Carol Frost, Alias City, MadHat Press, 2019, 76 pages.
Carol Frost’s newest poetry collection, Alias City, conjures and captures great cities of history and the imagination in poems of rare lyric grace and power. Frost’s poetry has always been sumptuous, but in this book her writing takes on a new scope and complex continuity.
Prague, Vienna and Berlin appear in some of the first poems, setting the tone while alluding to the ghosts of World War I and II, when destruction played a role in the genesis of modern and then postmodern western culture. “City with First-class Funerals” opens the book with an intimation of the authority of these poems:
Angels are coming on vacation to our city—with the funeral
a wine feast, a beautiful corpse in brooch light,
mourners, their cathedral calm.
Er hat den 71er gekommen, the joke goes,
and all here can remember sweet spring chaos,
succulences in summer, the good fall like a woman
lying nakedly on a pelt,
and from north windows, years inevitably brought to their knees
like someone’s son executed by a river.
Frost’s poems are comfortable with the uncanny, and her turns of phrase and perception are often both startling and beautiful. This poem ends: “The rains commence. Let the world / deride or pity. We hear you calling, Lord of wind and flame.” These lines are something of an envoi for the rest of the book, which consists of seven sections, each introduced by a lyrical interlude, an italicized passage in verse or prose that is credited to “RF,” or Renée Fellner, Frost’s mother, an Austrian émigré to whom the book is dedicated.
These lyric interludes balance the book between crowded corners and rural landscapes, with several of them, including “Two anthills and a late summer hive” and “Autumn fattened and thinned” offering soft yet clearly illustrated natural images that contrast with the urban angles of other poems, many of which are named for imaginary cities: “First City”; “Lion City”; “Song of the City at Night”; “Walled City.”
The relationship between the interludes and the poems recalls the dialogues of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, another evocative and imaginative exploration of urban areas. Both Calvino and Frost realize that cities are nothing without inhabitants. These collections of buildings and streets are significant because of the memories of human actions we attach to them. Every humble apartment building is a hive of histories and memory, a palimpsest of human lives. To bring these invisible histories into poetry requires an encompassing style, as seen in “Song of the City at Night,” which is both majestically overarching and captivatingly specific:
Whatever hid the sun and moon inside a mountain
brought people there to found the night
where a city swans on river water
laving with light each passing wake,
mesmerizing a couple on the riverbrink.
This sweeping sentence is propelled and framed by solid end words that give form to the flowing diction, pushing thought forward like water through a weir until the passage coalesces in the gorgeous neologism “riverbrink,” which suggests the precarity of the solid edge holding back the water, language, imagination, history. Yet even as these lyrical flights sweep us out of the actual streets of actual cities, Frost’s eye for detail and clarity provides moments of quotidian luminescence, as in the opening stanza of “Brandenburg Gate,” which describes one of the most famous pieces of architecture in Berlin:
Wind slams and opens
the gate, light beating
its bronze horses, heavy-withered.
The combination of words in that compound adjective offers the scene an impressionistic clarity, suggesting the mood of the poem, which conjures Max and Martha Liebermann “who chose suicide over Theresienstadt” then settles back on those bronze horses which seem to have absorbed the human lives that fill the seemingly unchanging buildings of Berlin and swarm around its monuments. These individuals, the poem concludes, are also:
in the bronze horses
that gallop on and on
that all should have their place
rain darkened, star broken.
The last line here eschews the hyphens of the poem’s opening, even as its diction mirrors what has appeared earlier. That white space slightly shifts the grammar of our interpretation here while opening an area for uncertainty that was not present in the poem’s opening lines. After all, those lines were simply about the bronze horses, not about the history of human life that makes them significant to any aware observer.
There is a forlornness to these poems even as their creation and recording of cities suggest a sense of hope for the future of humanity and the powers of art making. Throughout the book Frost’s love of language, her willingness to give over to the pleasurable mimetic power of words, adds levity to darker reckonings with humankind’s struggles. This is evident in “What the Dove Sings:”
The mourning dove
wearing noon’s aureole
coos from the rhododendron,
oo-waoh, shadow o-
ver what to do. Oh.
And the sad rhetoric spreads
through suburb and wood.
Here, sensitivity to language matches an openness to scene and setting coupled with a sure power of dramatic lyrical creation. We also see this in the book’s final poem, “Perpetual City,” which offers a fearsome vision of a robotic future that forces humans back on the lessons of the past:
To think how walking
confounded the mechanical engineers,
their extraordinary patience with the clumsy
first robots. Twelvemonth and twelvemonth after
with cities put to sleep, icebergs melted to nothing,
they could do everything we could think of,
haunted by our hope and faith and pity and hate.
When they came in numbers we recoiled
but remembered the last sleeping place
of Heraclites, Aristotle, and Boneparte
the soup wagons of old wars.
Frost’s sense of time’s passing is ever-present and always striking in this collection. Throughout Alias City, the poet takes position as time’s interlocutor, history’s progenitor, both scribe and editor.
This is a devastating poetry of creative witness. Carol Frost’s Alias City is a book of true range and depth, conjuring cities of memory, history and imagination while reclaiming the past for a present and future that just might be redemptive.
Stephan Delbos, the Poet Laureate of Plymouth, MA., is the author of In Memory of Fire (Cape Cod Poetry Review, 2016); Light Reading (BlazeVOX, 2019); and Small Talk (Dos Madres, 2021). His play Deaf Empire, about composer Bedřich Smetana, was produced by Prague Shakespeare Company in 2017. His co-translation of The Absolute Gravedigger, by Czech poet Vítězslav Nezval, was awarded the PEN/Heim Translation Grant in 2015 and was published by Twisted Spoon Press. He is also co-translator of Nezval’s Woman in the Plural (Twisted Spoon Press, 2021), and the translator of Tereza Riedlbauchová’s Paris Notebook (The Visible Spectrum, 2020). He is a Founding Editor of B O D Y (www.bodyliterature.com).