Book Review

When readers are waiting for a poet's next book to appear, you know that writer has their mojo working. Rebecca Foust's third book of poetry All That Goregous Pitiless Song delivers for those followers of her first two books, Dark Card and Mom's Canoe. In Dark Card Foust dealt with the difficulties and rewards of raising a child with autism. In Mom's Canoe, she goes back to the Allegheny Mountains in the Pennsylvania coal country of her childhood. All That Goregous Pitiless Song incorporates elements in fact whole chunks from the two previous books and integrates them into a longer and even more substantial narrative.

The first, and arguably most powerful, section of the book centers once again around the landscape of the poet's childhood. Like Muriel Rukeyser's "The Book of the Dead", Foust lays bare the lives and dreams of those who lives and work in the coal mining country, but in Foust's case, she actually lived these as well. Leading off with "Altoona to Anywhere" the poetry in this section breathes new life into Faulkner's ubiquitous line "The past isn't dead, it isn't even past."

The central figure in this first section are the Allegany's themselves, the main human figures are the poet's parents. Foust's father, who

wore the right shoes when shopping at Kmart
bright white, and panama hats and leisure suits
in tropical hues

and loved four alarm fires and "to watch things burns down", succumbed to the town's ash and mine air as the family watched. The poem "Moon on Snow" follows his disintegration in haiku-like stanzas and lines such

we checked his catheter
in compulsive catechism

that combine the music implied in the title with the undeniable banality of physical reality.

The poet's mother discovering after her husband's death that she was pregnant and facing

the long years ahead diapers, glass bottles,
nights with out sleep, no help

remarried into an abusive relationship. The first section closes on her mother's death in a town where "everyone's going/ or gone."

The second section of the book finds Foust moved far from Altoona, married and living a comfortable life style. As she says in "Marrying Up", it is great to have health insurance and,

mastered driving a car the size of a room
or her first apartment.

She can afford expensive jewelry and vacations. However, she's uncomfortable with comfort. Coming from the background that she does, one where the most her mother could hope for was "Sears Roebuck placemats/ and babies that live," she understands how, as Emerson pointed out in "The American Scholar," the physical comfort she enjoys is built on the backs of others' miseries. Her sense of guilt makes her want to put a gun to her head when she sees

one of those necklace's gumball-sized
pearls plucked out by the Ama who dive down
on one breath. Who sometimes drown."

A major focus of this second section is her son's autism. Fans of Foust will immediately notice that many of the poems "Too Soon," "Apologies to My OB/GYN" and "He Never Lies" are from Dark Card; however, placed as they are in the second section of All That Goregous Pitiless Song , the emotional impact of the poems is greatly deepened. Readers see not just a suburban housewife who is encountering the first major adversities of her life, but someone who has made her escape from a background and landscape that threatened any dreams she had only to trade one set of difficult circumstance for another. Thus when she says,

I dreamed
the dream mothers dream
for their first sons

it is not merely a platitude.

Surrounding these nittty-gritty poems about particulars of a specific life are others such as "How the Fish Feels," "Sealed" and "Seeds of the Giant Sequoia" in which language is wrapped tightly around symbols. It is hard to read Foust's characterization of a cormorant as a four-chamber heart and wings trying to transcend a reptilian brain without drawing an analogy.

The third section of the book contains the greatest number of new poems and is also the most diffuse. Mediated through the second section, images of Pennsylvania have given way to those of quince blossoms in California. On the surface, the poems seem to cover a greater range of topics. Still by the end of the book two basic themes emerge and, in the case of the second, are hammered home

The first is what amounts to Foust's ars poetica. Though writing ostensibly about her grandmother's quilts in "From Function, Form," the penultimate poem in the book, the poet is clearly describing the book she has just written as well.

Not some
whimsy or homespun rebellion,
but a faithful rendering. What she saw.

This applies to all of Foust's work including her poetry on disability. It is not simply Foust's skill with language her ability with tight evocative phrases or a rhythmic combination of words that gives her poetry power but the knowledge that this is lived experience.

The second theme might be a more sophisticated version of the adage, "It's not that you can't go home again, it's that you can never really leave." This works on several levels. The first is spatial, and is represented by Foust's final poem "Allegheny Mountain Bowl (Reprise)." It is not exactly that you have come full circle the final poem is not a verbatim repetition of the first but that you simply haven't moved as far from your roots as you think you have. This is a recognition that starts coming quickly once ones children are grown and a person recognizes how much of what they end up living is what they learned at their mother's knee. This is the cultural/social fork of Foust's theme. As profoundly limiting as that may seem, the second fork is more intimidating because it is biological.

Thinking about her son she says:

Sometimes more is inscribed
in the chemical signature of the mud
than in the Sanskrit writ on the pot.

It is, as she calls it "that gene-encrypted, linked-chain curse," and while it is an obvious truth in some forms of disability, that may only be the most obvious manifestation of what is true about all of us.

Given these overwhelming odds about the capacity for human beings to change or to even change their situation, it is fair to ask what the role of the poet is. Is it to advocate for change or is it to be a witness to the truth of one's own experience. Foust, quite obviously, has made her choice.

In choosing to write this particular book, Foust has also made a choice. She could have chosen to "move on to new material." In choosing as she does to incorporate not only themes but large chunks of previous poems into All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song , she is taking a risk. She is risks being accused of a lack of creativity (or simply recycling old material) and, on a practical level, if successful, she risks, almost guaranteed decline in the sales of her previous books since so much is already incorporated into the much bigger version. All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song , however, is neither a faux deconstructionalist piece nor a collected works. It is, in fact, a totally new work because it practices what it preaches. No person can not escape her past; that which she thought was part of her past is imbedded in the present. That past takes on new meaning and only has meaning when put into a context.

All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song is a book well worth having. It is one that deepens with every reading, and any serious reader who owns it will surely want to reread it. The only question is, having written it, what can Foust possibly come up with next?