STARTLING & SAVORY: Matthew Lippman on Rebeccas Foust’s Dark Card and Mom’s Canoe


Dark Card, Rebecca Foust, Texas University Press


Mom’s Canoe, Rebecca Foust, Texas University Press

Rebecca Foust has published two chapbooks of poetry in the last two years, Dark Card, and Mom’s Canoe (both winners of Texas University Press’s Robert Phillilps Poetry Chapbook Prize). These collections are rooted in landscape. Dark Card is a moving, funny and sometimes vicious series of poems that explore the life of a woman—wife and mother—who has a son diagnosed with Aspergers. It is a book about the territory and region of that elongated and sometimes surreal space of taking care of a child whose mind has been somehow afflicted and blessed with processing the world in a highly different manner than many. Mom’s Canoe, is another book that concerns itself with place. This “place” is, however, more palpable and locatable—the world of family in the Allegheny Mountain Range. In these poems Foust concerns herself with the physical landscape of the region and how a group of people managed to survive the hills, themselves, and each other. Each book has it fingers in the wet paint of human connectedness. Individually the texts stand alone; together they chronicle the emotive turbulences of a woman who has experienced hardship, luxury and beautiful relationships. Whether one reads them separately or as a pair, the poems are extraordinary. Foust’s voice is unmistakable and has the vigor, gumption and lyrical flair that make reading poetry the best activity there is. She desires to make her experiences into music and music with meaning. These are poems–brilliant, sturdy and tender canonical songs that, collectively, make up Foust’s opus.

We’ve heard it all before, about honesty in poems, about how one needs to open up the heart and lay it all out there in the spirit of discovery, in the spirit of bringing in the reader. It’s cliché at this point when talking about poetry. Rebecca Foust’s poems, in Dark Card, approach the terrain of the open heart with speculative grace, quietly. She writes, in “Apologies To My OBGYN:”

Sorry we were such a pain in your ass
asking you to answer our night calls like that,
and that he did everything so backwards:
lost weight, gained fluid
blew up like a human balloon
then shriveled.

This poem comes on page 8 of the book, 6 poems in, like a whip, snaps us into the calamity of what the speaker will have to manage for the rest of her life–a child inside of her, growing, having difficulty. Imagine the fear, anxiety, sadness and joy that goes with such knowledge. It strikes me that if you are a poet with babies, with children, this is really the only thing you can write about. Oh, you can write about flowers and even war, maybe, but the whole thing—giving birth, raising children–that’s it, the motherload. Foust does it with aplomb and insistence. I don’t care what the opposite argument is. Read Galway Kinnell’s book, The Book of Nightmares, he knows. Adrian Blevins knows. Rachel Zucker knows. Well, so does Rebecca Foust. She knows the wild and threaded contortions of familial intimacy –that it begins in the belly and grows out from there. The poems in Dark Card are poems about loyalty, commitment and seeing things through to their natural conclusion. They are about staying put even when the heart needs a break and wants to get the fuck out, the body too. When the only thing left is to reach out. In “Unreachable Child” she writes:

Don’t go away from me like that,
eyes all dark and diffused,
to that dreamland of dew-soft fields
encircled by mist-mantled mountains
small superhero you with the ham-size fists
stuck on this twig-size arms,
flying to a place where you’re strong,
not afraid of the open door to your closet,
or phantoms that fragment and drift
when you part the hanging clothes.

I can help with the monster in the closet;
please let me help
with the monster in the closet.

These poems talk to their subjects—apologetic, pleading. There is such longing in this language, to makes things right, better. It’s the desire of a parent, against the shitstorm of affliction, to makes things right, to makes things okay.

The arc of this book begins in utero and moves forward, through childhood to late teenage life. It is a book that explores the realm of mind and relatedness. Foust loves her son and does what anyone from the outside can do to decipher the machinations of another’s mind. Asperger’s is not something that anyone can say anything definitively about, like anything. But we are human and in being human we try to understand, to know, even the unknowable. Foust allows her poetry, the vision that smashes out of her poetry, to walk in the landscape of her son’s head. In “Asperger Ecstasy” she writes:

The excitement in the difference between two pennies
increases exponentially when there are twenty,
a hundred; a thousand, and he vibrates with joy.

It can be tying flies under a microscope, knot patterns
the size of the period. It can be cataloging washing
machine brands or the note variations in a symphony,
or committing to memory for joyous recounting
the entire year’s schedule for the El-train.

She works in specifics, allows the details, the small idiosyncratic pins of her son’s mind to make up the surface of the poem. This allows us, reader, to hold on to the vision, to see and experience what she sees and experiences with her boy. It’s not that she claims to know anything and this is what I love about these poems. In fact, she just sees and appreciates his being. “My son is gentler with moths/than people ever were with him…” she writes. It’s truth—bitterly cold, tender and, ultimately, a celebration.

I think the risk one takes when writing about such intimacies is sentimentality and bullshit. Foust never gets there. These poems are successful because they are not brave or dogmatic or pretentious. They are successful because Foust challenges herself against that bullshit, to write poems that sing authenticity. She has given voice to a great mystery of the mind that must make for a day to day kind of living that is not readily imaginable. It’s a beautiful feat, Dark Card, and should be read by everyone who knows someone with Asperger’s, and everyone who has known no one with Asperger’s.

