Poetry collection odd, unsettling

Posted Feb. 27, 2011, at 7:41 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 27, 2011, at 9:27 p.m.

“Night Flight” by Kenneth Frost; Main Street Rag Publishing Co., Charlotte, N.C., 2010; 54 pages, trade paperback, $7.

In American poetry, there is what amounts to a tradition of regarding poems as machines made of words. The idea, going back more than a century, is that different combinations of words detonate different little vortical experiences in your mind, the way pistons and cylinders detonate gasoline explosions. The odder the combinations are, the odder the explosions.

The extreme of this is dadaism, where even gibberish makes some unfamiliar but (potentially) interesting disturbance on the surface of your brain. But beyond dada, some poets have crafted truly mind-altering contraptions by assembling words as if drilling, screwing and levering them together.

The American giant of this kind of poetry was Wallace Stevens, who died in 1955. The common wisdom among literary critics is that of his legions of imitators, hardly a handful have assembled anything as smooth-running as the odd, subtle, often scarily incomprehensible verses he made. (He sometimes vacationed in Maine, mentioned Pemaquid and environs, and in one poem coined the bizarrely memorable dadalike phrase “Damariscotta da da doo” to reflect the peculiarly unreflectable quality of a coastal summer day.)

Now, I don’t want to say that the 40-odd poems in Kenneth Frost’s “Night Flight” are imitations of Stevens, exactly. But they bear a family resemblance in their disposition to place the exactly wrong words in the exactly right places. “Mandelstam – Last Stop in the Gulag” begins:

The wind alone tunes a bare twig.

Today the wind feels like Orpheus.

He needs a head, a bird’s head.

The shrike, airing a hook talks

Like a hunchback fallen

Into the white world that crowds

Mirrors out of glaze.

From neither this nor what follows can you learn anything concrete about Osip Mandelstam, a Russian poet who irritated Stalin and died in a concentration camp. But if you pay attention, you can sense the poet’s imagination of what Mandelstam’s inner life might have felt like, and it is not familiar at all.

“The dead live snowflake moments/on the gangplank of my black tongue,” we hear a few lines later. There is very little diction here that you would familiarly speak; these sentences are special construction projects. What they mean is hard to think about, but they evoke an odd and unsettling experience.

Stevens once wrote that “poetry should resist the intelligence almost successfully,” a sentence which has driven a lot of poets so far off into the ozone of incomprehensibility that you could almost wish he’d never written it. But most of the poems in “Night Flight” seem to take its meaning, so to speak, and while this is not exactly Wallace Stevens, it is verse carefully erected to create specific effects and feelings out off the edge of your rational intelligence.

Some of the poems are more successful than others, here, but this little book is worth leaving around on your coffee table for rescue purposes when the bombardment of public cliches is threatening to gas you.

Kenneth Frost, a former teacher at Columbia University and The New School, lived in Wilton recently and died in February at the age of 82. His poems have appeared widely in small press and academic magazines. “Night Flight” is available through www.mainstreetrag.com/KFrost.html.

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