Jackqueline Frost: 'The Antidote' // 2013

History is not sucker free

Jackie and I had already been hanging out a lot during the summer of 2011, when a series of Anticut marches protesting austerity roved through downtown Oakland as one symptom of the roiling discontent in the wake of the Arab Spring that would shortly manifest in Occupy. Police attention had grown more acute with each march, and there was a moment during the last protest where I was sure she had been cordoned off for arrest, as I’d been in 2008. The old panic rose up in me, but thankfully I was mistaken. When it was time to head downtown once more for the first day of Occupy Oakland, we took the BART to 12th Street, and on the platform I said I had no idea what we’d discover when we got to the top of the escalator — to which she replied, in perfect Pauline, “Let each one called remain in the calling wherein he was called.”

It’s a line from First Corinthians that I spoke about at the first Poetic Labor Project event and that eventually wound its way into The Antidote (along with a riff on that other apostolic classic, Galatians 3:28: “There will be no women as women, or men as men”). First it was scripture, then our conversation, and finally literature. Our Paul was, of course, inflected through Agamben, and I wasn’t even a Christian yet (I had to meet the Holy Ghost at Occupy Oakland), but the combination of revolutionary politics and a liberation take on the scripture was a fizzy Molotov cocktail that circulated through many conversations of that season (especially in the trinity of Jackie, Evan Kennedy, and myself). The Antidote is a potent record of what it meant to traverse that time, the fall of 2011, in Oakland and to experience the vertiginous inbreaking of the kingdom, or its possibility, on the ground that had been renamed Oscar Grant Plaza. “We do not know how many people built barricades to defend the Commune or marched on the port, or how.”

Even the acknowledgments attest to a lost world — clouds of friends who no longer live in Oakland (including Jackie and myself) and relationships sundered by scene fallout, political clashes, or other assorted heartbreaks. But all of those relations, passing through the parousia of that moment, left their stamp on Jackie’s inimitable text.

It bears, from the first, the trace of her study, both formally at Mills and insatiably off-campus, in conversations with friends about work and what they were reading. The dual epigraphs, from Ben Jonson and Brian Whitener, are typical of the book’s insistence that the present use the past to understand itself. The extract from Bartholomew Fair in particular intimates the voluptuousness we will discover in the text proper, which narrates a gamine’s progress through the deepening spell of a decisive historical moment.

The book’s first section, “Poverty,” feels like scene-setting for all that will transpire. The text opens with a citation: “Poverty has nothing with which to feed its love,” which is Ovid, perhaps by way of Andreas Capellanus, but sounds like it could be Marguerite Porete or another medieval Beguine burned at the stake. The book’s method weaves in much of what other texts got from reading, the writing of friends (Brian Whitener, Evan Kennedy, and me, among others), and also the sharing that’s common to friends excited about poetry and songs like “Two Headed Boy Part 2” by Neutral Milk Hotel and “Disorder” by Joy Division (or perhaps “The Bad Arts” by Destroyer). Even the shade of Robert Duncan, born in Oakland, and his meadow “whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words that is a field folded” makes an appearance. The Greeks are a strong presence, often worked in subtly: witness the two citations in “General Eclipse” and “Eumenides” of the Iliad’s terrifying description of Apollo’s plague which “moved like night” ( δ᾽ ἤϊε νυκτὶ ἐοικώς). More conspicuous are references to Aeschylus’s Oresteia, one of the original gender-troubles in literature, from the citation of the trilogy’s opening play Agamemnon (“Now study this: as drop by drop the gold of life ebbs out”) to the section entitled “Eumenides” after the ancient playwright’s astonishing concluding act. Of the three canonical tragedians, he is the most grave and the most ornate  both qualities that drew Jackie to his work, even in translation.

Even classical etymology is continually on the author’s mind. We studied Latin together for many years in a cottage Jackie lived in just off Telegraph (where the above photo was taken), and the book explains its own title with resource to the lexicons: “But GIVEN AGAINST, this is the antidote.”  This, the meaning of the word ‘antidote’; this, itself, the book The Antidote, as what is given against a time of poverty, of “life during property,” or else given for it: given on behalf of it, or in memory of it.

The book’s central section, “General Eclipse,” is given over to a lush account of what happens to the body, soul, and social being in the course of transit through political event. Virginia Woolf famously observed that “on or about December, 1910, human character changed.” After Occupy had run its course, some of us Oakland poets used to joke that on or about October 2011, everybody’s writing changed  or as Jackie has it, “Something happened to me in the streets of this city.” For those whose lives have been permanently changed by political events and militant struggles, the effect can feel similar to a religious conversion. (For some people, it becomes the same thing.) But both are proverbially hard to explain because the transformative event is not finally discursive. We can attest, or witness to it, and hope that this is a sufficient channel of grace. “Because the messianic has passed for us now, we are apostolic.”

Rereading the book years after its publication, I couldn’t help but think of Jackie’s subsequent academic work on Aime Cesaire and the kinship between The Antidote’s prose blocks I’d remembered as enjambed verse because they are so lyrically baroque and The Notebook of a Return to My Native Land. What it could mean to return to the place where we were born, which we know to be nothing but a site of ceaseless violence and deception, and find it habitable, or rather to work to make it so or work in the hope that it could be so  this is a question both poems ask. The Antidote is a beautiful book; I hope people are reading it.