Zenobia Frost, After the Demolition. Carlton South: Cordite Books, 2019. ISBN: 9780648511625.
In The Space of Literature, Maurice Blanchot explores how Rilke and Mallarmé, two of the architects of modern poetry, each ‘turn…towards death as the origin of poetic possibility.’ For Blanchot, poetry’s—in fact, art in general’s—unique relationship to death rests on its capacity to voice a fundamental ambiguity: on the one hand, death engenders change and thus form, particularity, and, with regard to the subject, the prospect of total selfhood, of understanding, of truth; on the other hand, the subject who dies cannot experience this death, an inability that calls totality of any kind into question. The ‘original experience’ that compels and threatens art, Blanchot argues, is that of death as open-ended, unpossessed, impossible, at the same time as it is ‘the extreme of power’ and the ultimate closure. Recognising this paradox sheds new light on poetry’s blurring of affirmation and negation, unknowing and knowing, surrender and control.
everything strapped down
This couplet from ‘Freycinet Caravan Park’ in Zenobia Frost’s sophomore collection exemplifies the book’s study of the dynamics of change as lived, felt. Moreover, it points to the capacity of poetic language, if rigorous enough, as it is here, to involve itself in and evoke such dynamics in real time. What remains beyond the end, Frost asks—whether the terminal structure is a house, a self-image, a partnership, a life—and who remains to name it?
A fitting beginning, then, would be to consider that Frost stages the final, and perhaps most regenerative, poem in the book, ‘Peripheral Drift,’ on grounds of death: ‘Turns out,’ declares the speaker, ‘you can still pash in a graveyard / at 28’. Divided into two long, roughly equal stanzas, the poem depicts queer lovers unsure whether to hold hands on a late-night ‘skeptic tour’ in the wake of the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey, the plebiscite on gay marriage in which ‘this country tallied its paper YESes’. Of course, the affirmation that such a mandate represents also implies the (never final) overcoming of resistance, even hatred—people ‘yell[ing] / slurs from a car…’ What impresses here is how Frost braids these complexities, Blanchot’s ‘primordial Yes and No,’ into subtle influence while keeping the lens on the sensuous portrait of the lovers: ‘Her hands / smell of headstone moss…’.
The title of the book’s first section, ‘Schrödinger’s Roommate,’ calls to mind the famous thought experiment in quantum mechanics whereby, under certain conditions, a cat sealed in a box could be said to be simultaneously alive and dead—strapped down, escaping. It is a clever metaphor to describe the tenant’s experience, central to the section, as migratory, governed by efforts to cultivate home in temporary, often derelict spaces. In her ‘Blueprint’ and ‘Distractions at Rental Inspections’ series, Frost personifies features of properties to the extent that these poems become a kind of collective conceit—place, like the self, both object and subject, cared for and neglected: ‘the Hills Hoist a skeletal rotunda’; ‘the corpse of a sofa’; ‘the mattresses have bred since my last visit’; ‘orphaned dressers’; ‘the walls don’t meet – / gap-toothed / a transom punched into cornice.’ Against this ruinous backdrop, between reality TV shows and Census night and references to Pompeii and the Ottoman Empire, sites of different orders of collapse, the subject and voice of these poems (de/re)constructs herself.
To call After the Demolition a coming-of-age narrative would be too linear, but it is important to emphasise the book’s cohesion, its meticulous sense of sequence, development, and echo. Representative of Frost’s facility for detail at other levels, these global cadences of craft are often missing from poetry collections. Consider a moving illustration. In ‘Salvage,’ the speaker visits her dying father in hospital: his ‘eye / flexes in the socket of a gelding skull…’ (33). Two pages later, in ‘Grief,’ the speaker asks:
When is a psychic stain remover
the best when someone dies in-house?
I use vinegar
to make a room gleam
like light of the back of a horse.
For its evocativeness, its rightness, this is an exquisite metaphor. Given their relation to the earlier poem, however, the lines acquire a magical quality: they bring back what is gone, but as gone, as what Blanchot might call a present absence, evanescent, strapped down and escaping. It makes sense, then, that we hear another echo in ‘The Tophouse,’ towards the end of the collection. One of the book’s strongest standalone poems and most vital to its personal arc, ‘The Tophouse’ finds the speaker abandoned by her boyfriend somewhere in the United States in his family’s ‘honey-warm A-frame’. Betrayed in extraordinary fashion, ‘alone with the woods,’ the speaker remarks: ‘Some men are just gutless. I am a horse / with its leg bent back.’
