“The Inner Life of Midwesterners Rarely Spoken: A Review of Marc Frazier’s Willingly” By Chase Dimock

 

 

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
divided
the religious youth
and the man
cruising men
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,
        Without sound

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 LiteratureWestern American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His works of literary criticism have appeared in Mayday MagazineThe Lambda Literary ReviewModern 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 othersFor 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

 

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: JEN CAMPBELL

Jen Campbell


Vaginaland
By Jen Campbell


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“Vaginaland” was previously published in English Pen “Poems for Pussy Riot” and appears here today with permission from the poet.


Jen Campbell is an award-winning poet and short story writer. She’s also the author of the bestselling Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops Series. Her poetry collection, The Hungry Ghost Festival, is published by The Rialto and her latest book, The Bookshop Book, will be published in October by Little, Brown.


Editor’s Note: What is a girl? What is her mouth, her body, her words? Who is that girl when the world tries to hold her down and shut her up? When “She has been baked / as a blackberry pie and / now everyone wants a piece / of her”?

“Vaginaland” was originally published by English PEN as a political act. In an act of solidarity. In support of three members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, who were then in prison for their outspoken feminism, LGBT advocacy, and opposition to the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Who — and what — does a girl become when she stands up, breaks free, and fires out the words that are deep inside of her? When those words are political? When her voice is political? When “She says: this is the capital of me”?


Want to read more by Jen Campbell?
Jen Campbell Official Website
The Hungry Ghost Festival
The Prose-Poem Project
Jane Martin Poetry Prize 2013
The Plough Prize

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: LAURA E. DAVIS

LEDavis-2014

By Laura E. Davis:


ATTITUDES TOWARD SEX

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THE BOYS ARE ALWAYS TALKING

about their cocks, naming
names—Rebecca, Elizabeth,
Ashley—we see these girls
all lined up, waiting to admire

the boys’ cocks. And the boys
talk about size of their cocks,
seven inches becomes ten, then
thirteen. They tell us how

they measured their cocks
after their first wet dream: they
woke up sweaty, quick-covered,
got their cocks hard again, pulled

out the ruler. Boys and cocks
everywhere. A boy shows his
cock to a girl on the playground.
Another boy watches girls from

a parked car while he touches
his cock. On the subway, boys
unzip their pants, put cocks
on display. Baby boys discover

their tiny cocks during every
diaper change. I didn’t see
my own clit was until I was
twenty-three. I had to hold

a mirror just to see it rise
like slow-motion stalagmite.
Had to hold back my own skin
just to show it to myself.



WOMAN AS HUMAN BEING

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“Attitudes Toward Sex” was originally published in iARTistas. “The Boys Are Always Talking” was originally published in Muzzle. “Woman as Human Being” was originally published in Toad Journal. These poems appear here today with permission from the poet.


Laura E. Davis is the author of Braiding the Storm (Finishing Line, 2012), founding editor of Weave Magazine, and founder of Submission Bombers. Her poems are featured or forthcoming in Toad, Stirring, Corium Magazine, So to Speak, Muzzle, and others. Laura teaches for Poetry Inside Out, a K-12 a bilingual poetry program in San Francisco, where she lives with her partner, Sal.

Editor’s Note: This week I had the honor of working with an artist to create an artistic response to the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision. I have already written an editorial response to the ruling, but I wanted to speak out against this injustice in many ways, through many voices.

Today’s poems speak for womankind. They speak for our bodies, for our vantage point within a man’s world. When read together today, they are meant to be a shout from the rooftops. That no one exercises control over our bodies but ourselves. That we are human beings whose rights are superior to the rights of corporations. Yes, that we are human beings. Beautiful, complex, powerful human beings who are as capable of a battle cry as we are of “a vigorous and radiant sigh.”

Want to read more by Laura E. Davis?
Dear Outer Space – Laura E. Davis’ Blog
“Quiet Lightning” on Youtube
Buy Braiding the Storm from Finishing Line Press
“Relics” in Sundress
“Vessels” and “Red Storm” in The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: NO

no


from NO
By Ocean Vuong


TORSO OF AIR

Suppose you do change your life.
& the body is more than

a portion of night—sealed
with bruises. Suppose you woke

& found your shadow replaced
by a black wolf. The boy, beautiful

and gone. So you take the knife to the wall
instead. You carve & carve.

