THE HOUSES THAT HOLD US: Zenobia Frost’s After the Demolition (Tony Messenger)

Verity La Lighthouse Yarns, Through the Looking Glass: Reviews

Review by Tony Messenger
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

The house, quite obviously, is a privileged entity for a phenomenological study on the intimate values of inside space, provided, of course, that we take it in both its unity and complexity, and endeavor to integrate all the special values in one fundamental value.

Here are the opening words of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (translated by Maria Jolas) and these could well apply to Zenobia Frost’s second collection of poetry After The Demolition. Frost opens the collection with an epigraph from Fiona Wright’s Domestic Interior (‘How do these houses hold us — according to our bond, / no less — I have learned to walk bruiseless / to the bathroom in the dark’), however the preface quotes Bachelard (‘a house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability’). Before you’ve read the opening poem, you’ve been primed with domesticity, but how stable are the houses that hold us? We are talking about After The Demolition of course.

The opening section of Zenobia Frost’s new release from Cordite Poetry is ‘Schrödinger’s Roommate’: is the roommate alive and dead at the same time? Here Frost takes us through the Brisbane rental market, the endless property inspections, the scenes of desolation, ‘mildew’, ‘ottoman bereft of empire’, ‘fungal lace’, ‘a tableau of decay’ (‘Blueprint No. 4 Bramble Tce’), but these images of devastation are juxtaposed with richness — ‘Cinnamon umber’, ‘jade’, ‘red ironbark’ and ‘jacaranda’ — as the poet explores the complexity of the space.

There is the invisibility of shoddy renovations, and bond cleaners to mask the clutter. Frost blends Gertrude Stein and Sophie Monk from the Bachelorette: ‘I want a rose more than I’ve ever craved a rose’, the traditional sharing its environment with the pulp. A place where rose honey and poached quince can share space with Uggs and females of the species picking ‘off her lovers / one by one’.

It is through these explorations of the minutiae in desolate rental properties that Frost defines an intricate world of beauty, decay, richness and mould. The further you travel with the poet, the ‘midden of scraps’ piles higher: ‘goon bags’, ‘busted plasterboard’, ‘bath-mat grit’, ‘a nest of mattresses’. Here there is a fine balance between the bourgeoisie and the ordinary: in ‘Census Night’ ‘hors d’oeuvres from Coles’ and brie and Airbnb share the page. A world of shared houses, these dilapidated dumps are the canvas for the poet’s world; it seems Frost has occupied so many properties she could ‘walk bruiseless’ through them ‘in the dark’.

Blueprint No.1: Siemon Street

The window doubles as
front door. Thin curtains
lifted in the honey-vinegar
of swollen mangoes, which
split like lightening could
split the street in two. The
sky was fresh linen, the bed
clothed entirely in light.
Its frame was hyperbolic;
either side, my tall
bookshelves were twin
heralds. Wine-bottle
storms doused the room
in green petrichor. I stared
up at the ceiling’s lapping
tongue and sleepless
groove – the nights folding
themselves over days.

The second section, ‘The Loneliness Act’, opens with a witch-like incantation, a blood spell, a ‘scream to the triple moon’ and moves to a mother birthing fish from her mouth. We have moved away from the confined spaces of the rental markets to self-portraits, caravan parks, hotel rooms, girls’ weekends, Nana’s ghosts, and grief. The enclosed suburban home has been demolished, and as Zenobia Frost explains in our interview, we are in the ‘immediate aftermath of demolition (of the body, of the mind, of relationships)’. The popular television references remain, with the X-Files popping up in ‘Surigao del Sur’: ‘Special agents Mulder and Scully board the Sun Magic’. And the erasure of death in ‘Grief’: ‘When is a psychic stain remover / the best when someone dies in-house?’

Section III, ‘Stations and a Crossing’, is a single hallucinogenic poem exploring travelling, a relationship and a breakup — more demolition ‘of the body, of the mind, of relationships’.

The book closes with ‘Cursive Fever’, a collection of poems of breakups, bullshitters and gutless men. There’s #MeToo moments with the poem ‘Chivalry Isn’t Dead It’s Just Been Criminalised’, the text sourced from Miranda Devine’s Daily Telegraph column of the same name (16/12/2017), and its comment thread: ‘Harvey Weinstein/ snuck in while chivalry was sleeping standing up/ We need to understand/ the role that feminism played in empowering men like him’.

After The Demolition is a collection that opens with an ode and closes with love: the centre of the opening poem ‘before/ now’ being ‘\\oh//‘ and the ending a rejoicing ‘/sing//‘; and the closing poem, ‘Peripheral Drift’, telling us ‘you can still pash in a graveyard / at 28’. This is a breaking down, a demolition, of the daily grind, and a rejoicing in relationships, past and present. As Bachelard says: (When the peaks of our sky come together/ My house will have a roof).

Zenobia Frost has explored everything under that roof.


Frost was kind enough to agree to an interview about poetic practice, and After The Demolition. I hope you enjoy our interaction.


Bachelard (The Poetics of Space) says: A house… allows the poet to inhabit the universe”, but your collection is titled After the Demolition. Are you inhabiting beyond the universe?


