Answering the Ruins: Poems

Answering the Ruins: Poems

by Gregory Fraser


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Gregory Fraser is an associate professor of English at the University of West Georgia. His first book of poetry, Strange Pietà (2003), won the Walt Mcdonald Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award. A recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fraser is the coauthor, with Chad Davidson, of the textbook Writing Poetry: Creative and Critical Approaches. He lives in Carrollton, Georgia.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810125575
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 12/18/2008
Pages: 88
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.20(d)

About the Author

Gregory Fraser is an associate professor of English at the University of West Georgia. His first book of poetry, Strange Pietà (2003), won the Walt Mcdonald Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award. A recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fraser is the coauthor, with Chad Davidson, of the textbook Writing Poetry: Creative and Critical Approaches. He lives in Carrollton, Georgia.

Read an Excerpt

Answering the Ruins



Copyright © 2009 Gregory Fraser
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2557-5

Chapter One


    Hang-ups in the dead of night,
    and after training ourselves to unplug
    before bed, crank calls at chance
    hours throughout the week. We didn't want

    to stir up conflict, hassle with running
    a trace, and spent the summer waiting
    for one lunacy to run its course. Then,
    after the towers crumbled, nothing.

    My wife had failed a finance major,
    ruining his plan to graduate that May.
    Appeals (apologetic, cajoling) gave way
    to threats of litigation against our school.

    I didn't know I could still run, an old man,
    cloaked in dust, coughed to a TV crew,
    awed by his breathless luck. And still I see
    my twenty freshmen on that campus hill

    in Queens, pleased with their release
    from "Tintern Abbey," then stunned
    by the twin smokes climbing.
    My wife the Miltonist refused to budge,

    pointing out the all too obvious
    in the senior's copied essay. It was late
    October before we noticed the calls
    had stopped, and didn't he complain

    of losing an internship downtown?
    In our agnostic way—half-conscious,
    tinged with the self-parodic—we prayed
    that this whining cheat with his sense of entitlement

    hadn't burned or been crushed by rubble.
    He did have a pleasant smile, and was his crime
    really such a disgrace? We watched the clock,
    kept ears pricked over toast and cofee,

    until he nearly became the son we never had,
    whose memory needed tending. Who's to say
    our number, all along, wasn't picked at random
    by a lonesome freak who simply quit one day?

    Still, neither of us dared to mention what I shrieked
    one August night (rabid, moon in my eye): Die,
    you little shit,
assuming his to be the hostile
    silence on the opposite end of the line.


    That's what the guys back home would call me
    if I climbed some Friday night onto a stool
    at Sullivan's Tap Room, and started in
    with how I want to be more accepting, permeable—
    a nighttime sky, luminescence seeping through its holes.

    The half-moon floats, mothlike, above the trees,
    and I'm not sure why I stand on the porch alone,
    thinking about these men. Hundreds of miles away, they curl
    above their beers, less like the question marks their futures
    have become, or the claw ends of hammers they grip all day,

    pulling up shingles, yanking nails—and more like the gorgeous,
    menacing waves of Hokusai, an artist I could never reference
    without being taunted, Wimp, or jeered into buying
    a round. Especially if I took a swig and started to jaw
    about his "pictures of the floating world" school of printmaking,

    the curves that dazzled Monet—or worse, if I glossed
    my half-drunk buddies' wimp, how it captures the coward
    crouched and shivering inside every pretentious display.
    If I ever told Dave Soley I love him, he'd mutter queer,
    maybe beat my ass. Still, I wish I'd held him like a brother

    the night he sobbed for his brother, returned unscathed
    from Vietnam to blow the jungle from his mind.
    Go long, Bill Singley barked, pigskin in hand, so I ran
    until I crossed the nation, sat in class with the liquid vowels
    of Dylan Thomas, Delmore Schwartz. Meanwhile,

    my friends ran trowels across cement, which means they'd stare
    like I'd gone nuts if I voiced my admiration for the limping
    garden mad with clouds, rivers thrashing in March.
    Could I lilt to them my sissy aches: refusing to spell
    my mother's hair, its tilt to the fragile, or trying to pull

    my youngest brother's voice, Excalibur, from his body's stone,
    while seeking to match him, alone for alone? Perhaps
    they'd pat my back, say how much it matters to have a pal
    not only thinking up this crap but writing it down. Or one
    might rise from his swiveled stool, chant his own pussiness:

    Our species mumbles in the future's ear. I, Vince Cerio,
    doubt clear words but believe in wonders from dusk to dawn
    that keep us speaking. All bones end in a flaming word,
    though we gleam like fevers, thrust onto heartlands, marry lament.
    At closing time, last call, we yield to elders, sing to ancient winds.

