Trying to keep up with the Ben Frater of 6 am in the Universe is a difficult thing. As soon as he lets you see where you are in any one of his poems, he picks at the words he used to mark your bearings, masticates them into nonsensical gibberish, and spits them back in your face. He gallops across the page, scattering letters, words, meaning, and it feels, very often, like he doesn’t really give a damn if you’re keeping up, or left re-reading the first stanza, trying to work out where the hell you are.
If you keep up, you’ll still occasionally have no idea where you are, and you might get lost in the joy of tearing language up and throwing it around, simply because it can be done, but you’ll also see flashes of Frater’s life in the South-West of Sydney, get snagged on the sharp black wit of his one liners, meet toothless barflies, experience the elasticity of time on the inside of a psych ward, fall in love with a social worker at Centrelink, see hallucinatory dragons in the kitchen floor and get jabbed in the gut by the severe loneliness that sends a person like Frater hurtling into an obsession with poetry.
6am in the Universe is not of the tea-and-biscuits school of Australian poetry. Nor is it of the waterfowl and rural landscapes variety. More in tune with the American Beats, or the French Symbolists and Surrealists than he is with any identifiable Australian schools of poetry, 6am in the Universe still firmly owns its ‘Australianness’.
Frater doesn’t often waste much time painting pictures for his reader, but when he does, he does it with a quick ripping open of the eyelids. Sometimes, landscape and location is directly referred to as in, ‘In Back of Airds’, which is described as a:
by bored Aboriginies
who entered the thoughtless void of petrol.
Minto is similarly brutally pointed to on the map:
As an adolescent
in the ghetto of Minto
we lived next-door to
regular wife thrashing,
a dead baby up a jumper
and the Oval is always on fire. (‘Orizen, Prelude’)
But his particularly masculine, subjective view of the Australian landscape is also present in Frater’s turn of phrase, or choice of adjective. In ‘Ourizen’ the sky is ‘muscular’, and in the final poem, Frater’s black, wry, and undeniably Australian sense of humour comes though in lines such as, ‘This place is brighter than a bat’s arsehole.’ And while location is not explicitly stated in the following, anyone who has ever spent longer than five dry minutes in an empty pub on the sweltering fringes of an Australian city will be able to know exactly how to picture a moment like this:
Two matches drop on an open page
dead things blown against the mesh
and that is all there is
to thrash consciousness in
the celestial boredom of this afternoon. (‘iii. Paying: Win or Loss, Coming off the Cross’)
Perhaps it’s his inheritance from the French Symbolists and Surrealists, but Frater often blurs the line between landscape and psyche. In the following passage, the ‘motherless daughters’ of Campbelltown not only prowl, like the sickly cats and dogs they hold under their arms, but even the rain is ‘flea-bitten’:
where motherless daughters prowl
beyond the sun, through labyrinth of ghettos
with similarly motherless litters of sickly cat and
clutched under arm
through night of endless dark
and flea-bitten rain. (‘Ourizen, Prelude’)
This melding of the landscape with the subject is not necessarily a result of any overt solipsism on Frater’s part, but a way of using his external surroundings as a playground for his imagination, or as a template for his own emotional topography.
Frater has no problem with taking a setting and mutating it or evaporating it when you least expect, as might happen in a dream. In ‘Treason and Betting’, ‘Old Guildford Rd just dissolved’, and in the school-syllabus-worthy ‘To Kill the Prime Minister’, Frater effortlessly fixes a moving bug and shifts the world around it, in the line, ‘to kill the Prime Minister, show him the wall crawling up a bug.’ Occasionally Frater even reclaims pieces of the empirically observable world as the exclusive property of the subconscious, for instance with the lines, ‘The moon/ was and always will be dream/ in the finger-snapping palace of Dahmer.’
This blurring of the line between what is ‘outside’ and what is ‘inside’ is also true of Frater as a persona with porous ‘personal’ boundaries. As Frater perceptively reveals in ‘Maw Raw Mind’:
If these things aren’t out
and if they’re in,
they’re in big trouble;
And again in ‘Ourizen’:
they have often said
that it was foolish of me
to indulge in fantasies of this nature
– instead you
must bury yourself.
Frater has no problems flashing intensely personal scenes, and his darkest hallucinations, throughout his poems. The second poem in the book, ‘Maw Raw Mind’, and the last sequence, ‘Ourizen’, are particularly confessional of his years in and out of psych wards. Knowing this, I’m not entirely sure how much the blurring between what’s ‘out’ and ‘in’ is a literary device, or is sincerely documented as fact-as-experienced-by-Frater. This has the added effect of grounding what would otherwise be quite a ridiculous, over-the-top tirade of fire and brimstone, and making it quite sincerely terrifying, as in ‘Sparrow Interlude’,
from giant shofar womb:
radiant discharge, infernal spasm, almighty fire
ejaculation pushing rabid angels out of the lack
The unshakable thing about Frater’s poetry, is that despite passages which stand out as classic examples of teenage angst, there is an honesty and urgency to them which makes them hard to dismiss. Frater seems to be quite literally obeying the favourite mantra of writing teachers and ‘writing what he knows’. There is a sense, when reading Frater’s poetry, that you have to listen, no matter how melodramatic or shambolic his rantings might be, because this person is preaching a kind of raw, intimate capital T-truth. Frater ingests the landscape around him, synthesises it with the mythologies of his self-selected poet heroes and Catholic upbringing, before using the whole shambolic mess to animate what can’t be seen, but is sincerely felt within him.