Until a coin of light appears
& you get to look in, for once,

on happiness. The eye
staring back from the other side—

waiting.



HOME WRECKER

And this is how we danced: with our mothers’
white dresses spilling from our feet, late August

turning our hands dark red. And this is how we loved:
a fifth of vodka and an afternoon in the attic, your fingers

sweeping though my hair—my hair a wildfire.
We covered our ears and your father’s tantrum turned

into heartbeats. When our lips touched the day closed
into a coffin. In the museum of the heart

there are two headless people building a burning house.
There was always the shotgun above the fireplace.

Always another hour to kill—only to beg some god
to give it back. If not the attic, the car. If not the car,

the dream. If not the boy, his clothes. If not alive,
put down the phone. Because the year is a distance

we’ve traveled in circles. Which is to say: this is how
we danced: alone in sleeping bodies. Which is to say:

This is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning
into a tongue.



Today’s poems are from NO, published by Yes Yes Books, copyright © 2013 by Ocean Vuong. “Torso of Air” previously appeared in BODY Literature, and “Home Wrecker” previously appeared in Linebreak. These poems appear here today with permission from the poet.


NO: Anyone who has already sensed that “hope is a feathered thing that dies in the Lord’s mouth,” should get their hands on NO. Honest, intimate, and brimming with lyric intensity, these stunning poems come of age with a fifth of vodka and an afternoon in an attic, with a record stuck on please, with starlight on a falling bomb. Even as Vuong leads you through every pleasure a body deserves and all the ensuing grief, these poems restore you with hope, that godforsaken thing—alive, singing along to the radio, suddenly sufficient. —Traci Brimhall, Our Lady of the Ruins


Ocean Vuong is a recipient of a 2013 Pushcart Prize as well as fellowships from Kundiman, Poets House, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Poems appear in Poetry, The Nation, Beloit Poetry Journal, Passages North, Quarterly West, Denver Quarterly, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the 2012 Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. He lives in Queens, NY.


Editor’s Note: I’m just going to come right out and say this: Ocean Vuong is one of the best and most important poets writing in America today. I have not been so moved as I am by Vuong’s words since I first read Li-Young Lee. This poet has changed my life. He has renewed my belief in American poetry. That it can be emotional and heartbreaking. That is can be beautiful and full of hope. That modern American poetry can—and does—matter. In my humble opinion your poetry collection is simply not complete unless it houses both Vuong’s groundbreaking chapbook, Burnings, and his newest release from Yes Yes Books, NO.

NO is a surprisingly experimental collection, yet Vuong remains dedicated to the lyric and the narrative, guiding us through its formal twists and turns through emotive language and evocative imagery. Throughout its pages the poet intimately explores themes of love, sexuality, and belonging against a backdrop of devastating loss. It is a brilliant and beautiful collection, a true heartbreaking work of staggering genius. As the book’s publisher did when reading through the manuscript for the first time, when Ocean Vuong says NO to you, be prepared to say “Yes Yes!”


Want to see more from Ocean Vuong?
Buy NO from Yes Yes
The Poetry Foundation
Interview in The Well & Often Reader
Ben Lerner on mentoring Ocean Vuong, Brooklyn College

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: ONLY RIDE

OnlyRide-Front

from ONLY RIDE
By Megan Volpert:


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Today’s poems are from Only Ride, published by Sibling Rivalry Press, copyright © 2014 by Megan Volpert. “You are suspended” was first published in This assignment is so gay, edited by Megan Volpert and published by Sibling Rivalry Press. These poems appear here today with permission from the poet.


Only Ride: If Denis Johnson had written Tuesdays with Morrie, it’d feel like Megan Volpert’s book of prose poems. Clawing its way out through this minimalist checklist of suburban malaise is an emphatically optimistic approach to growing up. These tiny essays carefully detail how to avoid becoming one’s parents, how to manage a body addled by disease, and how to keep having the best possible time in life. After all: this is the only ride there is, and we can only ride it. Volpert’s is a story of Springsteenian proportions, a gentleman’s guide to rebellion complete with iron horses and the church of rock & roll.

