“Coring the Moon: selected poems”

By Kenneth Frost

Maine Street Rag Publishing Co., Charlotte, N.C., 2014

248 pages, trade paperback, $15

Kenneth Frost’s poetry first crossed my radar about four years ago in the form of his first collection, “Night Flight.” It was a disconcerting, welcome sighting. In 2012 Maine Street Rag Publishing and his wife, poet Carolyn Gelland, brought out his second collection, “Time On Its Own,” another neatly packaged little book, which contained poems just as affecting as the first. Now, “Coring the Moon,” published this fall, is a much larger collection that contains both of the first two books plus about 150 more poems from an apparently vast storehouse of writings compiled over his lifetime.

Frost’s poems are, in one way of saying it, a literary parallel of the visual arts’ expressionism. The imagery — and the words themselves — fit together in ways so unconventional they can appear fragmented and illogical. Their fragmentation is an expression of what a particular moment in the mental and emotional world looks like to the poet. The overall effect, sometimes kaleidoscopic, often funny, always peculiar, shares material with surrealism, which seeks to evoke the illogical logic of dreams.

This is difficult material for a poet to make work. And by “work” I mean to create a jolt of unfamiliar emotion or thought that looks incoherent but feels like it coheres. Exactly the wrong word occurs in exactly the right place. Unrelated images appear side by side by side, yet in the end feel related. The influential poet Hart Crane termed this baffling kind of coherence, in one description, “the logic of metaphor.” Tens of thousands of poets have labored with it over the last roughly 80 years; the vast majority ended up mainly with incoherence.

Kenneth Frost is one of the exceptions. A straightforward example from “Coring the Moon” is “February, Maine,” in its entirety:

Winter sun

with its

glass gloves

wrings the geranium’s

neck

slowly

slowly

If you’ve ever watched a February afternoon creep past your living room window, you know exactly what this nonsense means.

Almost all of Frost’s poems are tersely stated like this, and if you’re not in the right frame of mind, just one or two of them may not be enough to generate the atmosphere of surreality or starlight the poems all target. But the effect is cumulative: Six or eight or 10 short poems along, you find yourself occupying a state of mind that would seem wholly coherent in a dream, but dangerously confusing if you were trying to drive a car.

The mind memorizes

a warm dry room.

What intersection of light

and cerebral energy

diagrams

the afterglow

of a dream,

carries

the traces of a face,

the timbre of a voice

and not the voice?

The answer (I think) is: a poem. “Coring the Moon” offers us a healthy selection of this mind-bending intersection of light and language, composed over Kenneth Frost’s lifetime.

He was born in New York City in 1928, and suffered injuries in combat during the Korean War which took years to recover from. He afterward taught literature and writing at the New School and Columbia University in New York, and later moved with Gelland to Wilton, Maine, which was his home at the time of his death in 2011.

Carolyn Gelland will be reading from Kenneth Frost’s works at 7 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Farmington Public Library. “Coring the Moon” is available through Main Street Rag’s online bookstore. http://mainstreetrag.com/bookstore/

 

Off Radar appears about twice a month in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel’s What’s Happening? Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].