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
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
. . . girl, glim, imp,
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
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”
. . . Oh shit
just say it, Pilgrim was S-A-D
Prozac helped until she got numb
to being numb all the time, and
came back. Ashes, ashes we all fall down.
Same old plague. New superbug
The poem “Nuns Fret Not” is “after Wordsworth.” Pilgrim jogs
in a park and remembers
a friend’s son’s legs lost in
What is Iraq doing here? She’s
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
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.”
Anne Harding Woodworth is the author of five books of
poetry, most recently, Unattached
Male (Poetry Salzburg, 2014).