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A Little Night Music: Kenneth Frost’s Night Flight

Christina Cook

The first line in Kenneth Frost’s debut chapbook, Night Flight, sets a somber mood: “An empty room,” whose size is aggrandized by the minute “crucified fly” in the next line, provides a capacious tableau for the poems that follow, most of which are fingernail-thin filaments of text. The ample white space which the poems’ persistent minimalism creates is filled with a fluid dreamscape of symbolic, primal images. Among much musical language throughout the book, perhaps the most prevalent and heavily weighted sound is the long “O” introduced in the first poem with “yellow ropes.” These “yellow ropes” are bridles the “night jockey” is said to be using on stars, inferring that the ropes are in themselves empty. The plaintive sound that gives voice to such onomatopoetic words as “moan,” “alone,” and “groan” echoes throughout the almost empty pages of the book like “Lost Flutes,” the title of a poem which plays with haunting variants of the hollow sound:

 

                        The wind spins

                        weathervanes around

 

                        shrieks

                        at soloing

                        hunters’ bones

 

                        Deer hold

                        their breath

 

                        cherry-red

                        in the naked

                        wood

 

The long vowel sound of the diphthong in “about” readies the reader/listener for the stark sister sounds of predator (“soloing/hunters’ bones”) and prey (“Deer hold/their breath”), which are then released in the solid thump of the short vowel sound in “wood.” Indeed, the nightmarish landscape pervading the transparent sleeper’s empty room evokes the O-shaped mouth in Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.” Nowhere in the book is a sleeper or dreamer described, which makes the reader experience these dream-poems directly. It is the reader, then, who is reminded of nightmares in which s/he tries to scream but can’t: a dream so universal, it could be said to be basic to the human psyche. The “shrieks” are not grammatically connected to the hunters nor to the deer, and neither is it clear whether the deer are dead or alive when holding their “red” breath in the wood. This elliptical grammar draws the reader even deeper into the experience of the poem-dream in order to elucidate the elusive meaning.

Part of the elusiveness is the physical nature of the hunter. Throughout the book, the predatory O morphs from a crOw to a coyOte to a human’s rifle scOpe, and back again, collectively creating an eerie fear-of-the-unknown so dominant in dreams. This varying expression harks back to the book’s cover art, which features an abstract painting by Jonathan K. Rice. The monochromatic painting consists of several wide brushstrokes that could be seen as an anthropomorphic or avian or animal figure, depending on the viewer’s frame of reference and perspective. The work required by the readers/viewers to understand the cover art is their visual entrée into the “night flight” on which they are about to embark.

The poem, “Bird,” does with words what the cover art does with brushstrokes, invoking the image of the crow to do so. The poem opens with an abstract image of shadowy avian movement:

 

                        The bird flaps

                        out of his shadow

                        and with a slight

                        shudder
                                    the shadow streaks off.

 

The closing image overlays the poem with a semantic weight, portraying the obscure, shadowy movement as a “language of darkness,/writing black/into the air.” This crow-language native to the land of dream resonates throughout the book: in “Haystack Dreams,” “Crows sat on his mop [a boy’s haystack head of hair],/wrung him dry/in their split-tongue/language,” and in “Around the Lullaby,”

 

                        Light leaves the late

                        afternoon.

                        The field asks

                        nothing from its crow’s-foot

                        language of snow.

 

The field onto which this quiet, enigmatic language is inscribed does not ask for its meaning. Rather, it accepts the existence of the language in all its elusiveness. Though the “night flight” takes us through the heavily symbolic world of dream, it does not impose any sort of analysis upon its possible meanings. This dreamscape is not fodder for a psychoanalyst. It simply is.

The threatening presence—linguistic and physical—of crows morphs into other manifestations of menace throughout the book. “The Chase” is the first of several poems that feature coyotes as the central predators. I will quote this poem in full, emphasizing the O sound to illustrate the way in which it creates a semantic framework for the poem:

 

                        CoyOtes flOat out of the trees

                        decked in rat cOats for their full-moon

                        travelsong.

