Frost, Carol. Entwined: Three Lyric Sequences. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, 2014.
Reviewed by Philip Belcher
Two readily discernible emotions accompany the experience of reading for the first time a well-published poet of significant talent. First is embarrassment at not having read the poet long before this late discovery. The second is a sense of gratitude, combined with excitement at the prospect of spending more time, now that she is known to you, reading her ambitious and exquisite poems. The embarrassment passes, but the gratitude and excitement fold over time into lasting appreciation. Such is the experience of discovering Carol Frost through her latest volume of poetry, Entwined: Three Lyric Sequences.
Entwined opens with a prologue poem, “Lucifer in Florida” and ends with a prologue, “Man-of-War.” These poems do more than bookend the three sequences; they comment on the volume as a whole and provide a framework for a tightly constructed book of poems. Indeed, the very fact that the sequences work so well together is curious, given that the individual poems were written over a period of two decades. The poems of the second sequence were written first. The poems in the first and third sequences were written between 2003 and 2011, although the years do not overlap exactly. In a time when poems are often written as parts of a “project”—“here’s a topic; let me write poems about it”—it is interesting to consider how these poems written over such an extended period came to be joined in a single volume and how they fit so well.
In “Lucifer in Florida,” Lucifer introduces himself: he “ride[s] with darkness, dark below dark, uttermost / as when the cormorant dives and the fish dies, eye-deep / in hell; the bird is I, I hide in its black shining / spread of wings raised drying afterward on a tree bough.” (italics in original) Even in this rather ominous introduction, readers will notice Frost’s lyric sensibility; assonance is one of her musical talents. The repeated use of the first person singular “I” in this poem, too, may remind one of God’s reply to Moses’s inquiry into God’s identity in Exodus 3:14: “I am that I am.” Lucifer’s insistent description of himself, however, is countered by “Venus rising, the off chords and tender tones / of morning birds among the almonds, small flames / of lemon flowers, phosphorus on the ocean, / all I’ve scorned, all this lasts whether I leave or come.” This balance of Lucifer’s darkness and the beauty that nevertheless persists is reflected near the end of the poem in the speaker’s recognition of the proximity of chaos and order, death and life: “If the future is / a story of pandemonium, perfection’s close . . . .” And this serves well to introduce three sequences—each distinct in subject, form, and tone—that respectively address a lush tropical landscape, abstractions of human life and intelligence, and the slide from vitality toward dementia. Of Frost’s several fine accomplishments in this new volume, one of the most engaging is her organization of the book to show that the considerations of each of the sequences are not as distinct as one might at first expect, or want.
I Voyage to Black Point
Frost introduces the first sequence, Voyage to Black Point, with epigraphs from Dante and Baudelaire. Although her primary source for literary allusions throughout the sequence is Dante’s Inferno, readers insufficiently familiar with Dante or classical mythology will find the Notes following the poems both helpful and accessible. The poet sets the twenty-two poems in this first sequence in a tropical setting. Straightforward, often one-word titles—titles like “Sandpiper,” “Blue Crab,” “Redfish,” and “Low Tide”—make the settings clear but do little other work for the poems. Formally, two features stand out. First, Frost’s favorite mark of punctuation in Voyage to Black Point is the colon. Readers expecting to be put off by this will be surprised at how well it works. The colons moderate the reader’s pace through poems that often contain little other internal punctuation. Colons, and even more so double colons, slow the movement significantly but less finally than the occasional periods. This may seem a minor matter, but it is clear from the entire volume that Frost is not a poet who does anything in a poem by accident; every word and every mark are intentional. There is nothing extraneous, nothing wasted, nothing merely ornamental. Consider the effect of the colons in the first five lines of “Sandpiper”—how they guide the reader through the poem, showing her where to pause:
Pillar of salt then the spell reversed: vowels
moistened in the mouth: tone of hurry::
in the distance weird bubbling whistle
bububu-hLeeyooo: Febru Febr-uary ooo:
how it is to be that happy and afraid:
These lines also exhibit the second obvious structural feature of the first sequence—the uniform employment of single-line stanzas. The effect, again, is to slow the reader, but the space between stanzas also lends a feeling of sparseness to poems that otherwise implicate verdant natural scenes. This excerpt also shows another attribute of this poet: because she respects her readers, she feels free to make demands of them. Although the Notes are essential for most readers, they are not exhaustive; Frost expects her readers, particularly in this sequence, to grapple with narrative meaning. Thank goodness the poems can be read and enjoyed without the reader’s having to grasp each allusion, but sophisticated readers of poetry have an advantage. For example, one can no longer assume—if one ever could—that every reader will be familiar with the biblical story of Lot, but readers who remember the Genesis 19 story of the transformation of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt when she disobediently looked over her shoulder at the destruction of Sodom will appreciate more deeply Frost’s depiction of the sandpiper in the first line—how it appears lifeless, like a pillar, until it whistles. The allusion invites a fuller appreciation of the poet’s appraisal of the bird’s change from inanimate object to musician, “how it is to be that happy and afraid:”.