Maybe, subconsciously, I’m always thinking about that Restaurant at the End of the Universe, a powerful and surreal place of hindsight. So many of these poems were written in anticipation of demolition (of houses) or in the immediate aftermath of demolition (of the body, of the mind, of relationships). I interpret Bachelard, there, to mean that a house, in the richness of our attachment, can stand in for a universe, in the same way a black box theatre can richly — for a period of time — represent so much more. Or, maybe, a house is the shell through which we inhabit the universe? Or, more likely, I’m overthinking it.


The preface says ‘these poems ask what proofs of stability we build when our homes and selves are in perpetual flux’, but there is rejoicing in the collection, opening with delight (‘/sing//‘) and ending with a stable, joyous relationship. Is there stability after all?


I guess it depends on how we’re defining stability. Many of the crabbiest relationships I’ve been in have been stagnant; I think the most stable, joyous relationships can be the ones that embrace flux. In general, I guess place attachment is about finding stability in all that flux-y chaos: not just having somewhere to hang your hat, but each day hanging your hat on the same hook.


Did you dream of being ‘a Daily Telecolumnist’ when you grew up?


I dreamed of being Xena, which explains many things.


Your collection calls out a lot of hypocrisy, for example the poem ‘Chivalry Isn’t Dead It’s Just Been Criminalised’ followed soon after by ‘Dr. No’ (‘Bond, James,/ who’ll risk his mission for a white bikini’). Does your poetic practice often delve into these polar opposites?


I just call ’em as I see ’em! That said, poetry is a good field in which to sow opposites together, and for paradoxes to thrive. I also think it’s possible to be critical while also exploring nuance. In the case of ‘Dr No’, I wrote that one for my dad, who raised me on Bond (who was raised, in turn, by his mother on Bond); a franchise like James Bond is interesting precisely because of how it has (dragging its feet) adapted over time. 


Did you get to ‘drop old Frost’s mending poem/ in next door’s letterbox’?


Regretfully, I don’t think I actually thought of that until after I’d moved out.


Bachelard (The Poetics of Space) is quoted in the preface to your collection. Can you talk a little bit about your poetic practice and its relationship to space?


Oof, let me consult my thesis, which my brain has neatly folded away in a drawer already.

I’ve always been fascinated by lived spaces — especially as a longterm share-housemate — and my recent Master’s research allowed me to channel that fascination into a more concrete practice. In the first section of After the Demolition, ‘Schrödinger’s Roommate’, I wanted to muck around with ways of creating tangible, intimate experiences of space in my poems by blending the discourse of real estate with the direct address of a lyric poem. Poems often aim to evoke feeling; the particular feeling I hope the poems of ‘Schrödinger’s Roommate’ evoke is attachment to the dwelling-space of the poem. I hope some of my poems — I call them blueprint poems — feel like they might be places the reader has lived, or wants to return to. As well, share-houses are such a rich font for a poetics of place attachment: these homes accumulate a kind of palimpsest of housemates, household objects, decoration, damage and other evidence of human life. They are paradoxical spaces: simultaneously sites of flux and attachment, begrudging sharing and community, the public and the private. What’s the effect on the psyche of living in, attaching to, identifying with spaces that — as real-estate agents are frequently reminding us during the present crises — are explicitly not our homes? (Here I must recommend The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright, whose poems and essays on the transient domestic are 😗👌.)


Congratulations are in order, you’ve recently been shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize, as part of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, I’m sure that was a thrill. Have you got a Zoom outfit worked out? A speech?


Thank you! I’m not just being humble when I say it was a big (and glorious!) surprise to be shortlisted, especially alongside those wonderful names. I’ve never known what to wear to awards nights, so it’s a relief to know I can find out the outcome while wearing overalls with, say, some kind of sparkly thing on top in case I need to be in view. In the meantime, I am stoked beyond belief to have silver stickers to put on my books, which leans into my deep childhood need to put shiny stickers on everything.


I ask all my interviewees this, and it is building up a nice reading list: what are you reading at the moment, and why?


Look, I’m very bad at finishing novels. Beside my bed, all 3/4 through:

Housekeeping, Marianne Robinson             
Red Clocks, Leni Zumas
Gentleman Jack, Angela Steidele               
Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson
Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer                     
Highway Bodies, Alison Evans

I just got an iron infusion, so maybe I’ll have the energy to read a story without being immediately soothed to sleep.

In poetry, I’ve found myself coming back to Surge by Jay Bernard and Evolution by Eileen Myles. I’m about to dive into A History of What I’ll Become by Jill Jones. I’m biased, but I definitely have a signed pre-release copy of Ask Me About the Future by Bec Jessen close to hand, surprise surprise.

The final part of Kentucky Route Zero — a magical realist adventure game — recently came out, so a lot of my brain energy has been concentrated there, tbh. 


Finally, what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?


I’ve been gardening a lot. I recently wrote a poem that wasn’t just about gardening or cooking, so I think we can say I’m ready now —after After the Demo — to gently re-enter the world. I’m also working with Queensland Poetry Festival to curate some events through the year, and (with a different hat on) editing a book for Metro Arts celebrating their time in their heritage-listed digs at 109 Edward St, Brisbane.

Zenobia Frost, After the Demolition
Cordite Books, 2019
ISBN: 9780648511625

Tony Messenger is an Australian writer, critic and interviewer who has had works published in many places including Overland Literary Journal, Southerly, Mascara Literary Review, Concrescence and Burning House Press. He blogs about translated fiction and interviews Australian poets at Messenger’s Booker and can be found on Twitter @Messy_tony and on Facebook at Messenger’s Booker.