Sunday, June 21, 2009

“Swimming in the Cathedral”: A Review of Vernon Frazer’s Improvisations

(Beneath the Underground, 2005, $45.00)

Improvisations is a scary big book. At 700 pages it is far afield from your typically slim volume of poetry. Frazer uses the length and breadth of this master-work to cover an immense amount of typographical and etymological ground, and he has the freedom to repeat a variety of themes for emphasis and effect. At times the passages are so slightly, subtly revised as to be almost unnoticed. But the structure here is akin to Pollock’s drip paintings or the works of East Coast wordsmith Marc Sonnenfeld—Frazer “denies the accident” and one gets the sense that moving one word, one symbol, one line would collapse the entire structure.

It took me nine and a half months to read Improvisations, taking it in as I did in manageable, well-considered doses, like the potent intoxicant that it is. Not since I read Bob Dylan’s Tarantula many years ago have I felt so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of words.

I hold the distinction of being the first person to buy it. For a little over three years it sat among my to-be-reads. Staring. Taunting. Daring.

“Don’t be a wuss,” it whispered. “Come swimming in the Cathedral.”

Cathedral, indeed. Like Dante’s Divine Comedy, Improvisations is a Gothic-like structure that makes one feel small among its arches of art and rose-window words. If Chartres were made of letters, webdings, and fonts it would look like this.

Improvisations is divided into 160 Roman-numeraled pieces that bring to mind Pound’s Cantos (although one piece is often continued [in thought if not in form] in the one that follows). Everything is Epic here, without being Elitist.

At times the text has a great deal of space, cascading along the pages in a great urgency of couplets and tercets and at other times there are solid blocks of text that cover the pages with half a thousand words. Initially quite daunting, the block text can be broken down into dozens of manageable phrases and ideas.

Along the way he employs glossolalia (speaking in tongues); pictograms; simple homonym word plays (“syntax/sin tax”); words and phrases that do what they say (tilting, dislocate, spread, vertical, slant, verbal sculpture, swelling, splatter) or do not (such as the word “neon” set in grayscale); and references a wide range of literary and other figures, both real and fictional, including: William S. Burroughs, Wilhelm Reich, Van Gogh, Elvis, Paracelsus, bin Laden, Oedipus, Proserpine, carol ghosts, pinball wizards, Dionysius, and Apollo.

Yeats’ “The Second Coming” is deconstructed and strewn throughout, at times coupled with Carl Jung and Lewis Carroll; the phrase “hoarse platitudes” calls to mind Jim Morrison’s “Horse Latitudes.”

Some of my favorite passages from Improvisations (and there are countless other gems):

“the arpeggiated strangulation of the vortex or Wichita” (p. 10); “the few who dared wring blood from ash with wine-stamp feet” (p. 12); “greasepaint smelling the crowd’s roar/intent on one clap handing its applause” (p. 46); “oral skill bought off the lips/of politicians” (p. 77); “Assuage the sins of commas where colonoscopy fears to tread” (p. 162); “the font shall proclaim independence from its linear enslavement” (p. 227); “A loose invective beats a leaf motif any day” (p. 615)

Piece VIII demonstrates the music of words. On p. 124 there is a two-column block of text where the left hand is inverted verbatim in the right hand column, necessitating that the reader read from the bottom up, right to left, creating a quantum physical outlay where matter reverses and loops back on itself. On pp. 158 and 160 one can read the three-column text either across or down each column. This is an impressively constructed work, the artistry of which cannot be taught. It is a vision.

The key to the cathedral for me was this recurring phrase:


[elaborated later as: “if you play (or write) long enough a form will assert itself”]

As we walk down the long aisles of the first 300 pages, drawing ever closer to the altar and the hidden chambers it hides, Frazer provides the direction, the recipe, the cipher along his own whimsical ley lines. And although we have to work for it, it seems he is playing Moriarty to our Holmes; it’s clear that he wants us to know.

What use would it be if we did not?

By p. 340 or so we are well inside, and the typography erupts with a full flowering of everything that has come before, and the visual begins to trump the lingual.

On p. 355 is a visually arresting piece that introduces the term “synesthesia,” which is, according to various Internet sources, a neurological phenomenon where stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experience in a second pathway. Similarly arresting pieces appear on pp. 450–451.

On p. 561, Frazer provides a layout that forces the reader to rotate the page numerous times to read and see everything he’s placed there. After all, anyone can listen to the sermon—the listener must also participate actively in the prayer. And lest we get too caught up in the words and forget our surroundings, the degree of textual overlap on p. 650 is a clear reminder that we mustn’t swim solely in the words.

The final page of the final piece ends with a large grayscale IS, over which are two eyes, an “I” and a small “as,” interpreted by this reader as “as I is/is as I” paralleling the Sanskrit Tat tuam asi—“Thou art that.”

Improvisations ends with a Prelude, where the author outlines his influences and explains his intentions. Think of it as the Bible you buy on the way out of the Cathedral—it is useful to the extent that it operates as a possible interpretation of all that has been already been experienced directly in the heart and soul. It is not to be taken as Gospel.

In a book of pure genius, it is this placement of the Prelude that ensures the journey’s worth all that it asks of us.

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