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Book Reviews: Tourist Critiques de Touriste

Djelloul Marbrook, poet, essayist, novelist

A tourist with no fixed plans

[Tourist, Sanford Fraser, New York Quarterly Books, 73pp]

The magic of Sanford Fraser’s poems is their austerity. Other words come to mind: restraint, terseness, for example, but none convey the sight of a Congregationalist church in the bright New England sunlight or the blanched aspect of a boat abandoned in a fen. Fraser grew up in such an environment and his startlingly pure poems reflect it.

Between acts

I don’t know who I am.

I don’t know what to say.

But when he says “it,” it has the purity of the inevitable note, the only note that could possibly be struck at the moment. Such poetry is exceedingly rare. It is the hallmark of William Carlos Williams’ most memorable poems, the hallmark of much troubadour poetry—and of the poetry that inspired the troubadours from Arab Spain, Al Andalus.

For example, a medieval Arab poet describes the Quadalquiver as a white hand opening a green robe. The image is so refined, so apt that one can’t imagine the river being described in any other way. It’s so perfect one almost resents the poet for having preempted other descriptions.

The TV watches me

watching it

follows me

around my mind

We’ve all had the experience, but it seems now to us to have been waiting for Fraser to express it perfectly. His poems have this attribute throughout, the attribute of being the way to say something, not merely a way to say something.

Randall Jarrell wrote a famous poem, Next Day, in which a woman of a certain age remarks unforgettably that the boy putting groceries in her car doesn’t see her, because with age comes a kind of invisibility. Like his The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, the poem is well anthologized, but to achieve its remarkable effect it asks much more the reader than Sanford Fraser’s:

My cousin’s a pilot in the war.

He sends me pictures of bombs dropping.

At school we bracket verbs and search

for dangling participles. Up there

he cuts the sky and buries bones.

You hardly think the poet has said a thing until a moment later it strikes you he has presented an entire war as a casual remark. “At school we bracket verbs and search” is a remarkable line, not only for its meter but for the idea that that’s what verbs do and it’s what we do in school if we do anything worthwhile at all—we search. This unstudied casualness might encourage us to overlook the achievement of Fraser’s work. He’s saying, Look, I don’t want to impose, but I’ve seen a few things that might interest you. More than a few things, because in simply walking down the street or going to his favorite café the poet seems to have observed more than most of us observe in a lifetime.

Fraser is a francophone artist who has lived in France. His poems benefit from his painterly eye, his sense of perspective, color and the quiddity of things.

When summer comes

in her light sundress

I forget her absence

the walls of my room burst open

the air tastes juicy

acid-sweet.

Tourist lacks pretension. Its ambition is not as an oeuvre but rather that each poem should be as perfect as an unmistakable glance. One is almost tempted to exult after each lyric, I get it!  Fraser is not a rhapsode, not a prosodic acrobat; his is the plain speech of an elegant mind. In this context, there is much in Fraser’s work of the artist Paul Cézanne who famously left parts of his canvases bare, a kind of silence, a reverence for that without which sound is meaningless.

While Fraser is not, strictly speaking, a formalist, his poems here bear many aspects of formalism: discipline, meter, honed line breaks, and what I would call ghost-rhyme, the sense that rhyme occurs when there is no visual evidence of it. This is itself evidence of a musicality in the poet’s thought process.

Whimsy plays an important role in Fraser’s poems, as one might expect of an artist who savors Dada:

You’re somewhere outside

behind your own wall.

Often, our walls stand together

and talk at each other

their words bouncing

back and forth

Typography and design influence the way a book is perceived. We tend to think of these aspects as prettifiers, as packaging, but they are in fact integral and, if poorly done, can betray a book. Here the design is so restrained, so respectful of the temperament of the poems, of their demeanor, that the book has an almost fey quality, as if it entertained a secret impulse to disappear. I consider this a highly refined production value executed by someone who understood Fraser’s essential deference to experience.

This is not a poet at odds with circumstance. There is no quarrel here, no plaint, as there often is in Jarrell, say. Fraser is too painterly for that. It wants to hear and see what things are saying, what people are saying, not as a cool camera, but as an artist, and, finally, as a tourist. Lao Tzu said “a good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” Sanford Fraser is the perfect traveler.—

Djelloul Marbrook

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Alain Borer, poet, art critic, essayist, novelist, playwright

November 6, 2011
Dear Mr. Sanford,
“I cherish your book- for its cover, inventive and funny as a CD jacket containing the music of a rare bluesman, for, on opening your book, one can hear a voice; in fact each poem can be said, sung or wept on a guitar as well as “sotto voce”. Your voice is deep, slow and grave: extremely valuable in contemporary poetry as it holds most beautiful silences. Each text can be understood as grasping the world, something that goes beyond (reality). The poem like a lapse of the tongue overcomes the thought. In this unpredictable shape, I recognize the only true form of poetry which I call “noème”.
As St Augustine put it in a few words: there is freedom and there is grace; to bring them together is impossible -except in poetry; when reading you-
Thank you again.  Congratulations and my friendliest thoughts.”
Alain Borer
Traduction, Françoise Parouty