Megan Volpert is the author of five books on communication and popular culture, most notably about Andy Warhol. She has been teaching high school English in Atlanta for the better part of a decade, and is currently serving as her school’s Teacher of the Year. She edited the American Library Association-honored anthology This assignment is so gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching, which is currently a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Predictably, www.meganvolpert.com is her website.

Editor’s Note: Megan Volpert’s Only Ride is a no-holds-barred journey through personal history, with sage wisdom bursting from its rough-and-tumble seams. The book is less Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and more Get a Grip and Ride Like it’s Your Only Ride. This is a book about how to live life. Suck it up and move past the childhood issues that scarred you. Don’t just cope with illness, thrive in the face of it. Live life full throttle no matter what it throws at you, because life is short and living demands fierce courage.

Throughout her journey Volpert takes personal and political stands, inspiring her readers to do the same. Sometimes you’ve just gotta smash things, because “a deep frustration that hurls pottery against the concrete floor… is not the thing to bottle up in shame.” Sometimes a teacher has a responsibility to teach more than just standard curriculum. As “the only openly queer faculty member in [a] public Southern high school,” Volpert is “fully equipped to teach both English & tolerance,” and she’ll write a student up for failing the latter.

Brimming with humor and hubris and wicked wit, the greatest gift of this book is the life lessons it relays. Stand up for what you believe in. Move past life’s bullshit and face adversity with a battle cry. Let go of the small stuff. “Many things annoy me,” Volpert confides, “but I seldom get really angry because now I just feel so lucky to be alive.” And we all should, the implication echoes. In a world where “[d]eath knocks twice: once for introductions & once to take you away,” why waste your precious life letting things get your goat? Having faced death, the poet gave her goat away; she has no goat to give. And we would all be well served to follow her example. “After all: this is the only ride there is, and we can only ride it.”

Want to see more from Megan Volpert?
Official Website
This assignment is so gay
Sibling Rivalry Press
FRONTIER PSYCHIATRIST

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD

Chris Window

SO GAY
By Christopher Crawford

How gay is it
for two men
to stroke
the same dog
at the same time.

                           What if they’re both
sitting on a sofa watching
When Harry Met Sally.

How about two men watching
the same gorgeous sunset
             from the same high ridge.

                           And if a man daydreaming
on a bus ride finds his eyes when focus returns,
             quite accidently, on the crotch
                           of the man seated opposite.

How about two men riding
a bus into a gorgeous sunset
or two gorgeous men watching
a sunset in silence. How about
two men daydreaming and stroking
a gorgeous dog and the dog makes
a strange deep sound of pleasure.

What if the men are old friends.
What if they’re brothers.
What if there’s music playing.


(Today’s poem originally appeared in Rattle, was a Pushcart Prize Nominee, and appears here today with permission from the poet.)

Christopher Crawford was born in Glasgow, Scotland. His poetry, essays and translations have appeared in magazines like The Cortland Review, Rattle, The Collagist, Agenda and elsewhere. His poems have been nominated for a couple of Pushcart prizes and he is a founding editor at B O D Y (bodyliterature.com).

Editor’s Note: We live in a day and age of extreme and imperative progress in the gay rights movement. Day by day, state by state, country by country, same-sex marriage is becoming legal and same-sex couples are fighting for—and winning—the rights they should have had all along. But the bigotry remains; the bullying, the violence. And this hatred is inextricably linked with language, with the politics inherent in language. When someone says “that’s so gay,” their intent may not be homophobic, but they are perpetuating discrimination none the less.

Today’s poem makes us consider the words we use—in our society, in our culture, in our day. What does it mean to be “so gay”? If you meditate upon the meaning of that phrase, Crawford shows us, you may discover the simple beauty of humanity.

Want to read more by and about Christopher Crawford?
The Cortland Review
Now Culture
Evergreen Review
The Collagist
Gray Sparrow