Carol Frost, Alias City (MadHat Press)

 

The Invention of the Self

Reading through Alias City initially feels daunting. First, the titles. Many include “City,” along with a referencing adjective: “Moss City”; “Circus City”; “Water City.” A few feature “City” as object or adjective: “Song of the City at Night”; “City Pigeons.” But what cities? And why cities?

Let’s start with author Carol Frost’s mother, Renee Fellner, or “RF” as she’s designated beneath short segments throughout the book, somewhat like Hemingway’s In Our Time intercalary pieces. A “Note” at book’s end informs us Fellner, an Austrian who lived through WWII, “rarely spoke of the war until her eighties, when she seemed to know what is lost to silence.” Nearly blind, her language nearly “faded completely,” she wrote a number of “stories” that Frost included “in homage to her invention of herself” (61). These cities may be the settings of Fellner’s mystical imagination, a surreal compendium of mind-over-matter, or mind-creating-matter verses meant to fill the vacuous spaces of memory loss with lives enchantingly real.

In fact, the theme of invention, of discovery, of imagining, anchor these poems. On the final, unnumbered page of the book, RF writes, “If I walked to the end of the street would I find myself? Dusk’s tarnish. The humble sense of being. Heartbeat from mountains far off…and movement in hydrangeas” (59). The imagery puts one in mind of a different Frost’s poem, “Acquainted with the Night,” whose persona has already succumbed to the desperation of alienation and loneliness. Fellner’s prose, on the other hand, describes not the city’s night but dusk, hears nature’s heartbeat, and sees nature’s movement.

RF’s sanguine metonymies are reflected and magnified in her daughter Carol’s poetry, as “light” figures in, either literally and emblematically, its various shades and shadows eliciting hope and endurance. “First City” begins by comparing the mind to three famous naturalists, Bartram, Muir, and Audubon. Instead of trite or overused analogies, the comparisons denigrate, confound, and dirty what we expect would naturalize mind’s best offerings. “The mind is a wilderness like Bartram’s, razed, cemented over, marked by rows / of parked cars…”; “It is Muir’s ‘glorious forest’ and turpentine factories, and Audubon’s pistol shots….”; “For mind, like Audubon’s, contains…feasting vultures” (43). Leaving tropes for real waters, Frost describes paddling her kayak when “vultures circled back for more of the carcass, scattered and rotten.” In all this gloom and destruction, the poem’s last lines elucidate “Arcturus, and the houselights / in cities, when there is no other light, blazing like stars. And the human / voice, your laughter in the null moment…” (43).  Transcending finally the mind’s “wilderness,” “cement,” and “turpentine,” starlight, voice, and laughter bond poet and reader together.

The contrasting imagery evidenced in “First City” burgeons into more complex dialectical themes in other poems. One “RF” entry suggests enigmatic, illogical states: “For a little while I was two persons, old and young, wise and clean, sturdy and bent, generous and dead” (49). Correspondingly, in “Himalayan” the speaker demands, “Call for stars and atoms, abyss and rime. / Call avalanche to cover up the climbers left behind” (48). The persona’s directives continue throughout the poem in a Whitmanesque list, the anaphora emphasizing a multiplicity of tasks to be accomplished. The near rhyme of the first couplet gives the poem a formal tone, and the first line’s oppositional sizes of objects makes clear the narrator is addressing monumental concerns—as well as wittily and ironically using rime as both the frost that forms on cold objects and another spelling of “rhyme.” Just as “Blow, Bugles, Blow” gives marching orders to come out and be counted among the Union ranks, here the poet commands,

Bear these heights alone….

Mind the death zone—air, air, air—and go back down,…

leave earth behind with its examples of falling,

what’s right and what’s wrong

no more than dispersing and building clouds

On the mountain. Make yourself no elegy

but the stone snows swallow then exhume. (48)

The poem urges us, without “misgivings,” to climb to the airless summits alone, descend, and next day once again climb into both “dispersing and building clouds,” as fickle and changing as right and wrong. If falling, no “elegy” needed, as mountain “snows swallow then exhume,” one of the most beautiful last lines I’ve ever read, the mountain both a resting place and one of resurrection. The incongruous movement of the poem includes the poet finding herself when losing herself, her breath most vibrant when the air thinnest, most in touch with others when alone.

Light can also turn the palpable magical. “Song of the City at Night” finds a couple watching swans “on river water / laving with light each passing wake, / mesmerizing a couple on the riverbrink. / They seem unaware what is myth or real… / flown to a milkwater world / where it’s possible to drink on the milk / and eat pearls” (46). When a gunshot and siren disturb their tranquility, and “Something is thrown / into the river, then the swan is mute.” The couple’s existential condition, both hypnotic and material, mirrors the Himalayan climber, above the fray, yet forced to confront what might bury them. The final couplet humbly admits impotence to “sing of this,” impossible “to out-swan itself,…out-Sibelius Sibelius.” And yet, illogically, in admitting defeat, the speaker succeeds, the poem a swan song (excuse the pun) to the invention of selves both in and out of the world.

The song, the voice, the poem create the self again when Frost sings her own mother alive, “Chickadee” offering, “For that you let me make small branches of my fingers for you to climb, I whistle your sayings…. / I whistle your sayings / without knowing the meanings—” (38). With birds again a motif, “Ornithology” employs onomatopoetic wind imagery to introduce yet another contradictory trope, snipe rising “in one loud whirring of wings, so the last / are first—a testament time illuminates” (37), the biblical allusion echoed toward the end of the poem, “…lives are taken / in any order, till the last survivors are first, singing themselves alone.” They sing themselves into existence, as a poet sings her subjects (RF, her readers) into existence, conception and rebirth from a fall, whether off a mountain or from Icarian heights.