 

                        The flOtilla bOws and twists

                        and giggles hunger to the deer sucked

                        by the quicksand of newfallen snOw—

 

                        these light-fingered pianOthrOats

                        trading boogie from bOth ends

                        of the keybOard, thOse harbor lights

                        trailing the guts of the full moon.

 

                        The cOcaine wake of the deer’s blood

                        grails pain to its hypnotic garden

                        where brain circuits are read

                        by a dust storm on Mars.

 

The opening image establishes coyotes as wraith-like figures which will continues to haunt the reader: we will encounter them again and again in other poems, for example in “Coring the Moon,” “Coyotes run in circles,/mad for nothing of the moon./They try on their ghosts/in the moon’s dressing room,” and later in “Thoreau”:

 

                        Coyotes pad

                        on the pine needles

                        and bend midnight

                        to a breeze

                        while their slight smile buries

                        hunger

                        like old pharaohs

                        in their eyeteeth.

 

The coyotes’ dressing room activities, however paranormal, and the hint of human feeling manifested in their “slight smile” morph them into partially anthropomorphic figures. This happens elsewhere in the book, too, such as in “Half Dog,” which begins “half coyote,/half man,” and later in “Night Patrol,” where the ostensibly human speaker is seen trying to “rise and sleepwalk in/animal ancestors with brazen eyes,/soft-colored and padded as armored vests.”

The human nature of the predatory energy which floats through the book is manifested more fully in the poem, “Terrorist”:

 

                        Living a life inside this sun,

                        crosslines that push the inner walls

                        of zero so it won’t cave in,

                        I get caught in the shepherd’s crook

                        of my own triggerfinger as

                        it pulls me back to life and death.

 

The hollow terror of the terrorist’s rifle scope is here felt to be somehow essential to being human, and this is an insight only dreams can reveal, an innate knowledge held in our subconscious by our dark shadow selves. Our waking consciousness cannot come to terms with the fact that the triggerfinger is one with the shepherd’s crook, that death is frightening and comforting at the same time. Once again, this symbolism isn’t something to be analyzed: the poem does not attempt to reconcile the two faces of death it portrays: it simply asserts that it is.

Woven throughout the book’s frightening images, predatory figures, and baleful sounds is a moon-calm that comes to predominate the end of the collection. The second-to-last poem, for example, is the eerie “Red Moon,” which, notably, is not full: (the O emphasis, again, is mine)

 

                        A crOw

                        pulls

                        his black

                        clOak

                        Over

                        his

                        shOulders

                        and sinks

                        deeper

                        into

                        the red

                        quarter

                        moon.

 

The poem is as slender as the lit sliver of moon, which absorbs the crow into its dark shadow. The uneasy red of the moon is a reiteration of the “red, purple and gold/diseased splendors” in the poem, “Deserted Autumn,” which at last returns us to the empty room where we began our “night flight.” It is here where the throaty sounds of animals fill our sleep, giving voice to our primal natures:

 

                        Voices rattle the tin

                        cups of the leaves,

                        memories

 

                        begging for blood.

                        A phalanx

                        of blanched draculas

                        surges forward

                        to the dead drum

                        in a dog’s throat.

 

The concurrence of plosive sounds in this last stanza of the poem provides a hard ending, just as “wood” thumps an end to the hollow O sounds that carry the reader mournfully through the poem “Lost Flutes.” However, unlike “Lost Flutes,” plosive sounds create the framework of the whole poem, starting with predominantly crackling “k” sounds: “in a cracked window,/how could he hear/the leaves crumble,” and then morphing into the deadening “d” sounds which predominate the final stanza.

The sleepy-hollow sounds, the crackling night-fire sounds, and the musical gliding sounds that bridge the two all collectively create the sense of an animal-avian-anthropomorphic language that resists being understood on a conscious level, but is innately, intimately understood on a subconscious level. In the slim volume of Night Flight, Kenneth Frost has composed his own little book of night music that both haunts us and lulls us as we settle into our own bodies’ cradles of life and death.