6 novembre, 2011
Cher Monsieur Sanford:

je chéris votre livre — pour sa couverture inventive et drôle comme une pochette de disque, qui contiendrait les blues d’un rare bluesman: car en ouvrant votre livre on entent un voix, et à vrai dire
chaque poème peut être dit-chanté-pleuré sur une guitare aussi bien que chanté dans sa barbe. Votre voix d’écriture est profonde et lente et grave, est très précieuse dans la poésie contemporaine dont elle offre les plus beaux silences. Chaque texte se lit aussi comme un saisie du monde, quelque chose qui se dit par dépassement, le poème est comme un lapsus qui «dépasse la pensée», figure imprévisible dans laquelle je reconnais le seule forme certaine de «la poésie» (que j’appelle noème). Comme dit en substance Saint Augustin : il y a la liberté, il y a la grâce ; les faire tenir ensemble, c’est impossible — sauf en poème, à vous lire —
Je vous remercie et vous présente avec mes compléments, mes sentiments amicaux.
Alain Borer

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Linda Lerner’s Review Of “Tourist”
HOME PLANET NEWS, No.64 2010
The Independent Literary Journal

There is a fine line between what the eyes see and what “I don’t have time to see” says Sanford Fraser, a fine line between the mundane world we all live in, and that other dimension, that parallel world. It is that line on which Fraser’s poems exist; nothing goes unseen. The magnitude of a neighbor’s sudden death, what it must feel like is shown in “Number 4″ which begins in mid sentence, in which a life ends, “Manhattan toppling over in his eyes without warning/ on the way to the car.”

With an economy of language almost surrealistic in its imagery without falling into its artificial trap, the poet startles the reader to see what he does. In “Isabel in her crutches Swings” Fraser enters her wordless terrain, where just before waking she “feels/ the crutches inside her fists/ the empty sky limping/ across her face.”
His poems paint emotions blending abstract and realistic elements with a minimum of direct language. Someone says, “I hate you,” three words that become a woman with blue hair “butting the air/ as if someone were there.”
His physical locale is New York City—its streets, restaurants, subways, and bars, places full of “loud voices”— a man  talking on a cell phone, the woman with him eating, everyone “speaking to someone else.” He often feels like a tourist—”I look up / somewhere lost/ among strangers/ I’ve known all my life.” this extends to his relationship to himself as well as  to others. In “Almost,” Fraser begins reading a poem before an audience whom he says “sounds like me/ and not like me.” There are moments when he doesn’t quite know where he is, when “the world is a blank piece of paper.” That is no necessarily bad. To live in a world where ” there are no judgments, no types, no titles” is also to be in a world in which he is free.

People come and go, reminding him of those he knows or  has known. “When summer come/ in her light sundress, I forget her absence.” He sees a couple kiss in a doorway below, a woman who reminds him of someone else: “You never leave” he thinks. The line between things, between here and not here, between what is and what was, evokes the fleetingness of our lives in a single image: “Their legs like the hands of a clock/ walking through sunlight,/ vanishing.
This beautifully produced collection is highly recommended.

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TOURIST  (NYQ Books 2009)

Fraser ’54 Offers a Cast of Characters in His Poems
Nov. 30, 2009 by David Low, Director of Publications, Wesleyan University

Sanford Fraser Tourist. In his third poetry collection, Tourist (NYQ Books, 2009), Sanford Fraser ’54 reveals a mastery of the lyric form and plainspoken language. The collection is divided into three sections: Strangers, Roles and Connections. In the first section, the narrator and/or characters in the poems are strangers isolated from and emotionally detached from others; in the second, they play various roles in the world beyond themselves; and finally in the last section, they experience emotional attachments with others.

Fraser shares the following observations about his new book:

“The busloads of tourists who ride and walk through the streets of my neighborhood each day, often remind me of myself arriving in France years ago, of experiencing again what it is to be a stranger in a strange world. In many of my poems, which are usually short character studies, I recreate this experience. The first section of Tourist is devoted to strangers who do not relate to others, who remain outside of the community they live in or visit. Some take home things, souvenirs—not memories; others remain strangers because they are illegal or simply newly arrived immigrants, speaking a strange language; still others isolate themselves from the world in various ways with their obsessions and imaginary barriers.

“Various roles these characters play in order to fit into society are explored in the second section of the collection, such as the role of the tough guy, or the roles of blind obedience and passive aggression. The ability to reach out beyond oneself and connect with others is explored in the last section: through desire or empathy, and finally, through art and imagination.”