“Manatee” offers another example both of Frost’s demands on the reader and the rewards of slow, multiple readings. The poet’s close attention to sound, her fondness for myth, and her ability to present a visceral image with great economy are all evident in the first six lines:
Shading to pink on the underparts: soft and liable
to be mistaken for Sirens: how sea sound comes
along the shore:: alone I found one shark-bitten deep
in the pelvic muscle floating near a shoal: water almost calm
light twinkling on oysters: fluting sweet shrill
fleur-de-lys: the western baths of early evening: clouds::
The final five lines of the poem include narrative mystery (“how we’re saved from beauty beauty wanting // no other beauty but one::”), personal revelation about the speaker and her connection to the injured manatee (“my torn life myself surgeon-bitten::”), and a hint of Frost’s versatility with uncommon diction (“maculate flesh goldening as in a myth:: no more pretty songs”). The poet’s fondness for arcane diction also adds another dimension of complexity to these poems. In “Pelican,” for example, Frost uses “muting” to indicate a pelican’s defecating on a mangrove—the word doing extra duty through its multiple connotations.
Critics often complain that contemporary poetry, at least American poetry written in the last half century, lacks ambition, although defining exactly what “ambition” is seems more problematic for them. Although he eventually punts and corrects himself by linking ambition to the poet instead of the poem, Donald Hall declared that one measure of ambition is the poem’s length. For many reasons, that seems inadequate and myopic, if not downright silly. Dickinson alone disproves Hall’s suggestions. (To be fair, Hall did seem to understand that brevity alone is not the determining factor; he qualified his statement by noting the ambition of some of Yeats’s shorter poems.) And I would add Carol Frost to any list of poets whose shorter poems are ambitious, if the definition includes attempting to address large issues with nuance, complexity of thought, and a high level of craft. In Entwined’s second sequence, Abstractions, Frost does just that. In these tight and pointed poems—most of them eleven lines long—Frost writes in a way that all poets want but few achieve: she writes with clarity, complexity, concision, and musicality.
The poems in this sequence are arranged alphabetically by titles that identify, in each instance, a single abstraction. There is something audacious about Frost’s willingness to name thirty-seven concepts and consider them effectively in poems shorter than a sonnet. Her success in doing so relies on two attributes evident in each of the poems in the sequence: an uncanny ability to illustrate the abstraction in question with an example that is both particular and broadly applicable; and an apparently boundless affection for beautiful and complex sentences.
Of the many fine poems in this sequence, “Horror” exemplifies Frost’s aesthetic achievement. In this ekphrastic poem, the poet uses Goya’s “Black Paintings,” particularly the one commonly known as “Goya’s Dog,” to show how the painter experienced dread. The subject is quite particular, but Frost draws the reader through the brief poem to a conclusion that makes a broader statement about the limited powers of art itself. In addition, the poem begins with an example of the poet’s syntactical dexterity:
When horror, that with pretty masks
no longer stood to one side as he walked from his house to the garden,
extolling neither the magic of the atmosphere nor medals he earned for painting,
but undefinable, still deferred
(as if somewhere a prophet had put down his hood and bellowed),
grew colossal, Goya put fourteen black versions on his interior walls,
the most audacious a dog whose trespasses have sunk him in an abstract grave.
