Hawaii Pacific Review: HPR 2012 Book Reviews

Night Flight
By Robert Frost

Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2010
ISBN:978-1-59948278-1
Reviewed by Raphael Quintinita

Robert Frost’s book of poetry, Night Flight, begins as a collection of desolate portraits, a compendium of scenes about the absence of humanity and the speaker’s search for some higher power, some greater source of life. The poems that make up the beginning of the book are devoid of human existence, and therefore paint a solemn yet haunting image of nature. The first poem in the selection, “Night Jockey”, illustrates this absence through its sparse imagery:

An empty room.
a crucified fly.

The night jockey
rakes and combs stars into bins,

bridles restless ones
with yellow ropes.

Despite the presence of the Night Jockey character in this poem, it is important to note that there is such little exposition about him. Almost no description is used to explain to readers who this character is. We don’t even know if he is human, spirit, god, or any other creature due to the lack of focus on it. The desolation in this poem does not stop at the human level but permeates the entire scene. The “crucified fly” gives readers the image of both death and insignificance in comparison to the larger picture, while even the stars and their majesty are being roped out of the sky to leave no light for the night.

After this first poem, the settings in subsequent pieces become less and less populated, invoking even more barren landscapes. “Mirror"'s setting imagines a sprawling desert. Its appearance in a reflective surface reinforces the sense of infinity that accompanies the infertile sands. As this happens, “… a skull humming” reminds readers of the lingering presence of death that seems to play a large role in these poems.

The tone of the book shifts in “The Bird”. Here, death and desolation make way for a different kind of life that prospers in the absence of all else:

You can hear the black
shade calling
softly to itself
for directions
in the dark

The bird mentioned at the beginning of the poem gives the effect of ushering in of this darkness, this “shade”. The images describe a creature, a spirit, a consciousness that is fumbling with its newfound existence, which appears in much the same way that night seems to materialize over time. However, the pace of the poem picks up and the poem concludes with a group of these shades, to repopulate the empty scenes:

The shadow joins
others calling
in the scratching
language of darkness,
writing black
into the air.

Even without these shades, Frost seems to inject the diagesis of his poetry with such uncompromising energy, that allows nature to quickly seize the foreground from the humans who have for some reason taken the back seat in this book. In “Lightning Tree”, for example, the reader is struck with the motions and sounds made by tree and sky alike, and the narrative comes to a head when the birch flies “…away in a snowstorm with others of its kind.” The theme of the poem seems to be moving towards a sense of togetherness among these different natural elements.

Possibly the best example of this juxtaposition between presence and absence, life and death, appears in the poem “Rainy Night Voices”.  For the great majority of the poem, there is absolutely no visual imagery with which to go by. Instead, the absence of a visual component is offset by the almost cacophonous plethora of sounds that make up the poem’s soundtrack. The constant mention of voices rises to a crescendo until finally the creatures are released. From the mind, no less. This invites the reader to speculate on the theme of absence and presence in the microcosm of the human mind, as this poem seems to suggest is the setting.

Of course, to focus on a single theme like desolation of humanity and the power of nature means to ignore other subjects that feature in Night Flight. Frost’s poetry does not all follow the same conventions established above. His poetry at times celebrates humanity, especially in his elegiac poems, which pay tribute to great artists and thinkers. One such poem is “Jackson Pollock”, a piece inspired by the artist of the same name. In this poem, not only does Frost capture the style of Mr. Pollock through imagery (“atom tracks and galaxies that drift flotsam of light behind”) but through form as well: Frost’s poem is one long piece, not broken up into stanzas, exemplifying the rush of energy of a Pollock painting.

Much of Frost’s poetry involves the imagery of abstractions such as night and shadow. In addition, many of his poems are also on the lean side, some as short as 11 words. Because of this, however, he sometimes falls into the trap of writing poems that are too vague. The imagery does not in this way contribute much to the reader’s experience, and leaves readers quite dissatisfied. One example of this is “The Assassin”:

The Assassin

lays
one
hand
on
the
clock,
pets
its
daggers

In this poem, the lack of space available means that very little imagery is allowed, which offers readers barely a sketch when we want a portrait, a landscape. Its diction is so common that it barely leaves an impression with readers.

Despite a few shortcomings in terms of length and depth of imagery, Robert Frost for the most part succeeds in conveying a complex tone in many of his works, which utilize sounds and the incorporeal darkness to bring life in scenes otherwise devoid. It is a flawed book, but may prove interesting nonetheless for the reader who admires the secret beauty of ruin.