Oakland, CA: Compline, 2013. 90 pages. $15.00.
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In 1927, Virginia Woolf traveled with friends to watch a total eclipse of the sun from Yorkshire’s Bardon Fell, above Richmond. In her diary, Woolf records the revelation of 24 seconds during which “the earth was dead”:
We had been much worse than we had expected. We had seen the world dead. This was within the power of nature. Our greatness had been apparent too.
A singular event changes the company of people gathered on a hill into a collective “we,” the substance of this “we” paradoxically revealed by the darkness within which it coalesces. But experience of community begins before the eclipse itself. Woolf details the journey, first by train and then by omnibus:
Before it got dark we kept looking at the sky; soft fleecy; but there was one star, over Alexandra Park. Look, Vita, that’s Alexandra Park, said Harold. The Nicolsons got sleepy: H. curled up with his head on V.’s knee. She looked like Sappho by Leighton, asleep; so we plunged through the midlands; made a very long stay at York. Then at 3 we got out our sandwiches and I came in from the W.C. to find Harold being rubbed clean of cream. […] Then we had another doze, or the N.’s did; then here was a level crossing, at which were drawn up a long line of motor omnibuses and motors, all burning pale yellow lights.
The moment of the eclipse is cold, inhuman. The trip is an experience of warmth, desire, and the body. Somehow the community of the latter exists in, expands into, the former. The strangeness of the eclipse is that it engulfs the living, feeling spectators—and that they emerge again on the other side.
“Eclipse” is the metaphor Jackqueline Frost uses for the node of revolutionary desire and activity around which her first book, The Antidote, takes shape: “Commune as eclipse, suggesting a momentary but total compromise of the ordinarily irrevocable space of night.” Frost gives the origins of her poems—or her book-length poem, divided into four sections—as the events leading up to the Oakland general strike in 2011. A thinking book, The Antidote shows evidence of Frost’s reading in classics and theory, as she has explained in an interview. But the work also struggles to recount an experience of a certain cultural moment, a community simultaneously present or cohering in that moment, and the conditions—here, linguistic ones—by which the moment might be both recognized and rendered.
In part, Frost is after an impossible way of “narrating”: how to tell the story of a chaos without ordering it, how to relate a complicated revolutionary energy without turning it into a history—or tragedy, a concept evoked sketchily by Frost’s classical allusions—of what happened, or what didn’t. As she puts it, “[t]o see crisis not as a great hill that comes into relief against the depth of a valley, but as the voltaic atmosphere and eccentricity of fog.” Or again:
One could fabulate, desperately, a sequence for crisis, but never without nostalgia’s subterfuge. We do not know how many people built barricades to defend the Commune or marched on the port, or how. How somewhere, someone has explained that suddenly you are draining the tanks of motorcycles for molotovs, as if the present in someone’s past was perceptibly arriving. To whom does one even say I feel more alive than ever.
An atmosphere, a fog, a way to relate not numbers but presences, not causes but feelings. In prose lines that bear traces of spoken language’s cadence, Frost’s strategic shiftiness turns what looks at first like narrative into something more like a miasma of textures, colors, glints, half-completed actions:
What love has to feed the poor—in auburned days, we drafted one fox heart to ferry the nightmare of this people, drown its monied mouth and offer methane a wreck.
This story isn’t a story at all, but its elements combine to evoke a loose drama: the russet of a living animal, the appetites of a group of people, the burden and strain of duty, something about currency and chemicals and catastrophe and hope. “How we reek some sweet belief,” Frost writes on the next page. Feeling and action coalesce in the homophonic pair “wreak” and “reek”: syntax implies the action, while strong consonants insist on feeling and on sense experience, as does the synesthetic “sweetness” of this belief, shading even into the echoing “relief,” the metaphysical slipping again back into the physical. In other words, the rich indeterminacy of The Antidote’s “sunless gestures” works towards the maintenance of embodied feeling. “Occidented, utopia has ghost and full boon, will salivate.”
What are the stakes of a poetics of feeling under circumstances of political action? In his introduction to Kristin Ross’s study of Rimbaud and the Paris Commune—a moment of historical off-rhyme to Frost’s work—Terry Eagleton opposes the “untainted class subject” committed to self-sacrifice, organization, and action to the “fractured, libidinal, disordered subject” of Rimbaud’s work. A “convenient caricature,” the former theoretical entity continues to haunt discussions of poetry and politics in the form of suspicious questioning of the good of individualized poetic desire to a project (or even against a horizon) of total transformation. The Antidote takes place within this tension, with Frost—like Rimbaud—voicing the latter sort of subjectivity, even if as a problem, or a mode of language, rather than a stable stance.
There’s nothing particularly new about the claim that poetry can represent and preserve a subject’s experience. But Frost’s subject—the “lightfighter” of the book’s final section—is a gendered one—importantly so, since discussions of gender have tended to fall out of the conversations about poetry and revolution in which The Antidote locates itself. “We who are not men and so are not for this world”: the assertion, grounded in a real “world” and a real “we,” leaves a whole host of urgent questions in the air. On the other hand, The Antidote offers a way of feeling that depends on expansiveness. Frost’s epigraphs—invocations that have less to do with influence or authority than with friendship and conversation—suggest both intimacy and open collaboration. Like linguistic opacity, these blurry boundaries between pronouns, people, times, and genres are part of the book’s point, built into the experience of its eclipse. Crossing and re-crossing spheres of culture, The Antidote ends with two lines from the band Destroyer (channeling Joy Division): “You’ve got the spirit— / / Don’t lose the feeling.” “The feeling” isn’t just “the” feeling; it’s the capacity to feel in changed and changing conditions—to feel from poetry into prose, into dialogue, into music, into action.