Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Graham Foust, _A Mouth in California_

A MONTH IN California?--squint--no, it's "mouth." Not only Graham Foust's volume's title but also many of its poems involve a détournement of the expected phrase. "The Sun Also Fizzles." "To trip the forced majestic."

"Lyric Poetry after V-E Day" begins by winking at Adorno (or Kent Johnson?) and ends by winking at Walter Benjamin: "Pretend and two-dimensional, I am / and so have always been barbaric." Does "My Graham Foust" glance at Susan Howe's "My Emily Dickinson"? I'm going to say "yes," since the poem concludes, "He's nobody's autobiography. / Whose are you." And then the poem as a whole is poignantly hilarious take on the "ubi sunt" tradition.

In "After Margaret Atwood," the whole poem is a détournement.  Her famous "You Fit into Me"--

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye


I fit into you
like a peg into a hole

a tent peg
a donut hole.

Foust is a post-Ashbery poet; charge at one of his poems intent on finding the meaning, and you will find it passing veronica-like over you, and you will shortly be feeling the sword between your shoulder blades.  I suspect, nonetheless,  that the "I" in some of these poems is the voice of the poem we are reading. That is, the poem itself may be telling us it is "pretend and two-dimensional"--which it is--and thus open to Benjamin's famous adage about civilization's identity with barbarism.  "Poem Beside Itself" bids us keep in mind that "You've never had to kill me. / What takes place in me stays there. / These words are so clearly not / birds--they'll never be anywhere."  Poetry, as Auden wrote, makes nothing happen?

The poem speaking in "Poem with Fear, as Half-Awakened" seems to be the kind of poem one often encountered in the New Yorker or Poetry in the 1970s and 1980s:

     My song'll be a nail
and yours, a mouthful of mirror.
Seconds before we sing, I'll be reading
that wading pool's dismal little slaps
to mean trouble. You'll punch an animal,
any animal; I'll touch a small bell;
the moon'll turn everything lurid.

That's just about perfect.  The idea that a poem would use the way water moves in a wading pool to signify domestic discontent seems to evoke a whole era of American poetry.

On the other hand, Foust sometimes displays an old-fashioned kind of excellence, saying some true about the phenomenal world in an elegant, lapidary image. "Their Early Twenties"concludes: "They were the fruit they were trying to reach"--about as insightful an aphorism about early adulthood as you're going to find anywhere.  Or consider the short poem "A Heap of Language":

I wash the knives and wipe
the table. You come from the ocean
and dry yourself. Inside us, apologies inch
their way around.  Most of what we say will hardly matter.

That the words of the apology matter less than the mute, almost instinctual perception that both you and the other are dumbly maneuvering into a place where one can forgive and be forgiven--that is just plain true.

Foust's declared affinities in the volume (Spicer, Creeley, Merle Haggard, Mission of Burma) all do him credit.  Delighted to know, too, that he is scheduled to visit my town this fall.  Already looking forward to it.

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