by Jeffrey Shotts
Carol Frost has long been one of the most interesting poets writing, and her latest book, Love and Scorn: New and Selected Poems, allows for a substantial look at her remarkable development. Over the course of seven books, Frost reaches higher and higher to the forbidden apples, follows closer and closer behind the elusive deer--all in the mythic gardens and orchards she has created and recreated. Yet although the poems often approach such Edenic lushness and lyric heights, Frost's conflicts with the divine, with the body, and with poetic convention interrupt any delusions of attaining untainted joy or complete peace. Rather, Frost's brilliance is in her ability to capture moments that strain toward soaring song or deep despair, but that nevertheless linger at the thresholds of the breaking point.
Love and Scorn opens with twenty new poems that show Frost at her most stylistically developed. With surprising formal and syntactical shifts, Frost examines paradise made imperfect by change, sickness, lust, and death, and asks, as in the lyrically fluid "Flaw," "Can the flawed heart fill?" A sort of probing guilt seeps into Frost's genuine wonder and longing for the natural world as the poems continually question desire in its wish to be something outside of the merely human. These questions are often veiled within an array of symbols: the apple, the garden, the seasons, and the deer. The remarkable poem "Songs for Two Seasons" opens:
The body has two seasons
and doesn't exist to be changed;
it itself changes—as a clearing
fills with moths, then into it steps the hunted deer.
Who knows from the outside
where death grows?
Along with the development of these symbols —for death, knowledge, Edenic impossibility—Frost has broadened her stylistic features into longer lines, a more fragmented syntax, and an intriguing use of punctuation to suggest breath and announce thematic shifts. This is especially notable in Love and Scorn's central section of thirty-five "Abstractions." With eleven-line regularity, these poems reflect on subjects such as joy, envy, self, the past, sexual jealousy, art, and scorn—abstract terms that most workshops instruct poets to avoid. In Frost's hands, however, these "Abstractions" relate a range of emotions and concepts with vivid metaphor and complexity. Frost suggests in every poem that no feeling or thought exists outside other feelings and thoughts—if there is love, there is scorn:
When at last they knew everything without confiding—
boiling hearts--they gave up themselves a little so that they might
both love and scorn
each other, and they ate from each other's hands.
The last section of Love and Scorn contains a substantial selection of some of Frost's best work previously published in seven volumes. It is disappointing that this selection has been ordered alphabetically rather than chronologically, because the tracing of Frost's artistic path is obscured and the selection can seem therefore uneven. But these poems together still suggest her progression into a more ambitious lyricist. Frost has always been a poet unafraid to shift her entire framework into new and intriguing directions, though she does not repudiate her previous work but instead builds upon it. In the last poem in Love and Scorn, "Winter without Snow," Frost again creates a world seemingly stagnant but finally brimming toward some possibility:
Nothing could make it snow.
Not the burst water pipes, the leggings,
the sleds, or the white horses.
Not the smoky fountains, the clouds.
They were souvenirs of winter without snow,
as was my wish for a white field
like a fresh beginning.
Love and Scorn is truly an essential New and Selected Poems, and one of the finest collections likely to be published this year. In it, Carol Frost continues to surprise and amaze, and leaves her readers wondering what "fresh beginning" lies ahead.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000