From the outset of Graham Foust’s poetry career, his work has sought to answer the question posed in his first book, Leave the Room to Itself: “What is the poem.” Over the course of three intervening books, Foust has explored the function of language, attempting to map this faintly-Romantic notion of “the poem,” a slippery presence one finds embodied in consciousness. This consciousness—its origins, its signifiers, its longing for expression—has been explored by Foust largely within the constraints of his characteristic terse, lyric poem.
Given Foust’s penchant for the heavily compressed, focused immediacy of the short poem, the first thing the reader notices in the ambitious To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems is the predominance of the long poem. This form, in contrast to the compressed lyric, allows Foust unlimited freedom to create what he calls “The Thinking Song,” the kind of philosophical explorations found in, say, the mid-career work of Wallace Stevens and, especially influential to Foust, William Bronk.
The main obsession in this book, outside of the “language-game,” is aging. This is most apparent in the long “To Graham Foust on the Morning of His Fortieth Birthday.” The poem begins in classic Foust fashion with the overheard, “found” phrase echoing not only Neil Young but the very lament of the song “Helpless” itself:
There is a town in north Ontario.
But the pre-the-dream weird, the night gone onionskin, was there
a place there?
You can’t go back to the sandcastle—the sea will have reduced it to
a perfect bust of someone.
Filling up on toast, you miss the green, green grass of somewhere
If there is a place of comfort, one cannot go back, and, dwelling in the past, one misses the present; one averts, essentially, his or her consciousness from the immediacy from which a poem is born. In the midst of this lament, the poet still has to spin out poems that somehow match this lament, that somehow register the feeling. The poem’s birth proves itself difficult: “Tiny hawks of poetry all over you, you sit at screens to punch a book into a world,” an expressly aggressive image, is echoed in the final long poem, “To Anacreon in Heaven”: “There’s a violence in the mind like light.”
With all the talk in the poetry world of the unfortunate preponderance of irony, it is notable that, in Foust’s work, the manipulated syntax seems to be the opposite of irony, in that it does, undoubtedly, arrive at absolute exposure of the self rather than obscuring it—which is to say, despite the turnings of language, it is spun into a mood, ultimately revealing of its subject in a way, it seems to me, that makes To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems quite groundbreaking—and not only for Foust.
Take this syntactically ravishing line from “Four Short Films”: “Wherever I am’s another place on the world from which whoever I could’ve been’s been banished.” At its heart, the sensibility here is unnerving, the very truth of such a statement perfectly understandable to one who’s reached forty. The syntactical unit, mirroring this overwhelming thought, is itself overwhelming, yet at the same time perfectly articulate. Perhaps this is the end of Wallace Stevens’s enterprise; imagination may be primal, but it will ultimately reveal to us, as Stevens said, “Another image at the end of the cave,” an image far from comforting.
Indeed, much of this book seems like Foust’s own “Auroras of Autumn,” and it may be simply that Foust is himself constantly engaged in this “form gulping after formlessness,” finding the serpent made of air. “I was after my own heart; I found a mirror or three,” says Foust in “Ten Notes to the Muse,” the first of the three long poems in the book. But in the making of the poem itself, Foust finds that “The more you peel it back to secrets, the more collapsed the whole enterprise looks, the less like poetry it seems to be.”
What is the poem? With this question still not answered to Foust’s satisfaction, the poet approaches the classical idea of the Muse. This notion of the Muse, however, is a contentious idea to Foust, an irregular apparition that, rather than offering comfort, a “form for the formlessness,” only offers more confusion:
Days your voice is the house; days the house is the house; days it
wouldn’t be so wise to state my case——there must be others.
Color-free light on a blueblack garden, say; a single wall in a mostly
If ever I make a mountain, it’s a good bet I’ll make it out of sentences
with which you’ll assist me.
If ever I build a boat, it’s a good bet I’ll build it out of holes.
The Muse, as evidenced here, is undependable to say the least, shifty and empty at worst. The poem that comes may aspire to embody Stevens’s Rock, but in the end holds no water. Grimly, Foust finds he can only “make these phrases flaws the days fall from and into.” Other times, the poem is about as simple and indecipherable as what falls across the eyes: “A poem’s an empty lemon in the mouth of a crow on a phone line.” One is reminded of Jack Spicer’s retort to an admirer: “I know it’s beautiful, but what does it mean?”
But aside from language-obsession, as evidenced in the final long poem “To Anacreon in Heaven” (“Remember that the poem, while not used in the language-game of information, is composed in the language of information”), we find a more mortal Foust. “Sometimes I love being happy and in pain,” he says, simply, and these are the kinds of lines that, within the context of the more aphoristic, surrealistic, and intellectual overtones, stand out as being markedly human, blisteringly real.
Yet this in no way applies a negative value to Foust’s enterprise. These aphoristic, exploratory poems carry the reader into a sensibility decidedly unavailable before these poems. In short, we feel these poems as Foust does, at times: “There’s a syllable tears through me like joy.”
Sean Patrick Hill is the author of Hibernaculum (Slash Pine Press) and Interstitial (BlazeVOX Books). Recent work appears in Blackbird, Sixth Finch, ILK, Gulf Coast, Cimarron Review, and Smartish Pace.
To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems
by Graham Foust
Flood Editions, 2013
$15.95 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-9838893-5-9