Gregory Fraser’s ‘Designed for Flight’
Designed for Flight
by Gregory Fraser
Triquarterly Books, $16.95 paperback, 100 pp.
I enjoy poetry best when it serves to both reaffirm the world I’ve known as well as transform it in some fundamental way, allowing me to discover more of it. The affirmation often enough comes through clarity of image, distinct voices speaking, familiar places. In form, there may be a sense of orderliness that directs, but doesn’t stifle the movement of ideas or become dully predictable, perhaps a conversational quality that appears to be at ease as opposed to calculating or deceptive. These are all pleasing qualities, and Gregory Fraser’s Designed for Flight takes advantage of its lucid depictions of settings and characters, its insistence on memory as something to be celebrated and relied upon, even if aware of memory’s tendency to embellish and romantically alter events. All this makes for an approachable group of poems, ones that will (as far as poetry goes) have a significant audience to address without pandering through generalizations and ambiguity. But what’s more interesting for me as a reader, especially with such grounded poems, is when the poems challenge me both as a reader and a person. In Fraser’s third collection, I frequently found myself drawn to the many moments of failure and embarrassment represented throughout. While flaws and bad ideas aren’t necessarily championed or prescribed, they add character and veracity to accounts that feel quite personal and urgent. What might be just as important, too, is the consistent sense of both ruefulness and forgiveness.
As mentioned before, this collection is largely a testament to memory, the ways that it both records and distorts our experience. For the speaker who leads us through most of these poems, we see a man with a complex, sometimes difficult relationship with his past, admitting, with only the most minor shred of regret, “I used to wish for [a] photographic / memory, but what I really wanted was a photogenic one.” Memory, while a tether to what this man has experienced, can also be painful, if not entirely damning. Later on, in that same stanza, we’re asked, “Why shouldn’t / my sins, if set to haunt me, at least flaunt rakish good looks?” It’s not an unfair question, and it’s displays more than a little of the good humor that so often charms me in these poems, makes me unconcerned that I’m not being addressed by or about a sagacious old soul who has deigned to offer advice unto me, a reader at rest during a trying journey. In these less rarified accounts, many of the poems rooted in narrative, there’s room for regret, but a regret tempered by resilience.
This resilience often has a clear sense of humor, humility, but remains steadfast in acknowledging what actually happened. The individual poems feel alarmingly accurate, because they are so upfront with the shortcomings and indiscretion of their characters, so often without an agenda of saving face or relishing past glories and goofs. In “The Theft,” our speaker recounts his short year of partying out of college, sharing what seem serial transgressions: “I stole / my roommate’s girlfriend with a kiss / one starless night outside our dorm— / or put more truly, she threw a leg across / and borrowed me, like an unchained / bike, to ride away from him.” He wonders, years after the fact, about the hurt boyfriend, his roommate, who left school and a golf scholarship in his hurt, preferring a return to the family farm. In “The Stuff,” we’re told of how a friend of our speaker “swerved his roadster down a gully / and phoned me for help.” Once arrived on the scene, our narrator who “rode out planning to bust him once, / sharply in the teeth, to watch blood, / not more regrets, pour from his mouth” can’t seem to deliver the hard, possibly overdue judgment as he nervously keeps look-out for the police. The very first lines of “The Great Northeast,” our first poem open with men who “still botch grammar in Northeast Philly,” and makes a request regarding such roughness: “Lord, let’s leave it that way.” Even the very titles of the poems evoke the pathetic and bumbling among us: “Her Mistake,” “The Village Idiot,” “Prodigal Son,” “To a Fool.” In another title, the speaker proclaims, “I Should Be Livid” at being misled, being “made a clod” by his former lover, but the implication is that despite all this, the various sufferings and wrongs, the clear implication is that he isn’t irate or outraged. He wants to feel some sort of self-righteous indignation, but cannot. There are less comic hardships, too, losses such as a child by miscarriage demonstrate a familiarity with the possible cruelties of biology and chance. Despite this, the poems sing out, putting meaning into these otherwise dire and defeating realities.
