductions of her use of spacing and negative space in WITNESS,and in reproducing her play with typeface, font, and paste-up collage in other inventive poems. Even minus their dialogues with artists, these iterations showcase Fraser’s significant explorations of the materiality of words and letters as objects in her visually oriented poetry.
The visual images in WITNESS complement Fraser’s text in ways that amplify the operation of empathic witnessing, each medium offering a different lens through which to “see” the same tragic event. Focusing discussion on the artist book enables me to take that insight into some measured consideration in this closing section. WITNESS is exemplary of how an exploratory poet transfers to the “graphically energetic site” that is the page language that arrives in her mind after long contemplation. As such, the poem comprises a manifestation of an “empathic visual concurrence” generated by an empathic subject shocked into witness, the impact of which the collaboration intensifies.
The seeds of WITNESS grew out of a talk delivered at the Modernist Studies Conference just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, published the following year as the essay “Witnessing.” Prior to this time, Fraser neither aligned with documentary poetics nor was known as a poet of witness. Following 9/11, as epigraph to the first writing she produced in the weeks following the attacks, she quotes a passage on bearing witness from Camus’s The Plague, indicating her thinking about that particular mode of response to the assault. The passage from Camus gives in 2001 an idealistic entrée to her own piece. As Camus recounts, his main character, Dr. Rieux, resolves to chronicle the plague
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.
Although Fraser quotes this passage from Camus at a time when bellicosity and the rush to war were characterizing the national reaction, she prefaces her own essay with Camus’s clipped approbation of people in a time of catastrophe. When humanity is under duress, during a war as during a pandemic, events that test the character and nature of individuals, Camus declares, one finds more to admire in people than to judge despicable.
However Fraser might have cast forward at the time to a more hopeful outcome, she discovers different lessons for a stricken country. I’ll quote her opening at some length, because it not only elaborates the essay’s intent,but it also constitutes a full-throated expression of empathic witnessing, and, at a most basic level, Fraser’s capacity to open to others, and by putting herself imaginatively in their place, to understand their experience from their perspective:
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.
After the horror of 9/11, Fraser suggests, all Americans could now understand how it feels to be vulnerable to physical attack. Moreover, Americans were presented with the chance more deeply to imagine the pain with which so much of the world lives, the dread and fear “of that greater part of our human species.” Camus’s vision is sociopolitically located (most immediately, to the French occupation of Algeria and the German occupation of France). In contrast, Fraser’s response is distinctly ethical, extending beyond the American collective victim to the rest of the world’s people. Her gesture is not without empathically dissonant presumptions of knowing the other’s experience. Nor is it free of the assumption that “all Americans” represent all Americans’ responses to the attacks (which oppressed groups in the States know it does not). Her remark is accompanied, however, by a thoughtful refrain from rushing to write. Out of such strong emotional and ethical insight, she is wary of any aspiration to create a “newest poetic language” in reactive response. She acknowledges that she does not feel ready to write poetry yet. She avers that at such moments of profoundly shaken psychic bearings, minds, hearts, and texts open to the suffering of others and do not know what to say.
During the contemplative weeks after 9/11, at a time when the US was beating the drums of revenge, Fraser recalls a reading she heard given by George Oppen before Christmas in 1966, at the time of the escalation of the Vietnam War. She recounts hearing Oppen’s “low voice,” and how she “could hear no easy hope … but immense pain, rage, skepticism, resistance — unsupported by the theatre of rhetoric.” His “severe” poems told “the fact of his witness,” as she characterizes it. In Oppen’s work, as Fraser writes in “Witnessing” — “a true human accounting of his life, severe, even-handed in its carefully joined and separated parts” — she found a powerful model for resisting the rhetorical “comfort” of an unquestioned patriotism that expressed “the flag-imbedded codes of a single voice” as the nation hurtled to war in Afghanistan. A combat veteran of World War II, Oppen wrote “as a soldier in the world,” his poetry “weighted with news of still being here,” the burden and responsibility of the firsthand witness who survived: “Every word seemed fought for — a poetry discovered, cut apart, let go, repositioned. Certainly a poetry that left ease behind.”
