The Inner Life of Midwesterners Rarely Spoken:
A Review of Marc Frazier’s Willingly
By Chase Dimock
In the poem “Iterations” Marc Frazier claims “There is no limit to the times a poet can mention the body.” Frazier’s latest book Willingly is true to his own words as nearly every poem is about inhabiting a body or the embodiment of ideas and emotions:
this body that stirs, or fails to
this barely defined shoulder
my body beside someone’s but not yet yours.
Frazier’s bodies are sites of memory, pain, desire, and the hope of transcendence through sensual connection with other bodies. These bodies are both familiar and alienating: his own body ranging from childhood to middle age, the alternately tender or cold bodies of lovers and objects of desire, and the bodies of his family members wracked with mental illness and the ravages of old age. Thus, Willingly is about how bodies are shaped by their environment, nurtured or neglected by family and community, and legible through scars:
Body, exhausted by metaphor–limited, earthbound.
Words can’t capture how it falters, breaks,
how there may be something more.
Words cannot capture a body in the sense that capturing means possessing and immobilizing it the way the possessiveness of desire sometimes wishes we could. But as a poet, Frazier’s words can depict the impressions of the body in motion, the way it ages, cowers in pain, and yearns for the touch of others.
Frazier begins his collection with the poem “little death; dissociative identity,” which sets the tone for his subsequent explorations of identity and desire. I imagine “little death” as a reference to the French “la petite mort,” a term that refers to the after effects of an orgasm. As the majority of the poems intersperse recollections of his dysfunctional family and meditations on his sexuality from childhood to present, the idea of sex culminating in a small death frames this relationship between his identity as a gay man and his upbringing in the midwest. The pleasures of the body mean that a part of him must die: namely the lingering trauma of a childhood that shamed his queerness as a man and an artist.
In “Synopsis” Frazier gives us exactly that: a run down of his infancy to manhood: “mother threatens to kill me during the seventh month of my life… mother is admitted for insulin and electro-shock therapies…I have to survive my father a difficult battle to win.” Living with a mentally ill mother and a stern Catholic father adds up:
I live as a person
the religious youth
and the man
my fragile self fueled
by porn alcohol
While an upbringing does not determine one’s sexual orientation, it does heavily inform how one navigates their sexuality and what they want to get through it. By alternating poems about his family from the nostalgic to the traumatic with poems about his loves and lusts, Frazier’s poetry investigates how the wounds of the past drive us to heal through desires of the flesh.
All discussions of sexual desire carry the stigma of taboo in our culture, yet Frazier’s poetry is unafraid to be vulnerable and confessional. His work is especially brave because he does not merely reveal erotic desires, but also the pain of rejection, the lingering feelings of inadequacy, and the moral ambiguity of his sexual past. In two back to back poems, “Without Words” and “Sergio”, Frazier connects his difficult relationship with his mother to a failed romantic relationship. Addressing his mother, he writes: “Even now, I stiffen when you hug me,/ frozen in an infant’s body”. Through poetry, he attempts to find healing for his trauma:
Each word I write aims to uncover the damage,
to express trauma that happens before language
But a body remembers what happened.
How I want to surrender, to let you reach me:
My body’s wanting to love is not the same as loving
though wanting to be loved is the same as loving
The problem of wanting to love and be loved in a traumatized body that cannot process or receive love as the mind wants emerges as well in Frazier’s poems about sexuality. In these poems, he explores the dual nature of sex: the sensual and the carnal. I was particularly struck by some of the poems in which he positions the carnal as a reaction to the frustrations and disappointments in trying to make a sensual, romantic connection. In “Without You” he writes:
I bring bodies alive with a quarter
Watch them laboring
Like pistons and cylinders,
To unlearn the beauty of you
the pornography does best
When a body he loved slips away, he responds with a carnal possession of another, virtual body he can always control. In “Sergio” this reactionary attitude is echoed as he writes “the more I have sex, the more I get even.” It’s brave to explore this unflattering, yet all too human and universal aspect of frustrated desire.
Despite the strong focus on a traumatized past and painfully honest poems about the darker and stickier elements of desire, Frazier’s book still maintains a certain level of optimism in the promise of sensual connection through bodies. In these poems, he crafts some of his most beautiful images and lines. In “Architecture” he writes
I hear each cell crave to be more
my desire to be less
anchored deep in the kiln of your chest
In “Heart Tide” Frazier writes of the hope for transcendence through vulnerability:
My clear heart rests in your hand
beyond death’s fingers
It holds itself, freed of geography and time.
That line beautifully sums up the aspirations of Frazier’s book. We recover traumas through the body. We feel the pain of shame, rejection, and frustration through the body. But at moments, bodies can intertwine and transcend the damage of the past and the physical constraints of the present. There are indeed no limits to the times a poet can mention the body, and through poetry we reshape and we rethink the bodies we inhabit each time they are mentioned.
Willingly is available from Adelaide Books
About the Author: Chase Dimock is the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be Magazine. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship has appeared in College Literature, Western American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His works of literary criticism have appeared in Mayday Magazine, The Lambda Literary Review, Modern American Poetry, and Dissertation Reviews. His poetry has appeared in Waccamaw, New Mexico Review, Faultline, Hot Metal Bridge, Saw Palm, and San Pedro River Review among others. For more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.
More by Chase Dimock:
A Review of John Dorsey’s Your Daughter’s Country
A Review of Jumping Bridges in Technicolor by Mike James
Leadwood: A Conversation With Poet Daniel Crocker