(REVIEW) Young Americans, by Jackqueline Frost
Andrew Spragg traverses the embedded politics and ideology of Jackqueline Frost’s Young Americans (Pamenar Press, 2022), drawing connections to the work of Diane de Prima, Sean Bonney, and Alain Badiou, in a collection that marks the past ‘as both something to give account of and mark a departure from.’
Jackqueline Frost’s Young Americans borrows its title from a 1975 David Bowie album. Considered a soul-infused departure from Bowie’s earlier work, in a career defined as much by its departures as its arrivals, the reference indicates Frost’s own preoccupations in a very literal sense. The “Young Americans” of the title are those of the American south, specifically the Louisiana that Frost grew up in, and those encountered elsewhere, perhaps Oakland and New York where Frost worked and studied.
A principal feature of Young Americans is that relationship with the past, as both something to give account of and mark a departure from. The text is rife with the compulsion to fix events and their significance:
As we are ready now to tell of storms and to formalize that time as something beyond a limit of ourselves: Domestic scenes, languages of process, the sub-political tally of working days, our certainty of crime, how provisions were bought. What we could see of civilization from the edge of our enclosures
That tally of days, the embedded nature of politics and ideology in even the most crude interactions, is weaved throughout Young Americans. Section III contemplates the role communities play in fuelling the military-industrial complex with the necessary labour:
[…………………]/ the boys who were a part of me / of my life / were the ones who went to the slaughter / to slaughter and be slaughter / the smallest most forgettable generation of us /
Like Robert Wyatt’s ‘Shipbuilding’, the poem does not shy away from that ambivalent locus that integrates industry, employment and global politics. The section builds on repetitions and variations: ‘besides being made for the war / or being broken by it later / or being made for someone who’s made for the war or who comes back mangled by it later’, while also declaring ‘nothing else took place’, Frost invokes that deep embeddedness that describes the material limit of lives bound by place and industry.
By contrast, Frost’s repeated use of ‘we’ and ‘our’ assumes, and often with conviction, a solidarity enclosing the writer and community, the writer and reader, in the sharing of experience and the political and social projects it fosters. The text seems close to Sean Bonney in places, specifically his various letters, with syntactic flourishes that bear the weight of his influence:
We asked what style captures our short sticks, the bad signs we were born under, our wet electric fear of being young and of getting old, saying, we lived these thirty years, what will we do for the forty more?
Elsewhere there are lyrically assured qualities to the writing - on page 34, a flurry of poetic assonances: shuffle/sung/stung/assundering - and a formal tautness that speaks volumes about Frost’s skill as a writer.
Distinct in Young Americans is a language that resonates with a religiosity anchored in Catholicism, rather than the English radical tradition of Blake or Milton evident in Bonney’s work. As a scholar of Jean Genet, a child of Lafayette, Frost’s weaving of words like ‘grace’ and ‘blessedness’ throughout the text is significant. In one sense, this recalls the revolutionary fervour of the Pauline Subject as envisioned by Badiou, in another it echoes Faulkner and the embeddedness of religious feeling in the experiential and linguistic tones of the American South (‘the country where god lives’). There is throughout Frost’s text a sense of transcendental higher calling, but also a locatedness that sweeps that departure back to its origins: ‘We’ve concocted a/language with no word for/exit.’. Simultaneously, there is little countenance for contemporary liberalism and its limited response to the suffering of others, ‘Our empathy served only us’, signifying the gluey problem of compassion’s place in revolutionary politics.
Limits, enclosures, formal or otherwise, abound throughout Young Americans. The acute awareness of what one is born into, is made to bear, and then departs (or at least attempts to depart) from. It marks a compelling engagement with a past and present that echoes the lines Frost quotes from Genet’s Miracle of the Rose, ‘I shall not let my childhood escape,’ and like Genet’s narrator, this set of origins becomes the material for transformation and struggle. The text recalls moments of Diane Di Prima and Bernadette Mayer in the longing for Utopias (significant here is the ‘no place’ in opposition to the located), the deep and personal political commitment, but does not shield itself from the ambivalences. The circuit of departing, returning, transforming and remaining are the base material for Young Americans, and Frost accentuates it with a poetic fluency that is accomplished and assured.
Text: Andrew Spragg
Photo: Pamenar Press