Designed for Flight, the third book of poems by University of West Georgia professor Gregory Fraser, is a collection of reckonings, reckonings of the past and reckonings of the self.
A declaration from “Prodigal Son” might stand as a motto for the book’s ethos of harsh self-assessment: “To be is to be disappointed / and to disappoint.” Fraser directs his unsparing gaze on secrets kept, shames concealed and sins committed, shaping these awkward and haunting episodes into startling, compelling poetry.
Many of the poems in the earlier part of the book take as their backdrop the working-class Catholic neighborhood in Philadelphia where the poet grew up. An awareness of differences in class, education and religion generates a lingering sense of uneasiness in the work. “At the Degas Exhibit” is representative. Seeing a painting called The Dance Class triggers a Proustian memory of a part-time job cleaning a ballet studio. As opposed to the wealthy dance students, “those / sugarplums of . . . Society Hill,” the speaker sees his younger self as “some / sponge-and-bucket kid from a ragged edge— / undersized, near-sighted, invisible to art.”
The poems frequently depict the narrator as an outsider, a figure on the margins, a stranger to the present, often intrigued by unfamiliar worlds he encounters. In “Judeophilia,” a long poem that ends the book’s first section, the narrator recounts his fascination with a girlfriend’s Jewish family. He both identifies with the Slotskys as outsiders and considers himself an outsider in their midst: “you knew yourself / one of them already and never one, a wanderer / among the wayward, equally designed for flight.” This reference to the book’s title invokes dual meanings of the word flight. In one sense flight can mean escape; it can also signify a lifting off as in joy or rapture.
This tension, between the desire to flee and the capacity for elation, as well as the courage to abandon oneself to such flights of feeling, encapsulates one of the key evolutions in Designed for Flight. The book begins rooted in the poet’s desperate yearning to escape the trap of his family, his hometown, “a town with one high school, one hospital, and one moon” (“Lingo”) and his past.
The poet relentlessly tries to come to terms with his own inadequacies, calling himself to task for betrayals both large and small. In “Judeophilia” he regrets not attending the Slotskys’ Seder dinner: “And what a tiny branding / you feared: Jew lover, kike kisser.” Both “Lingo” and “Theft” recount episodes of fooling around with a friend’s girlfriend. In “Prodigal Son” he writes, “Envy stabs me now, and whose face doesn’t hang / on hinges, isn’t many half-closed doors?”
Many of the poems in the middle of the book deal with erotic couplings, sexual desire and breakups. Relationships are frequently described as disintegrating or at cross-purposes: “in love / but drifting” (“Ending with a Line from a Travel Guide”), “how trapped we felt / in open space” (“Ohio in Late Summer”), “our bodies, no matter how we tried, / joined like pieces from different puzzles” (“Springfield), “No surprise we never quite aligned” (“Alternative Contours of Space and Time”), “We…shared / many points of concord (though fewer / and fewer, after the first hot years / of contact)” (“Not a Word”). These poems reiterate time and again the poet’s complicated desire for ecstasy and escape.
To complement his ruthless self-probing, Fraser also demonstrates a formidable formal ability. Two lines from “The Stuff” give a small taste of the music and delicacy of Fraser’s prosody: “We stood awhile in silence—he swaying / pinelike, me scanning the pike for cops.” Here first of all is a hypnotic, cadenced use of consonance, the repetition of W, S, L, K, and P sounds in “We,” “stood,” “awhile,” “silence,” “swaying,” “scanning,” “pinelike,” “pike” and “cops.” Listen as well for the rhyming of “We,” “he” and “me,” as well as the sonic and structural echo of “he swaying” in “me scanning.” Also, the long I carries through both lines in various combinations with L, P and K in “awhile,” “silence,” “pinelike” and “pike.”
Fraser often makes excellent and skillful use of enjambment, a term that describes when a line of poetry ends without punctuation and continues on to the next line. He begins “The Village Idiot” with this enjambment: “The evening your beloved invited you to / vanish, seemingly with no remorse or warning.” Notice the suspense of ending the line on “to”—invited you to what?—and the emotional jolt of “vanish.” Later in the same poem the enjambment enacts what it describes. In “the late-March branches, rolling / down their pale sleeves” readers must literally roll down from “rolling” to “down,” from one line to the next, where they are rewarded with the lovely lyrical surprise of the branches’ “pale sleeves.”
As it draws to a conclusion, Designed for Flight increasingly embraces hope and wonder. The poet no longer seeks escape but risks flights of joy. As if to communicate this development, the final section begins with a poem entitled “Man of Feeling.” The poet is opening, thawing, unlocking. “Yet warmth has found / an entrance, picked some shackle inside.” In “Interlude” the speaker meets a romantic “you” who inspires him to reinterpret the world as a more welcoming place. “Ever since, each puddle seems a novice ocean, / no longer a shallow grave of storm.” Similarly “Mine” begins with praise (“Praise to the drowsy houseflies of September”) and the beloved “you” returns, moving the poet to dare the heights: “Yet you hammered planks across the trunks / of trees, somehow coaxed me to climb.”
Gregory Fraser will read with Dan Albergotti at the Decatur Book Festival on August 30 at 5 p.m. at the Eddie’s Attic Stage.