Young Americans

Jackqueline Frost
Pamenar Press (£14)

by Nadira Clare Wallace

Jackqueline Frost’s book-length project, Young Americans, is a good example of bildungsroman in poem form. Like Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems (Faber & Faber, 2018) and Stephanie Sy-Quia’s Amnion (Granta Poetry, 2021), it is intense, intricate, lyrical, and lengthy, tracking the progress of a mind from young adult to not-so-young adult.

The collection is divided into two parts. The first, “YOUNG AMERICANS,” is a sequence made up of six sections varying between five and eighteen pages in length. The second part, “YOU HAVE THE EYES OF A MARTYR,” is a little shorter. Most pages display a single, justified block of text, frequently short and linked to previous and following stanzas by through lines of theme and tone. The theme, announced at the outset, is bearing the disappointment of an unreformed society. Frost’s tone is austere, elusive, and scholarly.

Young Americans is highly speculative. The point-of-view is typically zoomed out, regions or aspects of society distilled to one or two images. You won’t find much unprocessed passion in the text (at one point the word “meta-hysterics” is used) and landscapes appear theoretical rather concrete: “I walked / in the river of crises / toward the real.” There is a wonderful, vertiginous beauty about all of this, a sense of extreme induction––the mind forming general laws from particular instances which have, more often than not, not made it on to the page.

Content-wise, the first part of Frost’s poem gives us outcast (“forgettable”) teenagers selling their blood, navigating a fallen world––“passed / through sapped utopias”––hungry for freedom. There are lovely, angular paeans to anarchists who “sing / barricades in the morning” and moving salutes to youth: “We were certain of nothing except this acute / resilience, and thus were diaphanous, at times teeming, / and for a long time mystical.” The book’s second half is more solemn: People are sentenced, taken ominously away, beaten. It contains some extraordinary, aphoristic lines, such as “Let / each deliver themselves from their helical place, / with filth among love, love among machination” and “we will have survived our own mistakes.”

Readers may, at times, find themselves wanting things unpacked further. Take, for example, this intriguing passage from “YOUNG AMERICANS”:

This meritocracy keeps me
in the attention of great trusts

        since as hierophants, they
believe in a kingdom
        without limit.

So each day I go
        with the others
to the dark boundary

of the good.

The powerful ideas in this stanza strike me as stubbornly enigmatic; “the dark boundary / of the good,” for example, is a gorgeous, suggestive line, but what connects it with the preceding sentence? Are we talking about where good turns to bad? If so, is the implication that a society “without limit” goes beyond goodness or morality?

One of the most admirable things about Young Americans is Frost’s determination to deal with big topics like morality and revolution without falling into generalizing or sententiousness. In an unflinching book that is about enduring––bearing disillusionment––the poet has given us a challenging and finely-tuned sequence of clashes between the visionary gleam of youthful people and the United States’ apparent “brutality of neglect.”

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