The Queen's Dissertion
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Carol Frost opens her tenth collection with a claim as marvelous as it is perverse: “I Lucifer, cast down from heaven’s city which is the stars, / soar darkly nights across the water to islands / and their runway lights—.” Fallen, though still allowed the name of light-bearer, Frost’s angel surveys the Floridian landscape with the pained wonder of Milton’s Satan approaching Creation. But this Lucifer gazes at a world of his own making, transformed but not stripped of beauty by the Fall: “all I’ve scorned, all this lasts whether I leave or come. / The garden fails but the earth’s garden lives on / unbearable—.” “Our sense of origin ourselves bedeviled,” Frost writes, in propria persona, later in this collection, offering as examples of such bedevilment “Apollo Saturn: in the rose black garden Eve.” Invoking Lucifer as gatekeeper to these new poems—establishing him as the first of the collection’s several patrons—she gives pride of place to an intuition she has long pursued: that mankind bears a closer allegiance to the fallen than to the victorious angels. “At the root of humanness,” she wrote in Chimera (1990), “a cup of blood / nature spills.”
Frost remains a poet too little discussed and far too little celebrated, but for many readers who know her mature work she is indispensable. The publication of The Queen’s Desertion marks 30 years since the appearance of her first book, and one reads the new work with the excitement of watching a competent poet become an excellent one. Her poems have always been accomplished. For the first half of her career she wrote poems that were lovely, occasionally extremely so; they were also largely conventional, satisfying the expectations of the unambitious lyric, their loveliness too often unleavened by any starkness. It was with Chimera that Frost first began publishing poems that bore themselves with a new urgency, their lines at once more expansive—often stretching toward, and sometimes past, the right-hand margin—and also more compact, with an elliptical, impacted syntax thrilling in its music.
In Chimera, these poems were still exceptions. In Pure (1994), they became the rule. The change was not merely a matter of syntax and tone, but also of thought. The concrete, particular descriptions of the natural world that had always filled Frost’s poems were now combined with serious philosophical and moral inquiry, and the lyric comforts of the early poems gave way to a bracing, sometimes comfortless examination of the human—a nexus, for Frost, of compassion and necessity, with violence their uneasy mediator. At the level of the poem, these new commitments led to argumentative clarity and momentum. They also resulted in newly coherent collections, volumes bound by shared questions and concerns.
The Queen’s Desertion shares with Frost’s recent books a formal and intellectual boldness, and it contains what is certainly her most linguistically virtuosic work. It is also her most uneven, and decidedly her least coherent, collection in years. Unlike her last book, I Will Say Beauty (2003), it has no governing theme, and while there are moments where poems echo each other across pages, it is difficult to discern a logic whereby the four sections of the book form a satisfying whole. After Lucifer’s proem, The Queen’s Desertion opens with a series of poems that explore “the mind at its end,” figuring the victim of dementia “as a metaphysician beekeeping / after the leaves have fallen at autumn’s end.” The poems are affecting, occupying the voices of both the woman suffering and the daughter who grieves for her: “Mother hears / ambient grief and, more and more, / her earlier German tongue—rhyming Schiller lines. / Where were you? I’ll ask. Wer bist du? she’ll say.” But they amount at best to a sketch for an elegy, and the titles of the three central poems—“Apiary II,” “Apiary VII,” and “Apiary IX”—suggest that there is a larger project in which they may make more satisfying sense. These are followed by a suite of poems reprinted from Love & Scorn (2000), Frost’s new and selected volume, all of which are good and two of which—“St. Louis Zoo” and “Komodo”—are better than good. But their presence here is puzzling: these poems, appearing with one exception in their original forms, gain nothing from the change of scenery.
The bulk of The Queen’s Desertion is devoted to two experiments. The first is “Relación of Cabeza de Vaca,” a dramatic monologue that is by far the longest poem Frost has yet published. It also represents something entirely new for this poet, in its narrative sprawl and sustained attempt to speak in the voice of a historical persona. As it appears here, it is a suggestive failure. Cabeza de Vaca, as Frost’s explanatory notes (also unprecedented) tell us, was the first European explorer of Florida. Variously a slave, a medicine man, and a governor, he demonstrated a sympathy toward native peoples that was remarkable for the time. For outlawing the enslavement of native women, among other offenses, he eventually found himself on trial before his countrymen. Frost’s poem is an attempt at the kind of inhabitation of voice and narration-through-lyric for which the ur-model may be Berryman’s “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” to which Frost pays the tribute of quotation: “Once I walked with a crowd of other simple people who wished / to make me believe that I not one instant die but endure and endure / the hollows and offenses of the body.” But Frost’s Relación is at once too indebted to narrative and insufficiently invested in it to succeed. The poem’s exposition prevents it from sustaining a lyric voice that might float above the details of story, while that exposition is too abbreviated to allow for the development of much narrative excitement.