*****

Mom’s Canoe is about a canoe. It’s about the cut of the boat through the water. It’s about the smell of water and steel and wood and air. It’s a book of poems before the children, Foust’s children. It’s a book of poems about being a child in a land,

of Bindweed and Queen Anne’s Lace
then, the shallow mine pit,
wide, rusty gash,
obscene nakedness of rock scoured of soil by the rains
since the miners packed up their rig
and left

…and what comes with living in a landscape scarred by the blast of dynamite and rip of machines. All of this, of course, a metaphor for family—the beauty of “Bindweed and Queen Anne’s Lace” juxtaposed to the pollution and destruction of the hills. These are hills that are naked with depression and, again, Foust, embraces the familial intimacy which has shaped her vision, her countenance, her place in her life. Mom’s Canoe is a book about the birth of these elements of the speaker. Instead of the birth of her son, Foust deals with the birth of self—from those beginning days of hard-knocked living and dark loam.

What I love about Foust’s poems is how they roll in the mud and ash of destruction only to resolve at some point of dis-resolution. Her poems, at times, don’t resolve but rather travel on into that mysterious space of the unknown. Yet, at the same time, she is blunt as hell. In her poem “Things Burn Down,” she writes:

…Papap hauled ash
or laid brick: he was skilled with a trowel
but there was no work, understand? Don’t ask

what keeps a man from filling his flask
with what he’d divined from the wells he’d drilled
With his own hands…

There is an ambience here of despair, of destitution, that is everywhere—“Mom found a dog leashed/to a tree, starved to bone.” Even the dogs go hungry, imprisoned, tied to trees, the way the folks of this world are imprisoned in their own homes, earth, without work, impoverished. And yet babies are born. Life goes on. She is telling us something. She is desperately communicating and, as if frustrated by some unknown force, some inability to listen, she writes, at the end of the poem, “If you don’t/get it by now, don’t ask.” There is exasperation her, a sense of, Fuck it, I’m done trying to get you to understand. But, if one has not lived the life of Altoona, one can never understand. There is always more than one thing happening in these poems. There is the landscape. There is the depression of life. There is speed at which it all forces itself at the reader. This is the beauty of Foust’s voice, of what she has accomplished in the poetry.

There is violence in these poems. I love the violence in these poems. That says more about me than the work but I think it says a lot about the work. Violence, though, is wickedly compelling because it is violence. Foust barrels into the subject. Again, what she sustained in Dark Card, the honesty with no bullshit, she continues in Mom’s Canoe. In her poem, “Backwoods,” she writes:

How could you,
after he blackened
your eye,
dumb-bitched you
and wrecked your canoe?

You escaped from that place once,
his cottage collapsed
on the banks of that dirty, dredged ditch
he calls a river; all you need was a car
where you could sleep, keep your things.

She wants the mother to think straight, offering up, as an after-thought, a way to escape the “dumb-bitched you,” experience. God damn it, I hear her say, you could have saved yourself. As we all know, domestic violence is a complicated dynamic. Or not. Here, though, the violence is unrelenting, really. Not only has the man messed up the woman’s face but destroyed the canoe, mom’s canoe, that vehicle of safety and freedom, the woman at there, alone, on the river, safe from husband. But this a world where “the crickets are sounding a catastrophe” and Foust never lets us forget that. The illusion of safety is, simply, that it is an illusion. The only way to get safe is to get out.

It’s not all horror, though, of course. The landscape in these poems is both terrible and beautiful. This landscape being both inside the speaker, and outside the speaker. One never lives alone in one. There are many. In gorgeous poem, “Strip Mine,” Foust writes:

A terrible beauty, lunar beauty,
like leave past withering;
when we run along the edges,
slag bits break loose and
roll down the wash
to the bottom
pebbles round
as dark marbles,
bivalve halves of ancient clam
face each other
in frozen contemplation
the animating spark
between, buried in sediment
eons ago.

A whole life, right here, in the first stanza of this poem, to kick us into everything this voice, this vision is and will be. It’s all earth and contemplation. She embraces history and soft spirit here. The speaker that rises out of this place, out of these experiences, does so with a kind of gusto and hunger for mortality, that is plentiful and fierce. From this landscape she goes on to write the poems in Dark Card, to live the life learned in one and thrive in the other.

*****

Dark Card and Mom’s Canoe should be read together. They don’t have to be. Each is that good on its own. Yet, each could be a third of one entire book with the last section on its way. Rebecca Foust’s poetry is alive, my friends, and here to stay. She has music in her verse and this crafted poise which takes a long time to cultivate. Foust has done remarkable things in a short amount of time with her poetry and these two books convey a superlative, compressed imaginative spirit that digs in and does not let go. If you want to make art, you make art. This woman has that talent to make art. Conversely, the poems in these books feel like a good, well cooked, thought out meal—tasty and delicious—that has been thoroughly enjoyed and then, everyone done eating, a bit of ruckus ensues—the dining room turned upside down so that, lying there, a dab of chocolate pudding falls from the chandelier into an unexpected, open mouth. Startling. Savory.

One response to “STARTLING & SAVORY: Matthew Lippman on Rebeccas Foust’s Dark Card and Mom’s Canoe

  1. As a great fan of Becky work I couldn’t hope to encounter a more gutsy, full-throated appreciation of her powers. Lippman “gets it,” straight off — we have a crucial poet here, and he writes about her like the Sugar Ray of words.