Some American Tales, published by independent British poetry press death of workers whilst building skyscrapers in 2020, is the first book of Brenda Frazer’s work since Troia: Mexican Memoirs (1969), her account of life with poet Ray Bremser, was republished in 2007.
In her introduction to the 2007 edition, Ann Charters said of Troia “I still believe that Troia is the most extraordinary memoir ever written by a woman in the beat circle.” Ann also wrote, “Bonnie [the name Brenda was published under] became the only woman in the Beat group who had actually lived on the edge and come back to write a heartfelt book about it.”
Brenda’s epigraph for the book: “Damn the pain, it must be written.”
The short pieces in Some American Tales have been selected from Brenda’s four unpublished manuscripts written from 1993 or so onwards: Poets and Odd Fellows 1959, Drug City 1962, Artista in Guatemala and Cherry Valley Ballads and Stories.
You can read a brief biography of Brenda by Lucy Wilkinson, publisher of Some American Tales at the start of the book. But, for its ragged poetry, I like what Brenda sent me in late January 2021.
I was born on Mozart Place DC nor better nor worse than millions of babes brown yellow pink nor my sister who tried to see the newborn one in the brownstone cellar.
A fearsome time when death walked homeless and hungry for souls, breaking doors of peaceful sleep, ruining Zen gardens of meditation. 1939 WWII. We had a new kitchen stove, modern, to save my mother from madness, from my father who spanked me. We were upwardly mobile from West Virginia, a motley immigration from Europe and the British isles. I was comfortable in my warm diaper of guilt for the Indian, the Slave, the Buffalo, my country.
When I was 5, Ginsberg was thinking about Howl, when I was 10 Kerouac was getting old in his short span of life, when I was nineteen I read On the Road. And then …
I’m reminded of what she wrote in Troia: “I believe in distortion.”
* * *
Some American Tales begins with “Climbing the Volcano,” an excerpt from Artista (1969-70).
Brenda is in Guatemala City. With what’s left from a royalty check for Troia, and after buying a copy of the first book of the Mayan Codices for $23 leaves her with less than $5, she decides to climb the volcano armed with instructions from the owner of her “favorite bookstore in Guatemala City.”
Together with a guide, she climbs the volcano at night “wearing Mexican mariachi pants with sequins, the plumed serpent on the back of my jacket and castanets in my pocket.” Her flimsy sandals close to breaking. For food, she has two packs of raisins.
“Climbing the Volcano” has something of Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” in that it doesn’t feel that it’s about what it’s about. Something’s hiding in the vivid description.
“…as I looked I saw a red cone in the distance,” Brenda writes, “and as if below where we were. It was red from top to bottom with occasional fiery slavering of lava from the side and down to the bottom. I asked [the guide] if that was where the booming sound came from and he pointed to it again, a rock the size of the crater mouth shot straight up into the air. The glowing lips of the cone seemed to pull back and collapse as it happened.”
On the way down, she writes, “I spread my arms to the sky and head back looking up I wanted to feel the greatness of the place and my endeavor. The Indians worship mountains, and I thought I could too. It was late morning already – I sat down to rest and play my castanets – the things I was wearing would be consecrated.”
But, by the end, she’s come back down to earth. Her bus has gone. “I got a ride with some Mennonite missionaries in a van. They fed me as well.”
This tension between elevated feeling and the matter of fact is present in “The Ruins at Kaminal Juyu,” another excerpt from Artista.
“Ray and I always missed the ruins on our travels,” Brenda begins. But now, free of Ray and her lover, she’s in “a very romantic mood, and feeling very much myself.”
For anyone who has read Troia and Brenda’s unpublished writing, there’s something truly poignant in this simple observation.
Later, when she returns to the ruins, there’s an eclipse of the sun. “I knew that the wind was saying something to me. I was a part of the eclipse.”
Reading this, I think of an observation made in Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers by Nancy M. Grace, Ronna C. Johnson, that “women Beats have been fundamental to and inextricable from the literary and cultural discourses, communities, and narratives which male Beat writers fronted, but they have been Beat constituents by the paradox of their manifest elision. Present but absent.”
Alone, Brenda is very much present.
In “Dreambook, 1971” (from Cherry Valley Ballads and Stories) there’s the same sense that a tiny piece of writing gets to the heart of Brenda’s place in the Beat world.
She begins the dreambooks only when she has “the privacy and anonymity in which to write” even though “There was never any more for anything except beer and a little food.”
Her “dreams were recorded in Georgia’s [her daughter with Ray] notebooks that she no longer used and a big sketch diary which Ray had been given but never used. It was a hunger for paper I had and I loved filling it up and making it as rich as any tapestry.”
Reading these short pieces for the fourth time, I finally realised how well they’d been chosen by Lucy Wilkinson of death of workers whilst building skyscrapers. They demonstrate the descriptive quality of Brenda’s writing and also pinpoint what she means to female Beat scholars who see in her life and writing a kind of triumph.
* * *
In an email to me, Lucy described the impact of reading Brenda’s work. “For me, all of her writing is about feminine transformation, the pain and bliss which comes with that. Also, she doesn’t sensationalise the idea of empowerment which I think is important. It resonates with me. I find it deeply moving and inspiring.”
Brenda tells me that Lucy is intending to publish Poets and Odd Fellows next. I’m glad.
Until then, we have Some American Tales to read and reread.
Buy Some American Tales here.