Traces of Fraser’s earlier essay, “Witnessing,”are imported to the later poem sequence, WITNESS,which consists of fragments both of the chronicle she recorded in her journal after 9/11 and of those she included in her essay. The original journal entries have been scraped down and cut apart into carefully arranged phrases of partial, proximate perceptions:
Seige in our own cities can begin to imagine more deeply
one leg ahead
in language under erosion our trust in corrosive repetition
Such fragments belong to no cohering narrative, as there was in Fraser’s essay. What has carried over from the original text are shards of a broken collective, as the use of the first-person plural pronoun in the fragments suggests (our cities, our trust). Although these lines posit no clear empathic subject, and represent no stages of affective inquiry, as were so predominant in the pre-9/11 “Etruscan Pages,” the language in WITNESS seems clearly to have arrived in the mind of a perceiving body (breath, synapses, energy), whose perceptions have been transferred to the page. Extracted from their source contexts, the component-phrases are placed in spatial but not substantive relation, in lines punctuated by spaces (to mark breath, heartbeats, silence). It is as if, following the attacks, received phrases (“corrosive repetition”) have been shredded, language torn to pieces, reconstituted in fractured and composite form, tracking the neural pathways of shock. Fraser isn’t writing about her feelings directly; nor does she render a thought in completed form, nothing so lyrically polished, to recall the closing of “Etruscan Pages,” as grief is simple and dark. WITNESS gestures toward, but interrupts, direct statement. It stops short, just as lives were stopped short. Fraser arranges the jagged shards of concrete facts, observations, and impressions, as if only the jarring fracture of language could manifest on the page the concurrence of empathic witnessing of traumatic events.
Thus, the trajectory of an empathic subject opening to another isn’t the focus of WITNESS, as it was in “Etruscan Pages.” In contrast, this subject is one of many, Fraser placing her own perspective as one among others (including, in the artist book, in concert with Tokar Miller) in empathic resonance: paralleled rather than hierarchized, the text making room for other voices and disparate testimonies. We infer that it is the poet’s own resistant body rising in pain after being glued to the television, “jaw aching refusing to go forward into someone’s willingness” not to know “[t]he depth of the situation” (84). The passage ends in subtle, syntactic critique of the collective’s “on-going willingness not to know” (emphasis added). Strikingly, as Holocaust theorists Shoshona Felman and Dori Laub note, the “practical hazards” for the witness have to do precisely with the fact of “coming to know” something forbidden or forgotten, and the often unwelcome responsibility that accompanies that knowledge: the voluntary (or involuntary), conscious (or unconscious) “appointment to bear witness.”
That nuance, the responsiveness that an empathic subject brings to the act of witnessing, is an important difference between the attentive empathy of “Etruscan Pages” pre-9/11 and the urgency of empathic witnessing in the fraught, post-9/11 world. In the ensuing years after the attacks, Fraser mulled over the pressure brought to bear on language in the act of witnessing, to counter the erosion of language, corroded by the mind-numbing repetition of the spectacle of the attack and a collective refusal to look at anything beyond it. She has in mind Oppen’s poetic model, the burden of the responsibility to write poetry “Weighted with news of still being here” (87).
Fragments of initial impressions evoke the intensity of the attack’s aftermath without reconstituting it in the theatre of rhetoric. Documentary scraps of initial conjecture and erroneous reportage on the news (“Collision. ‘Not a terrorist action.’”) are juxtaposed with the quotidian (“The children’s red-knitted shirts seem to hold them upright something like flags”), and a quotation from Robert Graves, another combat veteran, recalling the dissonant thrill of the trenches of World War I (“‘I like the feeling of really being frightened’” ). Other quotations are a bricolage of testimonies of firsthand witnesses and survivors:
“We had become like wild animals. We didn’t care about
anyone other , , ,”
“… but after the next attack, I will help an old man push his basket
at the supermarket He’ll say ‘Thank you, Sir.’ and I will say
‘You’re very welcome, Sir,’ and we’ll just go on talking …” (89; Fraser’s ellipses)
Unidentified speakers and dis/located contexts mark the page with the specificity of shocked survival, the facts of witness tempered by an expression of futile hope that one might in the future act more humanely than one actually did in the moment of crisis. The array of voices enables the text to include multiple perspectives, alternating them with Fraser’s own (as well as, in the artist book, with Tokar Miller’s), thereby resisting the dominance of one perspective over others. In addition, such structural interchange opposes “the flag-imbedded codes of a single voice,” as we saw earlier, which is how Fraser characterizes an unquestioned, robotically rehearsed patriotism in the rush to war after 9/11. It is such structuring of the text that opens it to conscious empathic witness.
