In “Pretty to think of the mind at its end,” Carol Frost describes the mind of an Alzheimer’s patient as “a metaphysician beekeeping / after the leaves have fallen at autumn’s end.” In “I remember the psychiatrist’s exam—”, it is “a papery hive sliced / open, herself furious.” In “Two anthills and a late summer hive,” she writes:
I have no mother. Yes you have a mother,
a voice said. But that is not right. Her difference—
a broken hive…a black bear in the bluebells
clawing the stinging air…something torn from her.
When the mind of Frost’s mother was torn by Alzheimer’s disease, she was also torn, in many ways, from her daughter. Frost tries to make sense of this through Honeycomb, a meditation on memory and its influence on identity. Frost transforms her grief in a way that not all authors of book-long poetic elegies are able to. She avoids the typical contemporary traps of the genre by refusing to make the pieces about herself and her own grief. She also avoids making her mother memorable primarily for her illness and relationship with her child.
Although the book contains sad pieces, such as “What makes her quiet” in which a patient rocks a naked doll, most of the poems provoke sympathy, but not pity. They treat Alzheimer’s disease as a natural and even progression. In “All things are taken from us,” Frost writes, “our eyes grow inward. / It is restful knowing nothing / more, knowing no one any more.”
“Abandoned bee boxes piled on each other at meadow end…” evokes Elizabeth Bishop’s “Art of Losing”: “Is it so terrible to outlive the mind? / Forget this, forget that—keys, glasses, / what it was you just said, what you meant to say.”
Literary allusions such as those to Bishop, to Genesis, and to Lethe—the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology—help the poems transcend their personal origins, as do the gorgeous beekeeping metaphors. Frost also leaves out many personal details about what her mother was like before the illness. These factors—when added to Frost’s usual grace, craft, and thoughtfulness—help make Honeycomb more of a meditation than a wail of grief.
This book is not just about Frost’s mother. It is also not just about the condition of Alzheimer’s disease. It is about memory and who we become without it. It is an excellent, memorable collection.