    The Phils lead 4 to 2. The Breaking Wave Off Kanagawa
    may be Hokusai's greatest work. Who cares? I only know
    it isn't rootlessness but roots bereft of soil that makes me
    want to hug my oldest friends tonight, as shingled roofs
    up and down my block drive wedges between the stars.


    I was majoring in dendrology and girls,
    failing both, so when my hated roommate
    burst in from English class, slammed
    down his book bag, and declared, Poetry
    is stupid—it does nothing for the world

    I knew I'd found my calling. One
    look at his composition, scrawled in red
    like a ield at Maldon, I smirked and hit
    the stacks, came back loaded down:
    Milton, Dickinson, Auden, Rich.

    He whined for days, calling the teacher
    idiot, bitch, recounting his unbroken string
    of high-school As. Ou sont les neiges d'antan?
    I despised his loafers, Izod shirts, smooth
    persuasion of hair, and envied with a numbing ache

    the queue of beauties he ushered in, cueing me,
    with a nod, to beat it. I'd slump off
    to the Student Center, pore through "Howl,"
    Homeric Hymns, repeating the mantra
    beneath my breath, Poetry is stupid ...

    Second term, I traded Pinus nigra
    for Robert Frost, Catalpa speciosa
    for Sexton and Plath. And slowly, as middle
    Pennsylvania thawed, the notebooks illed:
    Tonight, I lose my birth weight in sweat

    alone, sip the matter of my fall in rye,
    chew the cattle'sflesh, spin like a spider
    the lace of verse
... Recitation
    vexed the jerk—Cut that shit, he'd snap
    from his annexed two-thirds of our space.

    Rumor has it he made a killing
    in the dot-com boom. They say
    he even clanged the bell one morning
    at the stock exchange—gross tintinnabulations.
    In my mind's eye, though, I place him

    in a smaller scene, purchasing a birthday
    gift for his wife (the third). He browses
    down the wrong aisle in a Barnes & Noble,
    and spotting my name along one spine,
    double-takes and says out loud: Hey,

    I roomed with that hand-job freshman year.

    Then he cracks the slender volume, peruses
    till he inds the poem—this poem—dedicated
    to none other than him: my adversary,
    my antonym, my Unferth, my muse.


    The dolts in Shipping & Receiving called her ... I'll let you guess.
    Payday, ten to five, she asked me out in a sentence that lurched
    like a car sputtering out of gas, cozying up to a midnight curb—

    but trust me, it wasn't that kind of date. I felt sorry for her, a little
    contrite about feeling sorry, sick of staring into my Sylvania's flat,
    black-and-white face, and hungry for change, if not Italian,

    in hex-sign-riddled middle Pennsylvania, which she proposed.
    Heels that proved her novice, overrouged, a shawl the same
    diluted pink of the house rosé, and I remember talking while we ate

    about the company's outsize share in loor and ceiling tile,
    about the fat Christmas bonuses that never of course appeared
    on our well-below-middle-management desks.

    I might have mentioned the poems I was writing after hours
    (okay, during)—poems rotten beyond revision.
    May they bloom mold and go down in the suck of time,

    since I'd just as soon forget those first inchoate years
    writing PR and in-house ads, wearing worsted suits
    and a thin blue mask of computer light in a cubby hole

    the length and width of a pullout bed—but again,
    the night didn't go that way. She paid cash, left too fat a tip,
    and suggested a walk through town. I paused, then said,

    Why not? Be patient. I'll explain why not soon enough.
    A poem must receive before it gives adequate pause.
    For now, picture her arms, braided across an ample chest,

    and me holding hands with myself behind my back.
    We pass a darkened Auto Parts, a grocery store
    out of Hopper, and now she steers us to a jeweler's glass

    to gaze at financeable dazzle—guarded by a chubby,
    cuddly, idiot-eyed teddy bear dressed in a beefeater suit,

    It's there she asks if I've thought of marriage, swearing
    she'll never wed before I stammer an answer. A band
    of frat boys—ball caps, untied sneaks—sniggers past, and the night

    begins to eddy at our ankles, calves. The silence begs a Why?
    and I give my paltry alms, receiving more than my overpriced B.A.
    prepared me for, about the real American Gothic. She describes

    the megastore that drove her father's hardware under,
    how he took to driving his voice into her mom.
    I listen mutely, careful not to harm with platitude.

    Slowly, her mother hardened, until tenderness meant
    the bruising on her upper arms where he grabbed
    and shook her once, before vanishing out West.

    That's wrong. I was careful, thoughtful, of nothing then.
    I stood speechless because the distance in her voice
    was haunting, because all at once I thought I understood

    why missing means both absent and the short-of-breath,
    galumphing work left over when something loved is lost.
    Huge clouds reclined above the streetlamps, Ingres nudes.