Perhaps this is what allows this collection to challenge my own biases when it comes to poetry, on both a technical level and in the concepts addressed. As with the speaker of “I Should Be Livid,” there were many times I found myself thinking, I should be annoyed or this shouldn’t work, only to find myself, against my own volition, deeply invested in a poem. An example of one of my more obvious, perhaps unfair biases, is my somewhat severe distrust of the second-person. While this point-of-view tends to be more commonly (often effectively) employed in poetry than prose fiction or other literary genres, I tend to find it a rather cloying and clumsy way for the author to try to endear himself to his reader, as if to say, “Look here. I’ve written a story about you,” which is the type of thing I imagine one would do for a young child or a grown narcissist. It can come across as a little condescending. Poems in second person, having taken on the burden of speaking to anyone who may read the work, can also be sterile, full of platitudes and generalizations. When Gregory Fraser makes use of the second person (as opposed to resorting to it, as others might), however, it’s vibrant and detailed. The poems don’t shy away from the length and detail that characterizes them so well or make sacrifices for the sake of universal appeal. In both “Lingo” and “Judeophilia” the second-person has implicated the reader by the second line, yet I think it’s obvious that here, the second-person is just another way to encounter the speaker’s (and sometimes author’s) experience; it’s second-person as another form of first-person. “Lingo” goes as far as even using the author’s initials “Gregory Allen Fraser” to discuss the adolescent fear of “being marked a fag” while tentatively learning about the opposite sex. “Judeophilia” describes us attending dinner house of Jaime Slotsky, of a notably Jewish family:
And when the Slotskys spread instead
of tucked their napkins, called each other
many names, yukked and poked at sides, and spoke
without reserve of Him—His fickleness, His absence,
His grief—each speech pregnant with others, you knew
yourself one of them already and never one, a wanderer
among the wayward, equally designed for flight,
as stubby fingers stabbed at air, or wagged in refutation,
nein, nyet, no. What to do but side with Jaime’s cousin,
You can put that in the second-person any day, but it’s not going to fool me. I think the poem’s aware of this, and I don’t feel like I’m being led or deceived by the technique.
Ok, I’ll admit, this is a moment where maybe the problem is only mine. I know I’m not speaking for everyone’s relationship with “you” in writing, but when Fraser is operating at his full poetic capacity, I wonder if he can go wrong. Even poems that seem like terrible ideas come off in their execution. I say this with the warmest of feelings, but I even got mad at some of these poems, considered testing the book’s readiness for flight by throwing it across the room—and not because I thought the poems were unsuccessful or incorrect, but because I couldn’t believe that they were so effective. If anyone, prior to reading this collection, would have tried to get me to read a 152-line love-letter written to an American poet from the perspective of his wife raised in the Soviet Union, I would either have laughed incredulously or would have possibly been insulted by the suggestion. In “Marriage,” the longest poem of this collection, however, we’re presented with something wholly endearing, a speaker who has the authority to playfully muse at our American strangeness and gently mock the poet himself. After all, this is a love poem, and one that is consistently surprising and generous.
In exchange for the husband cleaning dog doo off a sneaker, the speaker avows that she “will gladly answer // queries about the cotton / farms I worked as a girl / in the Soviet south.” She makes promises on contingency while subtly dealing out some advice: “I can honor any good man’s / madness, but it means you must / refrain from thinking of the dead // as sunken treasure….” There’s a sense of a true partnership amongst individuals, but no shortage of wild romantic gestures as well: “Let’s purchase, / then, a plot in an unmarked field / and have our bodies buried / without coffins.” Even our language can be mocked when the speaker settles on being “More than happy—as if joy / alone were not enough.” Yes, Designed for Flight has a lot of the specificity, length of poem, and narrative qualities that often draw me to certain poets’ work, but it also surprises and challenges me; it rankles me; it makes moves with a deftness and ease that pulls off poems that cannot be done justice by a summary or basic description of the themes and subjects. These poems manage to be both approachable, yet also profound in their complexity and generosity. I have to agree with poet Richard Howard, who describes these poems as “not confident or even hopeful, but correct, obviously true.” Even in my most cantankerous and moody of moods, I can’t argue with these poems, can’t be stubborn for the sake of stubbornness. That’s no small task, and I think it speaks directly to the magnitudes of self-awareness and compassion exhibited by Fraser in his newest work.