The first line in Kenneth Frost’s debut chapbook, Night Flight, sets a somber mood: “An empty room,” whose size is aggrandized by the minute “crucified fly” in the next line, provides a capacious tableau for the poems that follow, most of which are fingernail-thin filaments of text. The ample white space which the poems’ persistent minimalism creates is filled with a fluid dreamscape of symbolic, primal images. Among much musical language throughout the book, perhaps the most prevalent and heavily weighted sound is the long “O” introduced in the first poem with “yellow ropes.” These “yellow ropes” are bridles the “night jockey” is said to be using on stars, inferring that the ropes are in themselves empty. The plaintive sound that gives voice to such onomatopoetic words as “moan,” “alone,” and “groan” echoes throughout the almost empty pages of the book like “Lost Flutes,” the title of a poem which plays with haunting variants of the hollow sound:


                                    The wind spins
                                    weathervanes around

                                    shrieks
                                    at soloing
                                    hunters’ bones

                                    Deer hold
                                    their breath

                                    cherry-red
                                    in the naked
                                    wood

The long vowel sound of the diphthong in “about” readies the reader/listener for the stark sister sounds of predator (“soloing/hunters’ bones”) and prey (“Deer hold/their breath”), which are then released in the solid thump of the short vowel sound in “wood.” Indeed, the nightmarish landscape pervading the transparent sleeper’s empty room evokes the O-shaped mouth in Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.” Nowhere in the book is a sleeper or dreamer described, which makes the reader experience these dream-poems directly. It is the reader, then, who is reminded of nightmares in which s/he tries to scream but can’t: a dream so universal, it could be said to be basic to the human psyche. The “shrieks” are not grammatically connected to the hunters nor to the deer, and neither is it clear whether the deer are dead or alive when holding their “red” breath in the wood. This elliptical grammar draws the reader even deeper into the experience of the poem-dream in order to elucidate the elusive meaning.

Part of the elusiveness is the physical nature of the hunter. Throughout the book, the predatory O morphs from a crOw to a coyOte to a human’s rifle scOpe, and back again, collectively creating an eerie fear-of-the-unknown so dominant in dreams. This varying expression harks back to the book’s cover art, which features an abstract painting by Jonathan K. Rice. The monochromatic painting consists of several wide brushstrokes that could be seen as an anthropomorphic or avian or animal figure, depending on the viewer’s frame of reference and perspective. The work required by the readers/viewers to understand the cover art is their visual entrée into the “night flight” on which they are about to embark.

The poem, “Bird,” does with words what the cover art does with brushstrokes, invoking the image of the crow to do so. The poem opens with an abstract image of shadowy avian movement:

 

                        The bird flaps

                        out of his shadow

                        and with a slight

                        shudder
                                    the shadow streaks off.

 

The closing image overlays the poem with a semantic weight, portraying the obscure, shadowy movement as a “language of darkness,/writing black/into the air.” This crow-language native to the land of dream resonates throughout the book: in “Haystack Dreams,” “Crows sat on his mop [a boy’s haystack head of hair],/wrung him dry/in their split-tongue/language,” and in “Around the Lullaby,”

 

                        Light leaves the late

                        afternoon.

                        The field asks

                        nothing from its crow’s-foot

                        language of snow.

 

The field onto which this quiet, enigmatic language is inscribed does not ask for its meaning. Rather, it accepts the existence of the language in all its elusiveness. Though the “night flight” takes us through the heavily symbolic world of dream, it does not impose any sort of analysis upon its possible meanings. This dreamscape is not fodder for a psychoanalyst. It simply is.

The threatening presence—linguistic and physical—of crows morphs into other manifestations of menace throughout the book. “The Chase” is the first of several poems that feature coyotes as the central predators. I will quote this poem in full, emphasizing the O sound to illustrate the way in which it creates a semantic framework for the poem:

 

                        CoyOtes flOat out of the trees

                        decked in rat cOats for their full-moon

                        travelsong.