Fraser’s interest in poetry began at Wesleyan in a class taught by George Creeger, professor of English emeritus. He did not begin writing poetry until the age of 50 in New York City, where he now lives. His first collection of poems, 14th Street, was published in the New School Chapbook Series, and his second, a French/English bilingual collection, Parmi les étrangers que j’ai connus toute ma vie/ (Among Strangers I’ve Known All My Life, Tarabuste Editions), appeared in France in 2007. This second book will be republished in 2010 by NYQ Books.
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Jalel El Gharbi, Faculty of Letters, Universit of Manouba, Tunis.

http://jalelelgharbipoesie.blogspot.com/

La poésie de Sanford Fraser, poète new-yorkais, choisit des images de la vie pour dire la vie. Elle se saisit de l’instant éphémère pour dire sa soif d’éternité. C’est une poésie qui, comme chez Cummings ou chez ce poète François de Cornière (il y a longtemps que je n’ai plus entendu parler de lui), l’anodin insinue que rien n’est anodin dans la vie. Sanford Fraser happe des images qui, par elles-mêmes disent que le monde est ce qu’il est : chose immonde. Il laisse entendre l’immensité de la solitude. Une solitude quasiment ontologique : nous apparaissons et nous disparaissons seuls.
Cela fait des années que je suis attentivement le cheminement poétique de mon ami Sanford Fraser et je puis dire qu’il dit quelque chose d’essentiel : les réalités sociales sont plutôt l’expression de réalités ontologiques car l’existence nous offre à chaque instant des allégories de l’être, du néant. Il suffit de regarder. Et le dernier recueil en date de Fraser ne pouvait que s’intituler Tourist car ce qui définit le touriste, ce passager, ce passant, c’est qu’il voit. Le touriste : un être du regard qui passe….

Tourist est publié ici par NYQ Books, 2009 (New York Quarterly Books). amazon.fr/ amazon.com/Barnes & Noble/ Powells’ Books.
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The poetry of Sanford Fraser, New York, chooses images from life to show life.  It catches the ephemeral instant to express thirst for the eternal. It is a poetry in which, as in Cummings or François de Cornière (for a long time I have not heard of him) the insignificant suggests that nothing in life is insignificant.

Sanford Fraser snaps pictures that by themselves say the world is what it is: an impure thing.
He lets us hear the immensity of solitude. A solitude almost ontological: we appear and we disappear alone.

For years, I have attentively followed the poetic development of my friend Sanford Fraser and I can say that he says something essential: social realities are truly the expression of ontological realities because existence gives us every other minute allegories of being and of nothingness. It is sufficient to look. The latest collection of Fraser could only be called Tourist because it defines the tourist, this passenger, this passer-by, is what he sees. The tourist: a witness who passe

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Tourist, Editorial Statement

This book of lyrical poems by Sanford Fraser is divided into three sections: Strangers, Roles, and Connections. In the first section, the narrator and/or characters in the poems are strangers isolated from and emotionally detached from others; in the second,they play various roles in the world beyond themselves, and finally in the last section, they have connections, emotional attachments to others. Fraser’s mastery of the lyric form and plainspoken language makes the reader a tourist in their own right every time they pick up and read this jewel of a book.

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Here, the Outsider speaks. Broken, human, just like the rest of us.
But honest, oh so honest.
Sanford Fraser has crafted a fine collection.
Here he examines the small things and the spaces and people
around them. True, perceptive, and evocative throughout.
This is good work.

-Phillip Levine
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Sanford Fraser is terse, poignant, playful, sly, sharp tongued, urban & urbane, humane & crafty, all at the same time.

Wherever his keen eye turns, a blue haired girl crossing 14th Street, a crippled woman on a suburban lawn, a raucous motorcycle macho man, an oblivious business man in a European suit, a waitress, a warmonger, a pinup girl, a bum, he sees a poem needing to be painted with words.
Often with just a few slim couplets, a score or so of perfect nouns & verbs. But beneath the hard surface of these gems is a greater beauty, an emotional interior of pain, of isolation, of memories & regrets amid the treasured  temporary connections of everyday life.

If you visit any of his “Tourist” poems (My Wall, In Front of the waitress, Love Song are among my favorites) you will want to return again and again.

-Angelo Verga
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Sanford Fraser’s “Tourist”makes Camus’s “The Stranger” look like existentialism for toddlers.  Fraser writes about existentialism the way Ernest Hemingway wrote about boxing, you can tell they lived it first. ˜Tourist” is a treatise on memory.

It is not for television watchers or John Wayne fans. Like Peter, Paul and Mary used to sing,˜Where have all the flowers gone? I say they went to Sanford Fraser. Through
the reconstruction of his memories, he keeps more than flowers alive for us. In essence.
he helps us claim back our own memories. A great book.

Hal Sirowitz, former Poet Laureate of Queens, New York
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14th Street Chapbook

Each of Sanford Fraser’s poems is the
lucid and often effervescent distillation
of an experience.  He is gifted with the
ability to contain in each millimeter of
a word and in a single and quirky
pentameter line all the immense
dimensions of his wit and compassion
and insight.

Pearl London
New School Chapbook Series of 1995

14éme Rue

Pearl London, son ancien professeur
à la New School de New York a écrit à son sujet :

Chacun des poèmes de Sanford Fraser est
la distillation lucide et souvent effervescente
d’une expérience personnelle. Il possède une
réelle capacité à placer dans chaque parcelle
de mot de ces pentamètres excentriques
toutes les immenses dimensions de son esprit,
de sa compassion et de son intelligence.