The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by Anne Harding Woodworth on Rebecca Foust
Paradise Drive by Rebecca Foust. Press 53, 2015.
Pilgrim is our guide in Rebecca Foust’s compelling book of poetry, Paradise Drive.
Foust has achieved something remarkable here. We saw it in earlier books: a consummate craft that does not intrude. These poems are all sonnets, seventy-eight, to be exact, and full of pith, pathos, humor, curiosity, and confession. The sonnets are generally in one stanza, but occasionally in couplets; once in a mixture of couplets, tercets, and single lines. Unlike the free verse of each sonnet’s first twelve lines, the two final lines often rhyme.
Foust has an eye, a heart, and a mind. Her poetry is erudite without being elusive or exclusive. This is where Pilgrim comes in. An ephemeral, almost ghostlike, figure, Pilgrim binds these poems. She is at once an avatar the poet has borrowed from Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet of the 1600s and an alter-ego. Pilgrim is the poet’s eyes, the eyes that have been watching since birth, or since the beginning of the United States, or since the beginning of all time. She is the poet’s vessel.
Waist-deep in bright ruin, she labors to sing,
wondering if wanting is, after all, all
Pilgrim weaves herself between centuries with ease. In the first section, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” she explains what Pilgrim is:
Yes, Pilgrim’s a buzz-kill: dour, dry, dull;
what’s cool now is hurling through the word,
an insult, at white racists.
Yes, colonists were colonialists
and for Native Americans, Pilgrim
But there’s the brave Anne Bradstreet side of Pilgrim, too: the idealist. And Foust sees an entire world in the word pilgrim: good and bad, humorous and deadly serious, significant and trivial:
. . . girl, glim, imp,
grip, grim, rip, lip, not to mention
the wondrous pi. Also, yes, pig.
Foust co-mingles Sappho, Hopkins, Wordsworth, Blake, to name only a few, with contemporary thought and popular culture. Chronological time in this graceful arc of poetry is unimportant, and yet time plays a role.
Take the memory poem, “Indentured,” where Foust’s humor shines, even as she delves into the unhappiness of childhood. Pilgrim’s father’s dentures take center stage in the poem, while the children are made to brush twice daily. Floss is hung up to dry so it can be reused. In the final two lines Pilgrim thinks of her own teeth with a nod to Emily Dickinson:
. . . still in her jaw and whole.
The better, my dear, to nibble your soul.
Foust’s last lines are always zingers—perfect closures, especially with her rhymes and near-rhymes: difference/sequence; dance/sense; loose/purse; home/blown; recognized/blaze.
In the second section, “The Fire is Falling,” Pilgrim contemplates the implications of death. It encompasses an unsettled planet filled with war, hatred, religious differences, and drugs. In “Syringes ‘R’ Us” she exhorts
. . . Oh shit
just say it, Pilgrim was S-A-D sad.
Prozac helped until she got numb
to being numb all the time, and the pain
came back. Ashes, ashes we all fall down.
Same old plague. New superbug strain.
The poem “Nuns Fret Not” is “after Wordsworth.” Pilgrim jogs in a park and remembers
a friend’s son’s legs lost in Iraq—Iraq?
What is Iraq doing here? She’s screwed.
Something is knocking. The size of a world.
The third and last section, “O Earth Return,” is lovely in its organic content. There is earth, soil, dirt, water, lush lawn, woods, compost. Mother Earth is present. Anne Bradstreet, perhaps a mother of American poetry, is present, and of course Foust herself a mother is present.
In “Prayer for My New Daughter” we sense a mother’s wish that the rooms her daughter has entered are free of prejudice and bigotry, rooms in which the daughter’s soul will choose its path, even though “lines are drawn.”
This is a book to be enjoyed for its humor combined with its depth of investigation into big questions. Rebecca Foust, like any pilgrim, is searching, going toward something, and indeed she has reached a destination by going down Paradise Drive, “each day bound to the last with dark thread.”
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