Gregory Fraser. Answering the Ruins. Chicago, IL: TriQuarterly Books, 2008. 76 pp. $14.95, paper.
In this powerful and fluent second book, Gregory Fraser takes on the imposing task of “answering” ruins both ancient and contemporary, from the Eternal City to Ground Zero. In doing so, Fraser demonstrates a striking ability to weave together seemingly unrelated themes and images, drawing new connections and often dropping in mythical or literary allusions in order to deepen the resonance of his poems’ subjects. The sweeping “Hephaestus Calls My Brother Home,” a heart-wrenching account of the death of the poet’s brother, as well as the poem which lends the collection its title, fully embodies Fraser’s intelligence and range. In rich, aurally pleasing language, Fraser’s poem traverses time and setting, offering Greek gods nestled in nature and hovering beside hospital beds. (Fraser’s first collection, Strange Pietà, winner of the Walt McDonald prize, introduced us to the poet’s brother Jonathan, born with spina bifida, who lived into adulthood, years beyond what his doctors had led family to expect.)
In “Poem for First Fathers,” the poet again connects distant deities to a powerful familial love: “since your child is now a ball of winter, / a miniature Mars. That’s when you want war / with that deadbeat in the heavens.” Fraser watches his child suffer an illness, railing at a deity he simultaneously doubts and despises, awed and troubled by a world where one so innocent can feel such pain. This poem, like much of the rest of the collection, expresses the poet’s distress at the state of the world and the chaos and tragedy of everyday life.
The ruins answered by these poems are not only those of crumbled stone and metal, but the shambles of what the poet views as a damaged world. Though his reference to Mars is to the planet, the mention of war reminds us that it is the Roman god’s domain; through such references, the poet draws lines that span millennia, his knowledge of the classics a substantial resource that enriches his approach to contemporary subjects.
Answering the Ruins is, at times, a response to all that is ancient, but Fraser also answers ruins closer to home, especially in the haunting “Cheat.” The poem explores the heavy guilt the speaker battles after his wife has detected and punished the plagiarism of a student who, they come to fear, was killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center. The student, whose “sense of entitlement” irritated the speaker and his wife, begins as a rule-breaker served well by justice but transforms into a poor kid who was treated, perhaps, too harshly: “He did have a pleasant smile, and was his crime / really such a disgrace? We watched the clock, / kept ears pricked over toast and coffee, // until he nearly became the son we never had, / whose memory needed tending.” More directly stated than most of Fraser’s work, this poem evokes real sorrow by linking an everyday lapse to a major historical event.
Fraser’s insights often derive from a single, ordinary moment, as in “Hold,” which, as the title suggests, deals with the modern inconvenience of being put on hold when making a phone call. Here, the poet is self-aware, conscious of how his grand, wandering thoughts may carry an understated absurdity. In skillful tercets, the speaker lingers on the word “hold” and its various meanings before ironically rejoicing at the actual human on the other end of the line: “All day, you have been bounced from Hold / to Hold, and now they’ve come at last— / the words for which you’ve waited // what seems like your whole life: / Good afternoon, this is Tina. With whom / do I have the pleasure of speaking?” Fraser finds wonder in even the most mundane of human experiences.
His frequent allusions remind us that human history repeats itself and that we can find some solace and solidarity in the fact that our tragedies are not totally unique, but are shared limitlessly across the great expanse of time and space. Fraser’s knack for crafting complex, sweeping poems in rich language makes Answering the Ruins a masterful and moving second book.