Salt and Bone, Frost’s first book, was auspicious in part for its finely wrought imagery and sonic patterning: ‘On borewormed verandah / acquaintances dance, / a tableaux in the act of falling.’ One of the pleasures of After the Demolition lies, similarly, in Frost’s combining of ‘high’ and ‘low’ registers with clarity, humour, and verve. In these poems, we find a lover resembling Venus and an image on Grecian urn while ‘fangin a durry in Raybans’; biting aloe in ‘Succulent’ provokes ‘the ooze of mucilage’; one step in ‘Blood Spells’ is to ‘boil a Diva cup to offer the goddess’; a coastal storm brings ‘static / pressed into the caravan / like melamine cups / pressed into compartments’. From diction up, Frost attends to her subject matter the way a hand might a log thrown from a fire—in fitful, shifting analyses. Immediately after the autobiographical pathos of ‘Salvage’ comes ‘Suriago del Sur,’ a dialogue-driven synopsis of an X-Files episode in which Scully and Mulder examine a dead body, covered in salt, on a ship:
Mulder licks his finger, brushes it
along the body’s shoulder, tastes the crystals.
‘Mm,’ he says. ‘Either way,
You agree he died by assault at sea?’
This abiding specificity—of image, of diction, of rhythmic construction, of tonal interplay, of lineation patterns—works to elicit nostalgia, contemporaneity, and a glint of the uncanny in rival measures. Clifton Fadiman once defined ‘a poet in the original sense’ as ‘a coiner of wonderful new language’; Frost is one of a few young Australian poets whose work embodies that definition, word by word, line by line.
‘What I want,’ confesses the speaker in ‘Self-Portrait 27’, ‘is to tug at the thread where silence flared up’. Another encapsulation of the paradox of voicing death, this line also highlights the current of lyric interiority and beauty that courses through the book. Frost’s gift for ironic insouciance, moreover, throws such beauty into starker relief, resisting—or playing with— sentimentality. The book’s opening poem, ‘Before and Now,’ ends with the command to ‘sing a little more / sing’, an ostensibly surprising homage to the lyric’s musical, vatic pretensions. But these, for all their wit and range, are poems that seek a kind of particularised personal sacred, what Geoffrey Hartman calls ‘the unmediated vision’. William Blake famously gazed at wood knots until they frightened him; the figures in ‘Jazz Domestic’ ‘wait in butter / sunset wet with sunken basement / now exulted’; I’m not a natural swimmer’, admits the speaker in ‘Bathers’, ‘but neither is the platypus: / part land locked, part limitless’. Late in ‘The Tophouse’, as the structures of toxic masculinity built in After the Demolition (and, for that matter, in Salt and Bone) begin to fall, it strikes the speaker that ‘Truth is a tender fossil. / And everything is exodus enough in sunlight’.
Almost by definition, poetry collections accentuate change. Beginnings and endings abound, the parts subsumed by the whole and yet not constitutive of it in the same way that, for example, the chapters of a novel ordinarily compose the narrative. For Blanchot, this difference rests upon the fact that poetry is further from the language of discourse than is prose fiction; that poetry is, in truth, inimical to discursive knowledge: ‘the questioning at the heart of poetry can never find an end’. Central to this unease, of course, is the poem’s facility for voicing the ambiguity of death and therefore casting doubt over the possibility of both foundation and conclusion. In After the Demolition, winner of the 2020 Wesley Michael Wright Prize and shortlisted for the 2020 Kenneth Slessor Prize, Zenobia Frost has shown that such groundlessness need not be pessimistic. Rather, it is the essence of life as it’s lived: in permanent flux, strapped down and escaping. To read the best of Frost’s poems is to inhabit this movement in microcosm—and, perhaps, to feel the budding of acceptance, the complex of celebration.
Maurice Blanchot, Faux Pas, translated by Charlotte Mandell, Stanford University Press, 2001.
Anders Villani holds an MFA from the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program, where he received the Delbanco Prize for poetry. His first full-length collection, was released in 2018 by Five Islands Press. A PhD candidate at Monash University, he lives in Melbourne.