"Just as the visual artist's purpose--one of them, at least--is to help us see beyond the accepted meanings, to shake up our perceptions, so writers, too, use their colors/words in new, unexpected ways."

-- Lily Iona MacKenzie

Expanding Our Vision

___by Lily Iona MacKenzie

When I entered the Masters in Creative Writing Program at San Francisco State University several years ago, I discovered the work being done by poets I'd not read carefully before--many of them women, work that was more innovative than I'd been used to. This writing didn't fit into the traditional genre of lyric poetry as I understood it--largely autobiographical material, snapshots of these writers' pasts focusing on particular emotional content, ending with an epiphany or "point."

Or the poets were using autobiography, memories of experienced events, whether real or imagined, to carry larger ideas about human nature, time, the universe. (I recognize that in a certain way all poetry is autobiographical--we're charting the geography of our psyche as projected into language/objects/images).

The more experimental poets (Kathleen Fraser, Michael Palmer, Norma Cole, Leslie Scalapino, Lyn Hejinian, Stephen Ratcliffe--these poets are all from the San Francisco Bay area) use the page and language differently, literally voyaging into unexplored territory in the way they place words on the page and break lines. The music and thinking of their poetry makes something happen on the page, treating it as theatre, letting meanings emerge from the interaction of language, rather than recreating a remembered event.

They push language to its limits, attempting to bring into the poem a larger world by shattering syntax, rethinking grammar, challenging the notions of narrative as we know it, pushing beyond linear cause and effect thinking into new realms. They are questioning the very fabric of our life, the notions of subject and subjectivity, of art and its role in our culture.

Not that there's anything wrong with our usual way of perceiving through language and its rules: many complex, mysterious things can be conveyed in traditional ways. But as Orwell pointed out in his essay "Politics and the English Language," cliches and unoriginal images prevent us from being discerning and distort rather than reveal. So, too, can our usual ways of speaking and writing prevent us from experiencing a multi-dimensional, fragmented, chaotic, bizarre, inexpressible reality, often with an organizing center that may be different from what we expect.

A poem that illustrates these ideas is one by Kathleen Fraser, author of 14 books of poetry, former Professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University, Director of the Poetry Center, founder of American Poetry Archives, and editor of the feminist/experimentalist poetry journal HOW(ever). The following poem is from Something (even human voices) in the foreground, a lake.

    They Did Not Make Conversation

    A lake as big, the early evening wind at the bather's neck. Something pulling (or was it rising up) green from the bottom. You could lie flat and let go of the white creases. You could indulge your fear of drowning in the arms of shallow wet miles. You did not open your mouth, yet water poured into openings, making you part. Bone in the throat. That dark blue fading, thinning at the edges. On deck chairs with bits of flowered cloth across their genitals, the guests called out in three languages and sometimes pointed, commenting on the simple beauty of bought connection. The swan-like whiteness of the day. That neck of waves. There was always a tray with small red bottles. And pin-pointed attentions, at each slung ease.

    -- Kathleen Fraser

In this poem, Fraser accomplishes what she articulates in the flyleaf to her book, Notes Preceding Trust: "I wish, in my work, to resist habit (mine and others'), to uncover something fresh that connects with the reader in a way she or he could not have predicted. An ache, a splash of cold water, a recognition."

In the poem's opening, we are presented with "a lake as big." The immediate impulse is to ask "as big as what?" But if we resist that impulse, we discover the comparison is more powerful by having it open-ended. Our imaginations are left to fill in the blank.

Another reading would be to compare the lake to the early evening wind, which extends the comparison to something invisible but tangible. This lake, then, isn't an actual lake. It takes on mythic, magical proportions--suggesting perhaps the waters of the unconscious, unfathomable and illimitable.

In the next group of words, the speaker questions her own perceptions of "something pulling ... green from the bottom." There are various ways to read this phrase. Either we can see it as something actually pulling the color green from the bottom, bringing it into view, perhaps the bather. Or we can hear it as something green--fresh, new, living--that is pulling (rising up) from the bottom on its own.

Then the reader is brought in, the first complete sentence, the previous phrases like the breath that precedes a spoken thought, rising up green from the bottom. We are part of the poem's setting. It's now possible to let go of the "white creases," which could be the lighter indentations that are left in folds of skin when we are out in the sun for a long time, those vulnerable spots hidden from glaring rays. But they also could be the crease in a page, perhaps where a book folds at its center. Maybe the "you" is a book/page--or, put another way, you are compared to a book/page--that can open up, let go, "indulge your fear of drowning in the arms of shallow wet miles."

And we do fear drowning, especially in shallow water: what could be more humiliating than to drown in water that isn't over our heads? Yet our fears often are just as groundless. However, the provocative part of this image is the "wet miles." Again, we don't know what the miles encompass, again giving the image more suggestiveness. The ambiguity causes our hidden fears of the unknown to surface and we imagine an endless expanse of miles, wet now from the lake that the poem grows out of.

As the title suggests, this poem is about--among other things--our inability to communicate and connect with others, except at times via "bought connection." And for me Fraser accomplishes what she hopes to do: she creates an ache, a splash of recognition. She takes me into that bleak landscape, the frightening dimension always present in human relations but rarely alluded to.

Just as the visual artist's purpose--one of them, at least--is to help us see beyond the accepted meanings, to shake up our perceptions, so writers, too, use their colors/words in new, unexpected ways. As Poet Elaine Equi says in Mirage #3 (The Women's Issue), "Experimental when it refers to literature is usually connected with the idea of avant-garde and/or the act of challenging traditional forms. To be an experimental writer implies rebellion, but I prefer to give the idea of experimentation its scientific connotation which is closer to a method of discovery" (75).

Innovative writing stretches our perceptions, shows us things--even turns certain words into objects--in new, unexpected relationships, causes us to stop, to look. In doing so, we have expanded our vision--discovered that "these things aren't fancies, but facts" (Paul Klee).


Lily Iona MacKenzie teaches English and Canadian Literature at the University of San Francisco. She's published personal essays, articles, poetry, travel pieces, and short fiction in numerous publications in the U.S. and Canada. She's currently at work on a second novel (Young & Restless), a memoir, and a new poetry manuscript (two others, Varying Speeds and The New New North are seeking a publisher, along with her first novel, Traveling Light). Keeping a dream journal, gardening, and dabbling in the visual arts (sculpting and painting) feed her imagination. Born and raised in Canada's wild west, she's given up barrel racing and calf roping for riding her mountain bike on Marin County's trails.

Back to the Theory