The three parts of “Labyrinthian City” begin with an initial eight lines sounding apocalyptic: “no branches breaking with honey petals / to soften the blow. / No more cunning this day, // this world Icarian. / For the moment everything / stopped caring, and those that could flew on” (32). Part two, four couplets, initially seems to brighten the tone with “A partridge laughed,” only to reveal the subject of its laughter: “the father fathered the drowned arms and head” of his son, presumably Icarus. The first person narrator of the third part, Icarus himself, addresses his father, “I breasted upward with the glittering rocking honeyed / air, my lonely impulse for ascent come from you. / I soared” (33). Again, the motif of solitude at great heights elicits feelings of transcendence and fulfillment before “…it came apart I was the ideal falcon, earth the falconer spiraled to.” Even in descent, however, “…art and invention riding a fabled wing span, / out of nature, human in failure,… / telling of what is past, / the riddles we come from, and those to come.” The movement in “Labyrinthine City,” progresses from an eagle chasing “a feast of sinew and pulverable bone” to “Yet here we still are—.” The escaped maze, the inspired flight, and the tragic fall reflects the poet’s passage, the final incarnation of the poet/seer possible if isolated on a peak (or flight) of invention. Once taken flight, she will soar, fly too close to the sun, but such audacity, whether suicide or passion, releases the soul to reveal the truth, the unraveling of earth’s labyrinthine deceptions and confusions.

Before leaving this beautiful collection, focus must be sharpened on Frost’s form and prosody. “Smallwood City,” all one stanza, evolves in two sentences, each five lines long, or seamlessly joined quintains. The poem’s subject, a low-key description of a small Florida town ostensibly near where Frost lives, uses familiar imagery: wind, dark/light, stars, water. Again, the poem begins with disaster, the sea encroaching on the bay, hurricane gusts threatening “traders” (53), but by the end, the speaker asks, “can we not sense / the patch of calm water near / Smallwood’s store and moor there?” Frost elevates the opening’s sense of doom by employing high-pitched long “a” “e” and “i” assonance: raised, waves, bays, hurricane, traders; sea, Chokoloskee, reckoning; modifies, light, right. Next, an onomatopoeic wind rushes in: waves, where, wind, blowing, someone. The first line of the second part, “By memory by stars’ debris” quiets and smooths the waters; the mellifluous “m” and purring “r” consonance introduce and foreshadow the final “calm water” the poem and poet find where she can “moor” (perfect word) peacefully, now that the verse has found safe harbor.

Appropriately, the last poem in the collection, “Perpetual City,” by its very position, accentuates the paradox of the last shall be first, as the end perpetuates forward, from death a resurrection. Like the opening chords of a presto movement, objets d’art dominate: “…pussy willow arranged in a dry vase, / Book of Beasts, / sundial, desk waterfall, heron / of teak, bill and chest / shaped of one substance: Thus someone / recreates life after life…” (56). Art invents life. However, as in other poems, such optimistic imagery recoils when we learn climate change has left the world to these inanimate objects and robots, the latter’s “limbs perpetually to do what we no longer / wanted— / sweep the night stars / for changeless meaning, the uncommon in each / breath and step begotten of each breath and step” (57). The world continues, even if in rote routine of stepping forward searching for meaning no longer needed. What lives and breathes here is the language of the poem, the rhythmical rise and fall of the lines’ breathing, the perpetual, ongoing song of the poet inventing lives.

RF’s words begin and end Alias City. “Evening light rushing back, back rushing away… // The mind goes, and the past / fits itself around the ankles / of what may have been” (1). The feeling of desperation that begins the book, the loss that can never be recovered, signals a major theme in Frost’s work, sets the reader up for failure, for fall, for descent. And yet, that irrecoverable yearning, the Icarian striving, saves and supersedes alienation and aloneness. “Why shouldn’t snow smother the black water? In the red glow of some evening, somewhere, neon sails.” The collection’s final lines, again RF’s, employ the recognizable motif of burial, but from that source, from that evening light that on page one originally rushed away, a “red glow” appears, sailors’ delight, and “somewhere, neon sails.” Frost leaves us with two endings; either the neon light in motion (neon a noun and sails a verb), or a brightly lit canvas (neon an adjective, sails a noun).

This ambiguity, this equivocality, recalls the collection’s strength. The title poem, “Alias City,” reveals “travelers” and “fugitives” calling “themselves by new names” and arriving “with his own little dreams and disasters” (23). Frost suggests every sole/soul has an alias, a double, a doppelganger: summit climber and snow buried; Icarus ascending and descending; metallic, unthinking robot and sensitive, ironic poet. The reader achieves perpetuity by accepting and confronting her dual—or several—selves, even if contradictory—especially and necessarily contradictory. She sings even as she falls: “Already you can dream / the rubied merriment / when I open my coat / and unspool the ribbon / from their beaks; and the heartbreak / when a sole bird falls earthward / as if from a golden tree” (“How Music Came into the City” 40).

The cities surely suggest RF’s refugee flight from World War II, while also reflecting and disclosing states of mind shared by her daughter and the rest of us refugees as we flee a world unfamiliar, labyrinthine; once taking flight, we hover, soar, then try to land lightly, intact, but knowing whatever our comedown, the heights have been worth what even death cannot take away.

 

 

Richard Holinger’s forthcoming books include Kangaroo Rabbits and Galvanized Fences, a collection of newspaper columns, and North of Crivitz, a first book of poetry focusing on the North Woods and Upper Midwest. Not Everybody’s Nice won the 2012 Split Oak Flash Prose Chapbook contest, and a chapbook of innovative fiction was published by Kattywompus Press. His fiction has appeared in Witness, Iowa Review; creative nonfiction and book reviews in Southern Review, Crazyhorse, Northwest Review; poetry in Boulevard, Chelsea.

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