review
by Sonja a. Skarstedt

A Yelp in the Ideal by Celestine Frost. (New York: Codhill Press, 2003, $11.95)

Parlance by Suzanne Zelazo (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2003, $16.95) 

“Life piles up so fast that I have no time to write out the equally fast rising mound of reflections, which I always mark down as they rise ...”
—Virginia Woolf, Wednesday March 19th, 1919[1]

 

Cries of Emergence

Reflections—those emotionally charged particles that thrust their way into the conscious mind, responding to human perception as it careens through existence. Not only must a writer be prepared to welcome these sometimes intoxicating, sometimes vague, sometimes tormenting slices of awareness—but also to nurture, cajole and sometimes even do battle with them in order to produce that most elusive of creative entities, the poem.

Celestine Frost and Suzanne Zelazo share some similarities: first and foremost, a determination to immerse themselves, both intellectually and sensuously, in the existential journey, to zero in on and pierce the skin of the moment, placing the interior cosmos under the revelatory microscope. Both books feature a photographic prelude. In Zelazo’s Parlance, a black and white extraction of the cover art—a woman’s long slender fingers gripping the top edge of a bicycle wheel, firmly yet precariously—is repeated three times throughout the book. Traversing these poems, like gripping that multi-spoked wheel, requires full concentration: the reader is rewarded as the poet’s intentions—from that one “more hour capsized by metaphor” in “South of Andromeda” to “a woman climbing the day in exaggerated shadow” in “Mirrored Waltz”—achieve their gradual epiphany. Likewise, and in keeping with her book’s title, Frost’s preliminary six photographs—from a weathered, foreboding old silo to a musing self-portrait—resound with a daydreamer’s bedazzlement, the mind’s hippity-hopping through existence, all the while circled by a sense of wry resignation. Even at its muddiest, life is a pageant—a spectacle of sun, earth and all of the senses, caught up a constant array of movement and meaning: “I feel drunk, / awash in the rainbow of / bumblebee exhaust” (“Considering”).

Both Frost and Zelazo have a refreshing tendency to avoid the ubiquitous confessional “I” in favour of the third person. Frost’s “I” has a way of compelling the reader with gentle urgency toward the subject or train of thought at hand—be it the mystique of G-d, the watchful dawn or the delirious cavorting of bees. On the other hand, Zelazo’s “I” tends to draw readers deeper inside that private construct of the self. Her pastiches are portioned out like raw yet structured Polaroids, instantaneous yet revealing, each in its particular context: “sail exposed in blindness / rage of fallen ghosts on the lawn” (“Pageant of Perfect Order”). Bright as keys that dissemble as rapidly as they appear, they torment the horizon in their quest for open portals: “Infused on the brink of staggering conception” (“South of Andromeda”).

Both poets share a concern and respect for the minutiae of daily life, the momentousness to be found within the most fragmentary spark. Nothing is taken for granted, and each exudes her own rebellion against that which would impede the mind’s free reign. For Zelazo, language itself is subject to relentless experimentation and exploration, pushing against and discarding tradition: “Colophon comes up twice. A catalyst for mediation. Auditory option virtual aphasia.” Whereas Frost’s bucking resonates directly from her passion for being alive: with their ballad-like cadences, their occasional use of rhyme and their respect for the sacred, her poems appear to tip their hats to tradition. However, Frost topples the hammocks of any readers who allow themselves to be lulled into the comforts of her sweetly tangled garden—with a saucy flourish: “And, remembering Lot’s wife, / I race!” Other defiant clues are revealed in Frost’s playful warping of lines, and in italicized words that rear their heads like tiny furies.

Inevitably, each poet’s individuality supersedes their similarities: in Zelazo’s case, a labyrinthine course of razor apprehensions dares us to infiltrate her emotionally complex spectrum. In Frost’s case, a framework of familiar, separate stanzas serves to imbue existential chaos with a sense of purpose: there is a beginning and an end, between which founders infinite sorrow and exultation. In Zelazo’s realm, there are multiple beginnings and endings—some brief, some extended. The result is a meticulous honeycomb culled from the context of the interior: even in conjunction with relationships, the self is not permitted to forget that isolation is as inseparable and unavoidable a part of the human journey as the primitive response to pain and ecstasy. Where Frost’s poetry may be described as sublimely earthy, sensuously transcendent,

cooks dress meat:
greedy little horses daubed in flour
even as they chomp,
corn husks bristling from active lips
And the poet has so much to say!
(“Beauty, Beauty”)

Zelazo’s is cerebrally orgasmic, icily erotic:

Cocksure oratory
nuptial. Cunning lingual love affair in
translation. The science of impromptu
confessions. Nab the diction. A half-
penny artifice.
(“Ace of Cups”)                                                                                                          

Its awe of nature’s details remains fully intact, immune to splintering. A Yelp in the Ideal is divided into two sections—“The Universe Worm” and “The Mind’s Eye”—locking into place those findings rooted in Frost’s awareness of the world around her, the fact that they will reveal more than she might ever expect. When the “self” is mentioned directly, it is in a voice replete with the highest, wryest amusement: “my weak clay side” or, “The lamb we fattened? / We kept him as a pet // and missed the full / tragedy of our lives.” With a lithe, sometimes exclamatory grace, Frost’s poems unfurl like playful flags, tumble like acrobats flashing their bravado in the face of dismay, hover like incandescent bats above life’s awesome unscrolling. Impressions glisten, take hold and continue their evolutionary fermentation. Life is a state of grace punctuated by a childlike awareness, magnified by the wisdom of the ages. Death is always on the prowl, but before it can pounce, life must be devoured right down to the tasty elegant shreds of its core.

In keeping with all potential linguistic implications of Parlance, Zelazo’s poems simultaneously serve as an exploration of language and a recording of her perceptions in tandem with speech/dialogue: those poems at the beginning and the end are narratively boxed, as if to protect and sustain the necessary deliberations of those poems shaping the book’s core, where the lines’ oxygenated spacing reflect the mind’s absolute hunger for liberation.

If there is a palpable postmodern metaphysical movement, then Frost and Zelazo are well equipped for unearthing its secrets. The chaos from which a poet draws inspiration can so easily threaten to abscond, pulling those precious glints of insight back to oblivion. Zelazo’s tone, like Virginia Woolf’s, is highly introspective, yet reverberates with an urgency that assures readers they are most welcome intruders, resulting in a somber and precise, coolly impassioned orchestration: “perpetual emptiness wrung abstract / wave of arabesques / dissolved in yellow air” (“Pageant of Perfect Order”). Frost, for her part, casts all recklessness to the wind and revels in the gambol of each ensuing particle that dances into her astute, ever-probing vista: “And so the sun became our own sweet star, / our guidance and our light” (“E”).


[1] Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary. Harcourt, Brace and Company: New York, 1953. 355pp (p. 9).

Sonja A. Skarstedt lives in Montreal where she makes her living as a freelance editor and graphic artist. She is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Beautiful Chaos (2000) and a play, St. Francis of Esplanade (2001). A new poetry collection, In the House of the Sun, will be published by Empyreal Press in Spring 2005.

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