This time it started with bees.
We were hunkered down in the Great Hall listening to poet and faculty member, Carol Frost, share a few poems from her newly released book “The Queen’s Desertion.” As she began to read the apiary poems, I found myself transfixed and caught like a fly in the spider’s carefully crafted web of a really good metaphor. With head cocked, as I find myself when deeply engrossed in a writer’s words, I visualized the bees lost and wandering and could see a shadow of the mother in the emotional crevasse of the daughter’s language. I bought the book and pored over its contents finding myself coming back to the bee poems and thinking about what it means to lose one’s way.
At the time and far away, I watched a different scenario playing out in a different state but with many similarities to note: the quizzical expressions, the mindless repetitions of subject matter, the growing confusion with the world around. As this played out the times I happened to be inTexas, I found the transformation beguiling in the worst possible way. It reminded me of a room in which a person is locked without a key. It reminded me of bees far from home, disoriented and unable to find their way back.
I never had a chance to study directly under Carol Frost, but her work continues to teach me about the lyrical beauty of language as well as the opportunities available through syntax. The bee poems first recorded in “The Queen’s Desertion” became fully realized in “Honeycomb,” her most recent collection with its raw emotional under-girding of loss upon loss. At points, you get sick of the bees but even their repetition reflects back on the nagging reality of alzheimer’s and is an effective device. Frost asks “Is it so terrible to outlive the mind?” in her poem “Abandoned bee boxes piled on each other at meadow end…” As a reader you sense the frustration of being unable to change the situation unfolding.
And that is the universal appeal of a collection of poems centered on alzheimer’s. She questions what is valuable in “She wears geegaws from relatives” wondering if “Old, did Helen wear diadems? / Did she know glass from diamonds?” Here, she juxtaposes the classical figure of Helen from the Iliad with her mother, wondering if she too had difficulty ascribing value from jewels to the commonplace. Frost queries the life being lived now and what it means to make the most of it. “We feed her chocolate because / she likes chocolate and she / forgets” – the small moments of sweetness contrast strongly against the pervasive bitterness of a situation that knows one end.
Reckoning with alzheimer’s resembles the grieving process and includes denial, loss, anger, and depression. To come to grips with what is impossibly difficult in the beginning to accept, for all involved in “Pearly, flying hair” she states “She is dancing. We won’t say / she’s dying.” Occasionally, Frost speaks of couching the situation as a “little problem with time and space.” This denial, this staving off of the final prognosis is wrenching. As a reader, you feel the frustration of loss which she depicts well in describing what it is to lose one word only to be followed by another – “[h]oneycomb, goddess, death, fate and the human heart, / they lived in her until too many words / flew like birds”. You feel the despair and deepening rift for both daughter and mother throughout the collection. In “I remember the psychiatrist’s exam-” the reader is brought into the room as the psychiatrist asks the mother to draw a clock. Through a simple task, the extent of forgetfulness is uncovered leaving her mother exposed to the glare of what no longer exists. Frost describes it as a “dark, cruel / moment when she found out- / mind a papery hive sliced / open, herself furious.” This suggestion of the asp comes up again later in the collection and serves as a good point of reference for anger.
The asp plays an interesting sub-character to the bees. Nearing the end of the collection, this image crops up in the poem “She saw that the tortured dream wrestled to the floor”. In it, the poet reckons with her mother experiencing “punishment / for hallucination” and tries to reconcile with where the fantasies came from. Against the current of queries from her brother, the poet, in her “quiet, reprimanding” pits a “yellow asp stinging the black heart.” This uses the same colors of the bees but the asp has a different connotation. Set up against trying to understand hallucination, she knows the truth and it stings.
Signature Frost style for me includes deeply lyrical poetry, references to classical literature or art, experimentation with syntax and using the title as the first line in the poem. These are evident in “Honeycomb” but the taut narrative keeps the pages turning. Her use of ellipsis hints at the dragging on of time and days in the nursing home in “(For the ones” where “clocks are wound…. / The last hour is a song or wound….” Several times, she employs double colons to confer a sexuality and frustration. In “If her falling to quiet” reads “of flowers:: to rain” Again, the reader finds in the afterword, “sea and grasses mingled:: / there was no hell after all / but a lull before it began over:: flesh lying alone:” When encountering death, it is not so strange to question life- both what it means and what it now must look like. The afterword is particularly powerful in accomplishing that sense of loss. Where there once were two colons, there is now only one and Frost continues breaching the line “flesh lying alone:” with single colons, showing life does go on and fits into the world in “the grace of waves, of stars, and remotest isles.”
“Honeycomb” features Frost at her finest with writing that is strong and evocative. The reader feels a certain sense of voyeurism in tender moments of her mother’s degeneration, coming to grips with what is: a daughter encapsulating what sets the days apart, a mother declining into Lethe orStyx, comforted in the poem “What makes her quiet”, a doll.
So “Now, now, / let her rock her doll.”