The Poetry Project

On Young Americans by Jackqueline Frost

Review by Katie Ebbit

Young Americans (Pamenar Press, 2022), Jackqueline Frost’s second full-length collection of poems exists in temporal distinction. The text lives between the South and the West, braiding together Frost’s childhood in Lafayette, Louisiana with political uprising and organizing in Oakland, California.

The epistemological question of Frost’s work is emotional: questions focused on our relationship with the world. The political question she pushes is an existential one: how to be in the world. Young Americans focuses on how selfhood is often defined by the State and social expectation, the horror of conditions under capitalism and war, and the limited choices of “the bad signs we were born under.”

The first half of the book, an eponymous long poem, is divided into six parts. The poem references both Louisiana and California with the swampy stickiness of the South permeating throughout. Frost’s voice is often from the perspective of “we,” a community abstractly referenced, the stakes of which the speaker of the poem is attempting to understand. Frost writes,

I am asking: what is it you mean 
by total freedom? I don’t know yet 
what I’m willing to do for it.

The community referenced is one indelibly marked by violence and subsequently ruptured through trauma. There is a specific address to poor young men seen by the military as fodder for its forever wars

because in those 
days / our boys / the boys who were a part of me / of 
my life / were the ones who went to the slaughter / to 
slaughter and be slaughtered / the smallest most 
forgettable generation of us /

And to the young women who

by being made for someone 
who’s made for the war, I mean the collective imperial 
voluptuary composed of all the common girls. 

Young Americans speaks to how women have been conditioned to love and, within the confines of this love, are made incapable of living, their existence obliging them to find embodiment in the arms of a man. “Women” are made “good” through the right kind of allegiances. Frost’s speaker rejects this goodness. Young Americans considers the difficulties of being labeled “girl” and how to exist within language that doesn’t exist for you. About the young men going and returning from war, and the expectation of women to care for them. Frost’s narrator denounces our conditions as presented, understanding that gender can be whatever we make of it.

Frost interestingly uses language that harkens to Catholicism. It makes sense. Unlike other regions of the South, southern Louisiana is an area where Catholicism is not only the predominant religion, but has also worked its way into the majority of people’s practices and beliefs. In southern Louisiana, Cultural Catholicism is not simply a matter of theology; it weaves heritage, ritual, and linguistic tradition into the interactions of Cajuns, Creoles, and European Catholic peoples. This weaving, while not explicitly addressed by Frost, permeates the ethos of her writing. Frost’s narrator speaks to the implications of being raised in a specific community within the United States; differences in the life trajectory of childhood friends, the linkage that ties folks to rural communities.

The first section of Young Americans is indeed about that: the impact of trying to grow up in the US under a system that both makes and breaks you. Regardless of the transience that may occur across an individual’s lifetime, the mire of being raised in the South remains.

In the second portion of the book entitled, “You Have The Eyes of A Martyr” (first published in a slightly different iteration with O’Clock Press, 2013), Frost grapples with political and lumpen imprisonment. The work exists outside of linear time, a recording of action over a brief but intense period and looks at the conditions of imprisonment, offers a call for action, and considers the consequences of writing in a revolutionary context. Frost explores the desire to sustain engagement in the conditions presented to us, the ways our realities are impacted by the violence of the State, and the need for commune—to find place within commune—despite the tumult and costs often associated with dissonance. “Martyr” encourages a revelation, revolution. Frost’s voice within her writing has a smart type of honesty about experience and thinking about how one needs a radical movement to emancipate personal relationships.

Young Americans is contemplative and confessional, a look at the general problem of placing oneself within colonialism, the problem of being a product of a specific lineage, or our social contracting. The material reality we are given is an argument for revolutionary space—to combat seeing only from “the edge of our enclosures,” how we learn we are the surplus of Eden and open for punishment.

#269 – Summer 2022