Acknowledging that the collapsing Twin Towers will always be “in our peripheral vision” (90), the text of WITNESS evokes but does not directly describe their collapse. In contrast, in the artist book, Tokar Miller’s visual image supplements Fraser’s text by abstracting the representation of the Towers into rough geometric figures that fill most of the page. These shapes, composed of dark swathes of brushstrokes washed over the forms, are cut across by the gaping yellow wound of an ovoid plane-figure. The dramatic visual image intervenes in the media’s obsessive rehearsal of the plane hitting the second tower and the towers collapsing. WITNESS counters the erosion of linguistic image as well, rendering the fact of the plane entering the wall as if the words had been driven into the wall of language’s materiality (82). Fraser presents the blunt language of fact, without the “comfort” of poetic flourish, defamiliarizing the components, severing word from emotional referent, focused on the action like a laser:
The airplane entered and entered every wall The airplane
entered the wall (82)
The tragic events are shorn of rhetoric, reduced to a long, stark act, one phrase partially repeated and interrupted in that repetition by a space, an emptiness in which one holds breath in a surround of negative space, as if “Wanting to rush into silence” (82).
That space registers the “Evidence of breathing” of the witness opposing the numbing effect of “language under erosion,” the robotic repetition of which desensitizes the collective consciousness. As she avers, “I am not ready nor will I be ready to enter the wall of anything that recommends itself now.” It is this individual, I suggest, who empathically begins to imagine someone who will “always be there,” present-absent, as the walls are collapsing, who cannot speak, as Oppen does, “the fact of his witness,” because he does not actually survive:
rolling against the wall in the massive wAVEs so that he should not be one of those
had never ― in actuality — been required to know who he was and to die as
who he had not been
The text opens in this passage to the willingness to know, in order to bear witness to this man who cannot himself be known because he did not survive, who moreover did not live to know his future self. Although the assumption of knowledge on Fraser’s part edges empathic unsettlement toward dissonance, her stringent, halting account of the man’s fate compels awareness of his plight. The result is that he is particularized. We see him forever in that moment before he dies, and feel the words about him marked with a present-absence which his actual fate — hovering in the immensity of negative space around the words — belies.
In the artist book, the juxtaposition of the painting of a huge wave — tall as the Tower, made with a few broad brushstrokes furling up against the bare oblong shape — and the fragment of participle phrase on the facing page is profoundly affecting. The “AVE” nested in the word “waves” in the passage above, moreover, which occurs only in the artist book, underscores how the poem opens to a particular linguistic gesture — hailing the reader, evoking a prayer’s appeal — with which Tokar Miller’s abstract image of imminent destruction reverberates. The visual linguistic burst highlights how the poem orients us from the beginning toward the graphic presence of the other, the intent to focus the lens on another’s experience with excruciating attention. Fraser counters the magnitude of catastrophe by crafting a severe poetry — every word fought for, discovered, scraped of context, rearranged — that forces the materiality of empathic witness to manifest on the page, leaving ease behind.
Note: This essay is in memory of Kathleen Fraser, groundbreaking poet and critic, teacher and mentor, editor, translator, feminist, and generous friend.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Deborah Mix, who organized two panels for the 2020 Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture honoring Kathleen Fraser the year after she died, where this essay was presented in its earliest form. I have benefited from the splendid scholarship of my fellow panelists. I am grateful to poet and Joyce scholar Brian Caraher for feedback on an early version of this essay that was most helpful as I undertook extensive revisions. I extend my thanks as well to the coeditors of Jacket2,Julia Bloch and Kenna O’Rourke, whose support and editorial acumen have been a great gift. Finally, my deep gratitude to the executors of Kathleen Fraser’s literary estate, Susan Gevirtz and Stephen Motika, for their generous permission to reprint excerpts from the following poems:
Selections from “Etruscan Pages” from when new time folds up by Kathleen Fraser (Chax Press, 1993). Copyright © 1993 by Kathleen Fraser. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Kathleen Fraser.
Selections from WITNESS, collected in movable TYYPE by Kathleen Fraser (Nightboat Books, 2011). Copyright © 2011 by Kathleen Fraser. Reprinted by permission of Nightboat Books.
2. In one of the earliest, most nuanced critical appreciations of this aspect of Fraser’s work, Eileen Gregory suggested that in later poems, such as “Etruscan Pages” and WING, “a private grief has been crystallized by particular external encounters. See Eileen Gregory, “‘A Poetics of Emerging Evidence’: Experiment in Kathleen Fraser’s Poetry,” in We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics, ed. Laura Hinton and Cynthia Hogue (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002), 15–27.
3. For a brief overview of Kathleen Fraser’s relationship to twentieth-century avant-garde and feminist avant-garde American poetries, see Jeanne Heuving and Cynthia Hogue, “Chronology II: American Women Poets, 1950–2000,” in A History of Twentieth-Century American Women’s Poetry, ed. Linda A. Kinnahan (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 66–67.
4. Kathleen Fraser, “Witnessing,” How2 1, no. 7 (Spring 2002): n.p. Fraser’s piece is part of How2’s “Poetry Post-9/11: Witnessing Dissent” feature.