    I must have stretched a hand, placed it on her shoulder,
    or maybe shifted my feet, but something caused her to turn
    abruptly, stare into my eyes, and say I was a handsome,

    talented fraud, and she knew of nothing sadder
    than the inauthentic. She told me she despised the way
    I swaggered down the halls, talking football in Sales,
    flirting with the temps. She hated that most, she said—
    not out of envy for them, but for me, someone so
    insipidly carefree. It was over before I could interrupt,

    mount my thin defense. A candy wrapper tumbled past.
    A motorcycle slit open a distant street. She lowered her eyes,
    apologized. I said I was sorry, too, just then feeling

    the urge to kiss her, but only asked to walk her home.
    We stopped at the whitewashed gate, fence slats
    shining like broadswords under the moon.

    Thanks, she said, and we both leaked out a laugh
    that died touching the air. Then she climbed,
    gracefully removing her shoes first, the stair.


    In bed that night after the clinic, after the bearded man
    in the parking lot waved his placard, named you Jezebel,
    killer bound for hell,
I ranted—a zealot—about the gall
    of zealots, all temerity and jutting noses, and wanted
    to bust his lip, split into shards that loveless sign.

    You leaned over and kissed my brow, its three-line stanza
    of consternation, then described a vacant feeling, high
    in your chest, rocking like an empty seat, you said,
    at the top of a Ferris wheel. When I think back to our affair,
    a sadness seizes and releases me. Likewise a joy.

    Thirty-five to my twenty-four, you dreamed out loud
    of good fools like us, making their lives the love
    of their lives. You said you desired the knotty unanimity
    of outer space, with its declaration of one vast sentence
    eternally extended by ellipses of light. No, that's me

    trying not to sound prosaic. You would have used
    one earthly image—the Ferris wheel, for instance,
    at a county fair, just when quaintness seemed most needed,
    most absurd. This evening, watching constellations
    beat like moths against the screen, I am still unable

    to love that man, though my journal states:
    You can love the righteous as you do the rose,
    being neither
. That night (has it now been twenty years ?)
    I expected to dream of fires into which he meant
    to cast us—of Dante's Ferris wheels inside Ferris wheels,

    toppled, ablaze. Instead, the pagan underworld
    swirled up, a woman in a narrow punt
    working a pole through murk. She wore your face.
    On the shore, a figure clad in shadow clutched a sign
    that you, bearing an unborn passenger, refused to read.


    My father kept harping on some crazy train
    hauling or somehow fueled by gravy
    and scheduled to shriek to a halt

    sooner than I could conjure. Then I'd be holding
    what his baritone—freighting the word
    with consequence—called

    The Bag. What filled this mystery sack?
    The weight of a world named manhood?
    A secret formula of drippings and roux,

    magically able to make stuck iron
    locomotive—zany with travel,
    according to my high-school Spanish?

    And he never let up on the drat,
    though Vietnam had passed, and my best
    friend's brother returned home safe

    to blast out his brains. Like most,
    I loved my father too much to tell him,
    and knew no way to break my simple want

    to his butcher's block, chestnut stump,
    back-shed anvil of a heart. To write?
    About what, son, what?
I didn't know,

    for years, but behind my eyes I watched
    the long steel stems of rail lines bloom
    into cities spiked with headquarters, hotels,

    central stations. I could hear but not yet mimic
    kingfishers, grackles, wrens—every one
    a Socrates, writing nothing down.

    My father constructed a house of cautions.
    I couldn't recline for long, he warned,
    in a mythic catbird seat: too dangerous

    a vantage. Someone was always glad
    to promote my ruin, with a mouth
    forever thirsting, despite the facial calm.

    Too soon, nurses with a common smile
    will survey his heart—a green horizon
    spiked with forty mountains per minute.

    On one, a spider tends its lines, another darts
    with deer I chase down wooded paths.
    About loss, father, of course, about the distances

    between us, which account for all our shouting
    in spaces tight as private compartments,
    where travelers open lunches in crinkled bags,

    hoping to find a tuna on rye transformed
    into a hot meal slathered with gravy
    perfectly seasoned, in strangely abundant supply.


Excerpted from Answering the Ruins by GREGORY FRASER Copyright © 2009 by Gregory Fraser. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


The Present Moment....................3
Poetry Is Stupid....................11
Charon's Sister....................16
Autobiography at Seventeen....................17
Hephaestus Calls My Brother Home....................19
The Other Side....................35
Bisouxxx: A Brief Taxonomy....................36
Age of Reason....................43
Essay on Criticism....................45
Poem for First Fathers....................48
The Discoverer....................50
Trophies Golden Trophies....................52
Genesis of Henry Moore....................56
Summer Party Without Mark Strand....................57
Review of The Selected Works of Stray Dog....................63
Just Now....................69
Ben's Apple....................70
International Terminal....................73

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