This passage from Kenneth Rexroth’s introduction to Philip Lamantia’s 1946 collection Erotic Poems, shouts down the 65 years as if they were 65 minutes and written specifically in reference to Frater’s urgent poetic voice:
‘What is wrong with most modern poetry, of whatever school, is that it is unmotivated, and it is contrived. There is really no reason why most of it should ever have been written. Further, it is fishy, passionless stuff, much of it, for all its noise. Your poetry so obviously is none of these things, and so positively their opposites. It has a great drive and excitement that only comes with conviction that what one has to say is of great importance and people ought to listen… The thing that counts is the intense passion. Not some vague amorphous ‘feeling,’ but a sort of fire power of the whole personality, will, intellect, emotion, etc, all organised and focused at maximum intensity.’
Although Frater undeniably writes with the ‘fire power’ Rexroth refers to, many of his poems aren’t as ‘organised and focused at maximum intensity’ as they could be. The most focused and organised of Frater’s poems are placed earlier on in the collection. The ‘Selected Short Poems’ are examples of Frater at his most witty, coherent and playful, but they are also more derivative and self-conscious of their influences. Ginsberg’s incantations and Blake’s complicated mythologies are unashamedly referenced, and his poet heroes – including his teachers at Wollongong University – make cameo appearances. Well aware of his own romanticisation, in classic wry Frater style he declares: Glory be this hideous idolatry!
But it’s precisely what Frater has stolen from his influences which is used to focus these earlier poems. He steals the literary architectures of highbrow avante guardists like Pound and Zukofsky, but these references do not come across as a kind of literary pretension. Throughout the collection, Frater is obsessed with shapes, with arcs, and with poems within poems within poems, and there is a sense – particularly in the earlier poems, that Frater believes these shapes might help him trace the tangled patterns of his own felt experience.
As the poems progress, these borrowed architectures gradually disappear, and what is left is a more original, yet less focused and harder to decipher, Frater Form. Many of these later poems read like a radio being tuned in and out of clear reception, and as the book progresses, more and more white noise interferes. While the clarity of lines such as
I need a winter bullet and one summer gun,
I am alone in this foxless morning,
all our Aramaic hearts and tongues
are frozen in the grave (‘Ourizen’)
often save the poems from losing the reader entirely, the poems soon dissolve into a scattering of abstracts across the page. During these moments, sound verbs intensify to ‘screaming’ and ‘roaring’, and the finesse of the earlier images is lost. Take for example:
And you have Hooked
now existant Skull-King
behind the mind
behind the eye
which you have Hooked
Through and over and through and
O’ existant Apocalypse;
But Frater is aware of this falling apart of structure, and tells us so: ‘I have attempted to build a new Emerald city/ and wound up instead/ “hissing”‘
If you had to squeeze all poetry into a greyscale ranging from freeform word-vomit to a strangulated hyper-edited kind of rhyming formalism, Frater would definitely be found sprinting past the Romantics, the Beats, the Symbolists, the Surrealists into the sloppy arms of the Dadaists, screaming Sense, be damned! But a close read, and re-read of the book reveals that there is cohesion, even to the most chaotic splurges, and an arc to the collection as a whole.
Some of that cohesion is provided by the sheer force of Frater’s personality, and the largess of spirit he invests in the performance of his work. The decision to include a DVD – featuring video footage and audio tracks of a few of Frater’s performances – was an excellent one, and adds a dimension to the collection that will help many readers hear how some of the harder poems really are examples of what Auden meant when he said that good poetry is ‘memorable speech’.
Ben Frater passed away in 2007 at the age of 28, after an overdose of the medication used to treat his schizophrenia. 6am in the Universe was compiled posthumously by his best friend, colleague and editor Rob Wilson and his publisher and teacher Alan Wearne. While Wilson and Wearne were no doubt the most intimate with Frater’s poetry, and therefore the best men for the job, it’s probably important to remember Frater himself never got the chance to sign off on the published manuscript. And while the tragedy of Frater’s early death shouldn’t be used as a pity-card when engaging with his poetry on the page, on the screen, or through the headphones, it’s still a forceful reminder that the stakes of Frater’s poetry were those of life, sanity, and death.
John Berryman, whose own poems read like tight, sharp seizures on the page, might have written this line about Ben Frater: ‘One man, wide/ in the mind, and tendoned like a grizzly, pried/ to his trigger-digit, pal.’ 6am in the Universe is definitely the work of a man wide in the mind, but also always one thought shy of losing it completely. Frater’s poems are honest, urgent notations, desperate attempts to evaporate out of ‘the ghetto of Minto’ via his own divergent imagination, and energetic evocations of a future he might have wanted to live in.