 

                        The flOtilla bOws and twists

                        and giggles hunger to the deer sucked

                        by the quicksand of newfallen snOw—

 

                        these light-fingered pianOthrOats

                        trading boogie from bOth ends

                        of the keybOard, thOse harbor lights

                        trailing the guts of the full moon.

 

                        The cOcaine wake of the deer’s blood

                        grails pain to its hypnotic garden

                        where brain circuits are read

                        by a dust storm on Mars.

 

The opening image establishes coyotes as wraith-like figures which will continues to haunt the reader: we will encounter them again and again in other poems, for example in “Coring the Moon,” “Coyotes run in circles,/mad for nothing of the moon./They try on their ghosts/in the moon’s dressing room,” and later in “Thoreau”:

 

                        Coyotes pad

                        on the pine needles

                        and bend midnight

                        to a breeze

                        while their slight smile buries

                        hunger

                        like old pharaohs

                        in their eyeteeth.

 

The coyotes’ dressing room activities, however paranormal, and the hint of human feeling manifested in their “slight smile” morph them into partially anthropomorphic figures. This happens elsewhere in the book, too, such as in “Half Dog,” which begins “half coyote,/half man,” and later in “Night Patrol,” where the ostensibly human speaker is seen trying to “rise and sleepwalk in/animal ancestors with brazen eyes,/soft-colored and padded as armored vests.”

The human nature of the predatory energy which floats through the book is manifested more fully in the poem, “Terrorist”:

 

                        Living a life inside this sun,

                        crosslines that push the inner walls

                        of zero so it won’t cave in,

                        I get caught in the shepherd’s crook

                        of my own triggerfinger as

                        it pulls me back to life and death.

 

The hollow terror of the terrorist’s rifle scope is here felt to be somehow essential to being human, and this is an insight only dreams can reveal, an innate knowledge held in our subconscious by our dark shadow selves. Our waking consciousness cannot come to terms with the fact that the triggerfinger is one with the shepherd’s crook, that death is frightening and comforting at the same time. Once again, this symbolism isn’t something to be analyzed: the poem does not attempt to reconcile the two faces of death it portrays: it simply asserts that it is.

Woven throughout the book’s frightening images, predatory figures, and baleful sounds is a moon-calm that comes to predominate the end of the collection. The second-to-last poem, for example, is the eerie “Red Moon,” which, notably, is not full: (the O emphasis, again, is mine)

 

                        A crOw

                        pulls

                        his black

                        clOak

                        Over

                        his

                        shOulders

                        and sinks

                        deeper

                        into

                        the red

                        quarter

                        moon.

 

The poem is as slender as the lit sliver of moon, which absorbs the crow into its dark shadow. The uneasy red of the moon is a reiteration of the “red, purple and gold/diseased splendors” in the poem, “Deserted Autumn,” which at last returns us to the empty room where we began our “night flight.” It is here where the throaty sounds of animals fill our sleep, giving voice to our primal natures:

 

                        Voices rattle the tin

                        cups of the leaves,

                        memories

 

                        begging for blood.

                        A phalanx

                        of blanched draculas

                        surges forward

                        to the dead drum

                        in a dog’s throat.

 

The concurrence of plosive sounds in this last stanza of the poem provides a hard ending, just as “wood” thumps an end to the hollow O sounds that carry the reader mournfully through the poem “Lost Flutes.” However, unlike “Lost Flutes,” plosive sounds create the framework of the whole poem, starting with predominantly crackling “k” sounds: “in a cracked window,/how could he hear/the leaves crumble,” and then morphing into the deadening “d” sounds which predominate the final stanza.

The sleepy-hollow sounds, the crackling night-fire sounds, and the musical gliding sounds that bridge the two all collectively create the sense of an animal-avian-anthropomorphic language that resists being understood on a conscious level, but is innately, intimately understood on a subconscious level. In the slim volume of Night Flight, Kenneth Frost has composed his own little book of night music that both haunts us and lulls us as we settle into our own bodies’ cradles of life and death.


Night Flight
By Kenneth Frost
Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2010
ISBN# 978-1-59948-278-1



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