9. Anna Veprinska, “Empathic Witnessing in Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust and Cynthia Hogue and Rebecca Ross’s When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina,” Contemporary Literature 58, no. 3 (Fall 2017): 306.
10. Veprinska, “Empathic Witnessing,” 307. Veprinska’s thinking about empathy and empathic dissonance has been very helpful in analyzing the role of empathy in Kathleen Fraser’s poems. It has, moreover, given me a term for the difficult balance between an act of witness and the necessary “filter” of editing, with which I struggled in my own empathic process in When the Water Came, as she thoroughly discusses, and for which I’m grateful.
13. Kathleen Fraser, “The Blank Page: H.D.’s Invitation to trust and mistrust language,” in Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000), 56.
14. I am revisiting insights in this section drawn from an earlier essay, which also discusses this passage, with very different concerns. See Cynthia Hogue, “Infectious Ecstasy: On the Poetics of Performative Transformation,” in Women Poets of the Americas: Toward a Pan-American Gathering, ed. Jacqueline Vaught Brogan and Cordelia Chávez Candelaria (University of Notre Dame Press, 1999), 51–67.
17. In the first letter included in “Etruscan Pages,” addressed to Annalisa, an Italian scholar of American poetry, “K” writes of her interest in Annalisa’s “reading of ‘conjecture’” in the Creeley-Olson correspondence, which “stays” with her (19).
21. See Fraser’s own description of her compositional method as “a largely intuitive gathering-up of poem materials”: “layerings of old and new inscriptions were built from accretions of literal archeological remnant bound together into current pages of language, visual figure, and event (present-time dreams and letters),” in “Translating the Unspeakable,” 55; emphasis added.
23. Fraser, quoted in Jeanne Heuving, “Kathleen Fraser and ‘Falling into the Page,’” in The Transmutation of Love and Avant-Garde Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2016), 141. Heuving analyzes at some length Fraser’s argument in “Translating the Unspeakable” that Olson’s PROJECTIVE verse was important for women’s experimental writing practice, theorizing that in the 1990s, by creating a “libidinized field poetics,” Fraser “inscribes a writing of erotic presence” (137, 149–52). Although we take very different approaches to the thinking in Fraser’s essay, Heuving’s significant work on Fraser has informed my own.
26. Robert Duncan, personal letter to the Italian scholar and translator Annalisa Goldoni, in 1982; quoted in Fraser, “Translating the Unspeakable,”186 (Duncan’s emphasis; Fraser’s unbracketed ellipses and notes in brackets; my bracketed ellipses).
29. For further critical work on the artist as secondary witness, see my essay theorizing the artist as eye-witness, whose act of witnessing is an ethical claim to have been present at events she could not literally have witnessed: Cynthia Hogue, “‘To Make from Outrage Islands of Compassion’: Denise Levertov’s Bridge-Poetics of Eye-Witnessing in the Context of Her Friendship with Robert Duncan,” in Inciting Poetics: Thinking and Writing Poetry,ed. Jeanne Heuving and Tyrone Williams (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2019), 101–20.
30. For a comprehensive overview of the far-ranging array of visual poetries produced by American women poets in the twentieth century, including Kathleen Fraser, see Elisabeth A. Frost, “Visual Poetics,” in A History of Twentieth-Century American Women’s Poetry, 339–58.
34. Kathleen Fraser, “WITNESS,” in movable TYYPE (Callicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2011), 81. Wherever possible, I am working with both the artist book and later editions of the poem, but parenthetical citations refer to the Nightboat edition. For the two brief sections that analyze the dialogue of poet and artist, see Kathleen Fraser (poet) and Nancy Tokar Miller (visual artist), WITNESS (Tucson: Chax Press, 2007), n.p. I have cited the Chax Press edition for references to Tokar Miller only.
37. Fraser, “WITNESS,” 80. I have applied this insight to Fraser, which is drawn from Veprinska’s thinking on empathy in Reznikoff’s Holocaust. Veprinska’s full passage reads, “Although it is problematic to assume the perspective of both victims and perpetrators [i.e. of the Holocaust] … especially in a text that interchanges these perspectives, the structuring of the text as such opens to empathy” (“Empathetic Witnessing,” 310).
38. Fraser, “WITNESS,” 80. I have taken the liberty of deviating slightly in the text-source from which I quote here. The first line of this passage is quoted from the Chax Press edition, which has the typographic variation in “wAVEs,” absent from the Nightboat edition. By way of conclusion, I go on to analyze the line in concert with a brief discussion of the accompanying Tokar Miller visual image facing Fraser’s passage.