Readers will appreciate the maneuvers in the opening clause from “When horror” to “grew colossal.” Describing the effect of a well-wrought sentence—making the case that a good sentence is more than an accumulation of words—Stanley Fish quotes from Anthony Burgess’s Enderby Outside (1968): “And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.” Burgess’s description may be a bit overblown, but it does indicate something of the delight patient readers will discover in many of Frost’s poems, particular the sentences in the Abstractions sequence. Frost seems to be, as Fish quotes from Flaubert’s self-appraisal, “‘itching with sentences.’”
These poems are dense—not dense in the sense of being so tightly wound that the effort to unravel them seems unmerited (see, e.g., some of Geoffrey Hill) but in the sense that, in the space of (usually) eleven lines, the poet reveals something new about an abstraction to which nearly every reader will have devoted some thought. In “Apology,” Frost has the speaker recall an instance of passion—“someone held her a little roughly once in somber sweet groves”—in which the speaker succumbed to the advance. She now feels apologetic about the event, “as if a thorn catching her sweater has torn a small hole, —as if she shouldn’t / have worn the sweater.” What a simple, accurate, and devastating metaphor.
“Custom,” one of the many remarkable poems in this sequence, approaches the cliff of
sentimentality and teeters there before turning away. In less talented hands, the poem would falter. Frost describes in a way readers will long remember the particular horrors of a bullfight:
As if it had forgotten everything—hatred, vindictiveness, the meaning of pain—
the bull took the ribboned sticks in his back without response, turning away,
so that when the picador entered the ring, the crowd was making fun
of the country’s breeders. If there was an ounce of dignity or strength in the animal,
the picador would have to find it with his pole, and he came on slowly
to probe the back and shoulders:— cruelly, like a king with a scepter.
Frost then describes the tantrum thrown by the bull when it finally gives in to the taunting. After the bull is taken from the ring, the picador returns to the cheers of the crowd: “The assembly roared—by his actions they knew they knew better who they were.” No reader will finish this poem without reflecting about his own role as spectator of another’s pain.
III Apiary Poems
The thirty-two numbered but otherwise untitled poems in the third sequence are intensely personal in comparison to the poems in the first two sequences. Whereas Voyage to Black Point is characterized by careful attention to the tropical environment and Abstractions is concerned with a close interior examination, Apiary Poems addresses the dementia of the speaker’s mother. Poem 1, all of which is contained in a single set of parentheses, serves as a dedication “(For the ones / who line the corridors and sit / silent in wheelchairs / before the television with the volume off, / whose cares / are small and gray and infinite, / time as ever to be faced . . . .” In this poem, Frost emphasizes the personal nature of the entire sequence: “The last hour is a song or wound . . . / Except in this corridor—mother’s— / where finity’s brainless wind / blows ash, and ash again / blows through their cells: / So much silence, so little to say in the end.)”
Apiary Poems is not a sequence for readers impatient to find a resolution of the many issues raised by dementia. On second thought, perhaps that is exactly the audience for these poems. Frost is both tender and unrelentingly honest (although anger appears less frequently than one might expect). In poem 1, in which the poet introduces floral elements that reappear throughout the section, the first mention of a flower is in the brief description of a patient who “has drunk from the poppy-cup.” Even apparently benign things—flowers in a dementia ward—are not entirely beneficent. These poems repeatedly recall the vapor-thin character of the barrier between pandemonium and perfection forecast in the prologue poem, “Lucifer in Florida,” as when in poem 1 Frost describes how “carnations, wakeful violets, and lilies in vases— / masses of flowers—wrap / the urine-and-antiseptic air in lace . . . .”