Far better is the book’s second experiment, an extraordinary sequence of poems that forms its third and longest section, “Voyage to Black Point.” In lines of often astonishing energy, shorn of almost all punctuation save colons, the poems attempt a new dramatization of experience. In rhythms that recall Berryman’s glorious awkwardnesses and Crane’s rhapsodies (“Come in the silent acting in a dream now wayfarer”), these poems constitute something like a blazon of the Florida Keys. Titled after creatures, locales, or phenomena of the sea, they are full of physical, empirical detail. But they also make use of a non-normative syntax, running perceptions together as though seeking sensation without mediation, often resorting to lists, as though the fecundity of the environment had compelled Frost toward verbal profligacy. Here is the beginning of “Pelican”:
Rendings grunts after so much quiet: look:
tide is advancing—billows, mullet leaping toward shore: also
pigfish pinfish herring sheepshead silverside grass and top
minnows prawns:: brown pelicans—Audubon drawn
chestnut crosshatch iris blue rim reddened yellow tuft:
pistol-shot from wharves:
Beautiful and alluring, the keys as Frost describes them are also places of sudden and sometimes dangerous mystery, littered with boats run aground and everywhere suggestive of peril: “I love and fear winding in these waters: deep corridors: / currents: shoals: iridescence boiling / suddenly: the back of something larger than my boat.” They are also, finally, unknowable, mercurial beyond the possibility of self-assured navigation: “charts often wrong: storm / shift: cuts narrowed:: still fathoming the tides.”
As committed as they are to observation, these poems also have grander ambitions, and they layer the landscape of Greek myth on top of the Florida Keys. In the creatures Frost describes—blue crabs, manatees, egrets—she finds Saturn, sirens, Geryon; a gulf becomes Hades; in “Black Point,” the first poem in the series, a cove is named “Corycian,” after the cave on Mount Parnassus sacred to the Muses. Frost’s poems have long been fascinated with myth, but what in earlier books was primarily a source of narrative is here put to more mysterious and allusive (though no less central) use:
I want to say oracle: sea grass: crab cluck:
swollen sheepshead in a fitful sea nodding assent::
I who listened for decades to familiar voicings
now heard Delphic imaginings low and sweet:
hallucinogenic as when the dolphin crests
in early morning vapor and light mixing on water
the leap and splash thunderous: a flight of birds:
one piping: syrinx in the wind: a rising sea—
Lucifer gives way to Apollo as patron of this sequence—an Apollo who is not merely the dolphin cresting, but also the offended god who strips Marsyas of his skin and also, above all, the source of prophecy, of knowledge gleaned from “low and sweet” murmurings, “hallucinogenic” in their distance from “familiar voicings.” Yet these poems, for all their strangeness, are anything but gnomic, and they make their concerns urgently available. If Frost’s landscapes offer frequent access to myth, they remain rooted in the world of blood. “Nature is hungry,” Frost writes, and that perception defeats, here as throughout her recent collections, the charge of romanticism that has occasionally been levied against her work. Frost’s poems remain as ungiving, as resistant to the claims of sentiment as ever, and they are still fascinated by their own cruel resourcefulness: “mind in its parts admired the fight and iridescence,” Frost writes in “Redfish,” recasting and challenging Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” “and remembered where to put the point of the knife.”
It would be difficult to overpraise the best of these poems, but the techniques on display in “Voyage to Black Point” court their own dangers: when the urgency of the poems slackens, their motion can seem arbitrary, fueled by no surer logic than association, stripped of too many graces. In “Sea Hare,” Frost presents a revision of the title poem of Chimera that is much weaker than the original, denying itself the marvelously sinuous syntax that contrubutes so much to the success of this and other earlier poems. Too much of this poet’s repertoire would be lost were this new mode her only mode. But Frost is far too savvy for such a disfiguring renunciation, and she closes this volume with a very different kind of poem, invoking now a third patron for the collection. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, there is a musical duel between the Olympian Apollo, with his tortoise-shell lyre, and the forest-dwelling Pan, his reeds held together by wax. As Ovid tells it there is no doubt of the winner; only Midas, whose foolishness has already been established, insists that Pan’s is the finer music. But Frost ends her collection not with Delphic cadences but with the rich rustic music of “Old Pan,” whose presence can be glimpsed at moments, too, earlier in the collection, in the “syrinx” of “Black Point” and the “panic” the poet feels later in that poem. Closing her book with simple, stately quatrains, with images reminiscent of Keats’s Autumn Ode (“swelling like fruit / sweeter for the lateness”), Frost forestalls any fears that her recent adventurousness might have resulted, for all its excitement, in self-limiting experiment. That Frost joins experimentation with a newly affirmed commitment to the lyric is a mark of her seriousness and accomplishment: “Delphic imaginings,” however alluring, need not force this excellent poet to deny the claims of “music so simple, so nearly gone away.”