Elisabeth Frost, All of Us

Publisher: White Pine Press

2011, 79 pages, paperback, $16

All of Us speaks to the over-analyzer in, quite appropriately, all of us. As we move through the book, Frost continually presents us with familiar life scenes that hinge upon how the people in them relate to each other and interpret the seemingly insignificant details of an interaction. It is those moments—the inconsistent eye contact, the delayed response, the tenor of voice—that time and time again provide meaning for the moment. Frost is not recounting the facts of a situation or providing a detailed narrative; but, rather, allowing us, the readers, into the mind of a person engaged in some exchange of communication. We are privileged voyeurs into obsessive thoughts about the meaning of behaviors underlying each exchange. If her poems seem a lot like, well, life—they are. The poems are entirely accessible for readers. The characters are universal.

In “Hello, Sweetheart,” Frost hits her thematic stride. “Mother’s voice on the phone. She uses her favorite endearment,” she begins. The speaker admits an absentminded handling of the call, “and she talks about the constant rain. I half listen, writing the day’s errands on an envelope, my shoulder clamping the receiver, till I notice an inflection to her speech.” Suddenly there is a shift, the speaker is unsure if the caller is actually her mother. Perhaps it is another woman’s mother. She asks who the caller is looking for and the Mother, “[h]er voice is then.” Frost continues the exchange, “‘Why, I’m looking for you! I’m talking to you, aren’t I?’ / ‘But,’ I insist, ‘who am I?’”

Frost captures a heartbreakingly funny moment in “Hello, Sweetheart” and successfully invites readers to place themselves in the moment while calling attention to how easy it is to neglect the intricacies of conversation. The entire collection is a meditation of moments—how they transpired, how they were perceived, how knowing the facts changes their significance.

Another memorable poem comes from the second, unnamed, section of the book. In “Fruit,” a dinner conversation replete with taboo leads to the discussion of a man and his passion for “devouring fruit but also watching it.” Frost’s descriptions of the man’s preternatural affinity for fruit are intoxicatingly seductive:

… how its bodies are

quite like our own, a sleek lime, an ample orange, especially

(she says) he loves to have a beautiful pear on hand during sex

beside them on the bed, how he holds it & then gives it to

her to smell too, maybe both taking a bite …

Later the man’s lover is teaching a class and we are privileged to her drifting thoughts. She is holding a grapefruit and describing it to her class—also described beautifully in the poem, “(the dimpled rind, the indentation of the navel, the top a little flatter than the sides)”—when:

just then she noticed the

bite marks, the imprint of his teeth on the waxy surface (&

then she remembered that night, she did indeed); how then &

there, lecturing to her class, she started to laugh

Again, in “Fruit,” we have been made aware of a moment and the history of the moment but asked to respond to conversation from one perspective. The man’s fetish is only ever described to us, but his lover’s reaction invites us to respond similarly. We are in the mind of one actor in a scene and asked to empathize with her reactions by way of recounting her distracted thoughts and the strange sensation of reliving a passionate night in her head while in a setting where that memory is entirely out of place.

The interactions between mother and daughter are a recurring theme in All of Us. “Visit” is arguably the strongest piece in the collection, Frost’s thesis of sorts. In it she analyzes a fight between a young girl and her mother. The speaker is not either of these actors; it is a scene between her friend and her friend’s daughter. The speaker relives the situation, considering it from all sides:

Sometimes I’m in my friend’s

place, sometimes her daughter’s. Sometimes I’m angry but

usually not. I’m usually just watching it unfold, a visitor in

their kitchen

The frankness of how the speaker came upon this moment, a moment told to her, and the following intense study of behavior is Frost at her best. In some way it feels almost meta-poetic, like this poem somehow speaks to her process of composition of all poems. Perhaps this is because Frost is a watcher. No flick of the wrist is unobserved, no deep breath ignored, no sideways glance overlooked. In this poem, she observes the scene intently: “I’m seeing the / ringed hand the mother withholds—refusing touch—as a form / of punishment,” and also: “I’m seeing the small lips pronounce their / reply / … I. Don’t. Love. You. Just like that—deliberate. And I / understand that calm is worse than rage, even a toddler knows.” Unlike many of the poems in All of Us that ask us to place ourselves in one person’s role, “Visit” demands that we place ourselves in both bodies, understand the impulse of each actor.

What Frost proves with this cohesively themed collection is that obsessive thought processes are just as normal a part of life as the odd phone call, the strained relationships with those we love, and the moments those relationships thrive, the first taste of a cigarette, and lying in a hospital bed. All of Us is entirely readable. Frost’s fantasies and compulsive analysis of interactions between people and the world are often humorous, but always honest, even in their exaggerated perspectives. The impulse to show how we truly interact with each other, obsess over our tone of voice, even the way we hold our face or our hands are the truest moments of her writing. Frost revisits events from different perspectives, relives them again and again settling upon the truth found in each of them—a truth made so by humanity, not by fact.

—Stephanie Motz