Much of the beauty of the Apiary Poems arises from Frost’s incorporation of the extended metaphor of the economy of bees in her exploration of the mind and what it means to lose mental capacity and to experience that loss in another. Furthermore, the elements of musicality and concision so evident in the first two sequences of the volume are on full display again in this final section. The eleven-line poem 3 begins:
Abandoned bee boxes piled on each other at meadow end . . .
Like clothing taken off,
the bees who had alighted on hat,
gloves, shirt, have flown off somewhere.
Is it so terrible to outlive the mind?
This does seem to be a central question about dementia: Is outliving the mind better than having the mind remain fresh and aware of the failures of the rest of the body? The remainder of poem 3 expands on the question by listing examples of cognitive decline, summarizing the experience of dementia as “time running by like a small girl running by like a madwoman,” but the poet never answers the question, either here or in any of the Apiary Poems.
Frost does gamble a bit in this sequence; she takes the risk of writing as if she understands first-hand what it is like to lose one’s mental faculties. Although it is dangerous to assume that a poet’s clarity in writing about a subject means that the poet has actually experienced it, there seems to be little doubt that Frost has had personal experience with a family member’s dementia. If not, she should be congratulated for an imaginative tour-de-force. Yet, it is one thing to experience the dementia or any other malady of a close relative and quite another to experience it oneself. This is not to denigrate the suffering of the caregiver; that pain is real, severe, and well-documented. The risk Frost takes, however, is to write wearing the mask of the afflicted, and she does so with great effect and beauty. Mentioning the risk does not mean the risk is not worth taking. In poem 20, the speaker is the mother whose dementia is the subject of this sequence. One of the longer Apiary Poems, it begins with a list of warning signs of the speaker’s diminishing mental abilities, a list that grows progressively more threatening, until the horrific, but common: “Why did I find my skin’s / imperfections so interesting and pick off / moles?” The poem continues with an imagined or recounted description of what it is like for a person to know that she is losing herself:
For a little while I knew—there was a door,
a split in the wall, and I was two persons,
old and young, wise and clean, sturdy and
bent, generous and dead. They were
neck on neck like winter and spring
but could do nothing for each other.
I’m leaving, I know, each said,
a flooding darkness in their eyes,
a drawing down of blinds . . . .
Most of the poems in this sequence are single unbroken stanzas. Several, though, are broken into multiple stanzas and those, as might be expected, incorporate more noticeable traditional elements of form, particularly rhyme. Poem 9 works well as an example of this and other attributes of these elegant and elegiac poems. The poem’s first two stanzas recall the theory of honey’s origin as postulated by Pliny the Elder in the sequence’s epigraph. The third and final stanza incorporates line endings that rhyme or chime with end-words in the first two stanzas, effectively enacting the speaker’s declaration:
This, mother, is my song for you
pretending to sleep with open eyes.
As odor and dance lead bees to nectar,
though you’re far away I will come to you.
The epilogue poem, “Man-of-War,” is a fine poem standing alone, but Frost, ever careful in structuring this volume, by placing it here returns the reader in a circular way to the prologue poem and the poems in the first sequence, Voyage to Black Point. The reader will find once again in “Man-of-War” descriptions of life in a tropical watery environment and will be directed through the poem again by an abundant use of colons as speed markers. The final six lines, though, are the most significant:
Clouds made wandering shadows:
See and grasses mingled::
There was no hell after all
but a lull before it began over::
flesh lying alone: then mating: a little spray of soul:
and the grace of waves, of stars, and remotest isles.
The poet seems to be taking stock of all of the poems in the book and saying something about how they work together, from nature’s fecundity, to a person’s capacity to make sense of universal abstractions, to the eventual loss of physical and mental abilities—the turn toward death. And the poet’s conclusion is both heartening and sobering: life teeters between pandemonium and perfection and is eventually shadowed by the realization, like Lucifer’s, that the continuation of the cycle does not require our participation.
Fish, Stanley Eugene. How to Write a Sentence. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. Print.
Frost, Carol. Entwined: Three Lyric Sequences. North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2014. Print.
Hall, Donald. Poetry and Ambition: Essays 1982-88. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1988. Print.