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That The World Should Never Again Be Destroyed By Flood and The Body, The Rooms by Andy Frazee

January 3, 2012


Reading Andy Frazee’s poetry is a special experience for me because he’s one of my closest friends. So in the interest of full disclosure, this will not be an impartial review. The author will always hold a special place in my heart as my salad days co-conspirator. It even seems a bit silly to refer to him as “Frazee,” as I would refer to any other author by their last name. To me he has always been “Andy” (or one of many affectionate nicknames). And when I pause to let one of his evocative images sink in, I also hold in my mind the image of his bedroom in our shared condo in Urbana, Illinois—his door barricaded shut by piles of laundry, stacks of spiral-bound notebooks and the collegiate odors of pizza and intellect. So take this “review” for what it is: a biased and personal appraisal of two works by someone I am quite proud to call my friend.

Andy’s poetry is very tactile, very visual. He experiments with form, taking apart and reworking. Many of his poems are visual explorations, like houses ripped open by a twister, scenes exposed, privacies invaded, often parts missing or strewn about, the completion of one thought discovered on the other side of the page. Other poems feel like two machines that have been disassembled then combined to create a new, strange machine with a different purpose. In “This Element of Capture,” he inserts phrases from New York Times articles into his sentences, and the effect is as if you were flipping through television channels, new meaning generated by the incidental juxtapositions. “That The World Should Never Again Be Destroyed By Flood” and “Cartography” both contain basements, subterranean levels of running footnotes that support, elaborate upon and sometimes add a labyrinthian layer to the poem proper.

Architecture—of buildings, cities (complete with maps) and our bodies—is a common motif throughout Andy’s work, and it works well with his experimentation with the structure of poetry itself. Again, he seems interested in not just the ideas, not just the content of his work, but how those ideas can be linked, organized and recombined. He explores the languages we use to represent our world. And this is where Andy’s work can become both challenging and rewarding. Much of it is cryptic, and when I do make a connection or find two pieces that fit together, I feel the satisfaction of solving a small puzzle.  But because of our friendship, I felt a special pressure to understand, to crack the code of what he is saying with each line. Then I found this enlightening advice on Andy’s blog for his students:

Learn to trust your gut. Too often, what steers people away from poetry is the idea that a poem contains a secret message to decode–that poems have answers like math problems do (answers which the teacher surely knows). The truth is that the real poem is the one in your head, the one you make as you read the lines on the page…Poems–at least the good ones–are made to jump-start your imagination. Great poems contain within themselves millions of possible readings.

Not only is this notion comforting, but it helps address my dilemma of writing a review of a book that I will naturally interpret differently from anyone else who reads it. Because of our relationship, reading Andy’s poetry conjures specific imagery for me that it might not for others. Anyone who reads a line about Joe will picture a Joe, but I picture the Joe—I have shared beers with him. I know the drainage creek affectionately named The Boneyard in Champaign, the one that floods the streets when it rains. I know what it feels like to walk ankle-deep in the flooded streets and I know the misters that spray the produce in the Meijer on North Prospect Ave., to which Andy compares the rain. And I know some of the personal things Andy has wrestled with over the years.

One more illuminating thought from Andy’s blog:

For many people, the actual value of reading a poem is not knowing exactly how to read it. The frustration has a flip side: the joy of exploration. Think of reading a poem as discovering a new city in a foreign country. You’re not sure where you’re going, but that’s the fun of it, too.

Andy reframes the poem not as a message from the author to the reader but as a launch pad for interesting thought and introspection: “A scaffolding for one or you to understand these contexts and communicate them beyond yourself” (“Cartography”). The poem is something built by the poet and the reader together, each one a unique and personal construction. “We…are alone in [our] poem.”  Our scaffolding, then, the one built by myself and my dear friend, is a curious carnival structure with a shadow that stretches over the cornfields of central Illinois. It is full of inside jokes and secret passages that lead to old friends, and it is frequently watered by big, gray Midwestern clouds. I wish you could see it exactly as I see it.

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