Michael Fraser’s latest collection, To Greet Yourself Arriving, is the only book of poetry I’ve ever read with a glossary. That Fraser felt he needed one in a collection whose central theme is famous Black men and women could be said to be, in part, an excellent reason for writing such a book. With a rare sort of graceful simplicity, the poet takes readers boldly by the wrist and thrusts them into a room full of voices―a party where inventor Elijah McCoy is having a cocktail with astronomer Neil de Grasse Tyson, ex-president Barack Obama listens to boxing heavyweight champion Jack Johnson recount a famous bout and Howlin’ Wolf smokes a spliff while Maya Angelou reads aloud to entertain the crowd.
Written in a clear, precise voice, the poems take on the persona of each person Fraser is writing about, as if the historical figure has leaned in to whisper a private observation to the reader. The declarative “I” of these poems is woven into short, tight lines, sweetened by subtle, often highly sentimental imagery. Take, for example, the opening stanza of “Nina Simone”:
I gathered notes
and allowed myself to empty
on trebled pages, my sullen
timbre unique as a morning
blue jay brushing windows.
Here, the speaker addresses the reader with intimate, conversational certainty, but in language that is anything but everyday. Fraser chooses uncomplicated words and structures, which allow the complexity of the feelings―in this case, those of an imagined Nina Simone―to shine through in a way a more elaborate structure might obscure. Fraser is not playing coy here, as some poets do, hiding simple feelings in lengthy metaphors or contrived scenes, but rather places what he wishes to say directly on the table, something many readers are apt to find refreshing.
This is not to say, however, that Fraser’s work is uncomplicated; there’s no doubt Fraser is a craftsman, and each line in each piece has obviously been carefully cut, planed, painted and polished. Right from the get-go, Fraser demonstrates himself capable of subtle but masterful sleight of hand in “Dr. Anderson Abbott.” Within this short poem, Dr. Abbott―himself an imagined version of the first black Canadian-born family physician―imagines the future as a young girl who “follows (him) about with oiled feet,” in the process creating a second character who becomes the actual focus of the poem, allowing us to become emotionally attached to both, unaware that both are actually allegorical.
Race―and with it, racism―is heavily present in To Greet Yourself Arriving, as one might expect of a work featuring historical Black figures. “Plantation” stands out in this collection as a poem of particularly grisly beauty, in which male slaves “stand half-naked / in molten sun / remembering (they) are dust,” shit “like dogs” in the field marked by “afternoon’s whip lashing” and “lie on bare earth / praying death’s cloak / shanks us in night’s tide.” It would be hard to argue, though, that racism is the central theme to the entire work, as Fraser’s pieces focus more on the personality, achievements and hardships of the people he writes about, while at the same time speaking candidly about race and racism, often with great beauty, as in “Rosa Parks”:
A thought remembered itself
and sat in the opened window’s breeze
all those hours in standing heat
while the bus remained front-empty
Minutes stretched themselves
into tides of shocked faces.
Moreover, Fraser manages to impart a sense of outrage and alienation in his work that is not necessarily limited to Black experience, but can be felt by anyone who does not adhere to the White, heteronormative patriarchy. It is likely any reader who is not a straight white male―any visible minority, a queer or trans person, a woman―has felt the anxious and sad disbelief in “Bromley Armstrong,” where “Other patrons just laugh / shake outland heads and / pretend this isn’t happening.”
Fraser’s skill as a poet is obvious in the sharp clarity of his imagery, but the collection does have one particular failing; Fraser’s speakers often sound the same, and the reader might well suspect who they sound like is Fraser. There is little discernible difference between the voices of judge George E. Carter, Neil de Grasse Tyson and Jimi Hendrix. Fraser does break from this, from time to time. The poem “Bob Marley” in which Marley is “of the tapping one-foot skank, of / country pickneys climbing guava,” seems perhaps falsely powerful because it is, rhythmically and linguistically, different from other pieces in the collection, which makes it stand out. Likewise, some of the pieces readers might find most interesting are those not written in the first person. “Obama” is arguably one of the most poignant pieces in the collection, both for its current political relevance and the freedom of motion Fraser allows himself in the third person:
Still, the world expects miracles.
He is from Hawaii and parts unsung.
Someone said his unearthing failed
geography. No one could possibly
be from where they claim. America’s
dehumanizing shadow blows behind him.
February is Black History month; I would discourage readers from picking up To Greet Yourself Arriving as some token gesture of reading Black literature. Rather, readers who are interested in clean, well-crafted lines, in spare metaphors, in stark, gentle or brutal thoughts, feelings and things―readers who are, in essence, interested in great poetry―might want to pick up Fraser’s book any month of the year.
Lori Fox is a writer, poet and journalist who calls the Yukon home. She is currently the Jenni House Writer in Residence in Whitehorse, where she is working on The Girl Who Caught the Bird, a non-fiction book about grief.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.