Graham Foust. Necessary Stranger. Flood Editions: 2006.
“Sob Poem” begins with a confessional: “Grief that we should be like this./I don’t hate you, broken gift.” The lines neither hide behind irony nor offer cathartic compensation. Though after emotional clarity, Foust is not afraid to embrace phrases with expressionist leanings. The obscurity of “Starting-to-cry’s a wire from/the mind to nowhere” results from an attempt to identify the tenuous and virtually unnamable bridge between sensory and emotive experience.
He doesn’t play around with the paradoxical circumstances of striving to put the unspeakable into words. Rather, Foust embraces the uncertainty: “The leaves are on their shadows.” In a manner similar to Blake’s flipping of reason and passion, Faust flips certainty and doubt to “see the earth again” as place were the only certainty is that knowing is tenuous. I find compensation (Emerson’s definition) in the reversal, in that adopted perspective parallel to my favorite Confucian axiom: “To know that you know what you know, and to know that you do not know what you do not know, that is true wisdom.”
In “Panama,” Foust begins with one of Stevens’ favorite tropes: “Fruit thumps in the pointless/grass, has no hand in itself.” Foust, unlike Stevens, does not use the sensuality of the apple as a critique of religion but as an observed phenomenon elucidating the predicament of recognizing the possibility of one’s own meaninglessness.
If only I couldn’t
understand, I’d imagine
some sarcastic new Christ and say
something someone would say.
Turning the expected “could” into “couldn’t,” Foust admits that what he knows necessitates doubt far more readily than what he doesn’t know allows for faith. Although it’s not a defense of religion, “some sarcastic new Christ” critiques the abundant abuse of irony and the resulting emptiness of “some” (as opposed to Foust’s literal application of “nowhere”). Foust continually identifies suffering as the basis of experiential investigation (“Pain is okay—/it’s the practical/that murders”). Our “practical” ideologies and self-defenses inhibit our capacities for experience.
Engagement with the literal and person, however, often leaves poets susceptible to sentimental slip-ups. “Marital” begins with Foust bending ordinary language into new sound-driven resonances: “To have and have and//have and how/could you not//stop blossoming.” Riffing on “to have” is appropriate, if not predictable, but “blossoming” is an easy a word to throw in and far too symbolic to fit with Foust’s usually precise language. The poem goes on to beautifully crude statements, maybe intended to undercut the melodrama:
Some days I can’t feel
much of anything. Others
I come so
hard I think
He also says, “Our city’s a list/of its pissed-//out-of windows.” Instead of synthesizing the blossoming and the piss, nearing the end of the poems Foust reverts to symbolic purity: “You break into belief./I lie and climb into tears.” I’ll take a few bleary lines like that, though, over a book pat with ironic and imagistic evasions. Most of my favorite books read like that.
The book’s final poem, “Clouds,” offers a synthesis of sentimental daring and hardened clarity. “Such things/as laws fall on us,” the poem begins. At once Foust accepts the inevitability of “the practical/that murders” and undermines it, as an apple thumping “in the pointless/grass, has no hand in itself.” Like law and grief, though, knowing falls to us as well: “There/are nameless shapes./There are tears of understanding.” A young poet with Foust’s immense skills might smartly veer from statements leaning toward the sentimental, but Foust has brought his craft to a vision that, as Stevens charged, can “help people live their lives.”