Book Review: Paradise Drive (Rebecca Foust)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

It is hard to say enough good about Rebecca Foust's latest book, Paradise Drive (Press 53,2014). Those who know her previous work like Dark Card the debut book that deals with her son's autism, or All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song that pays tribute to her hardscrabble upbringing in Altoona, Pa would have expected work by a skilled language handler that challenges mainstream notions and while seeing value in traditional values, but they would probably not have been expecting something quite like Paradise Drive. It is an allegorical narrative written in sonnets. It is The Pilgrim's Progress amidst the nouveau riche of twenty-first century Marin County, California.

Foust, who acknowledges "sonnets especially sonnets written by a woman of my demographic and my age, are not what publishers are looking for now," admits "I am not really sure where these poems came from." The bulk of them "came in a great rush over an insomniac week in 2009." Whatever their source, once picked up, the poems in Paradise Drive are difficult to put down.

The title of the book's opening section "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" tips readers off to what they are in for even before the appearance of the first poem. The title, of course, is from Blake's brilliant and innovative poem excoriating the middle class religious values of his time. Indeed, the titles of all three of the book's sections are taken from Blake's work and the volume abounds with references to other poets—Hopkins, Sappho, Robert Lowell, Dickinson and Ann Bradstreet, among them.

Pilgrim, of course, is an old trope, used most famously by John Bunyan, and it is a familiarity this that the author depends upon. At the same time, she recognizes the "dour, dry, dull" taste the word leaves in the mouths of many, and admits,

Yes, colonists were colonists
And for Native Americans, Pilgrim
Means genocide.

But adds,

But weren't some of them
—Ann Bradstreet for one—also idealists,
Striving and brave.

She concludes:

Pilgrim holds—good and bad—what I am,
Featured here in its radical form:
Seeker, someone who leaves her home.

In the first section of the book, Foust further invokes Bunyan's allegory—Pilgrim's encounter with the seven deadly sins. They are gathered together at the continual parties the narrators new social position requires her to frequent, during which she spends the greater part of the time closed in the bathroom with a book. Foust has a lot of fun lampooning the posturing of the various women around her. For example, "PRIDE, Bickering with VANITY" begins:

"No, I don't think I'm better than you
because I'm wearing these Birkenstocks
made from recycled rubber. I like
how clogs look and don't object to a shoe
made from a near-extinct lizard, flayed
while still alive.

The sin of Sloth, however, she reserves for herself, describing her own work, even as she writes.

"You could say I sonneteer like some sail:
on weekends, in fair weather… My sestets and octets-prolapsed. My sail
— slack."

It is a pre-emptive strike, but one that hints at a larger literary purpose.

In the final poem of section one, "Party On" the narrator reveals her real fear. She has run from her past and the grim lives of her parents and come west to escape only to find herself ensconsed in a modern Vanity Fair. Now, despite the vapidity of life in all of this "relentless good weather" she is afraid that she will fall in love with it. The cynical sonnets she pens keep that siren's song at bay, but the cost is that she now feels dead on the inside. To begin to feel again, she is willing to burn.

If the first section of the book shows Pilgrim in various defense poses: hiding out, ridicule by poetry, taking baths, even joining a meditation class, in the book's second section "The Fire is Falling" things get serious. This phrase not invokes not only Blake, but one of the opening sentences, from Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, "I am for certain informed that this our city will be burned with fire from heaven. In "Family Grammar," one of the book's strongest poems, the narrator questions not just her own scribbling of verses as a way of dealing with the situations life has thrown at her, but the very usefulness of poetry.

Does the fire
Care what phrase names its fierce thirst
Or on which beat I break the line?

But then, in frustration, rebukes her own question.

Well, what the hell is there to do
Besides sling words like arrow back
Into Fortune's outrageous face?

In so saying, the narrator also recognizes that the deadliest of the sins is one that went unnamed in the first section — despair. She looks at the lives around her for the possible options: suicide, drugs, alcoholism. She looks towards religion, which has failed her before, mainly because she herself failed to make a commitment. Her epiphany comes, interestingly enough, when the fire is actually falling. It is September, mid-town in New York, where he husband has stopped for work, while she heads back home after they've attended wedding on the cape. The sonnet is spare and strikingly accomplished: No capitals, no punctuation other than the em dashes separating phrases, no rhyme but the repetition of the phrase "the sky is falling," and the fourteenth line, "it has to be this close before she sees."

Like most realizations, there is nothing philosophically complex about the sea change that comes over pilgrim. We are all going to die. While we have a new appreciation for Millay's, "O world I cannot hold thee close enough," we are also under the obligation to love others and to do what little good we can. We cannot insulate ourselves from the world any more than the U.S. could from the problems that afflict others its borders. Pain and sorrow are a part of life. These are all issues that Foust works through in the books final section, "O Earth Return" In one of the last poems, "The Quest" (calling to mind the song of the same title in Man of La Mancha), the author reminds us that her pilgrimage has been a metaphor and that we need not literally like Don Quixote, charge out into the world on horseback. What it does mean, however, is:

                        No longer
not-seeing suffering, not for
the thank-God-it's-not-me effect of, more
like bearing witness. Maybe the chance
to do an angstrom of good, make beauty
or protest or laughter.

I'll admit a bias. While I like poems that make me think, perhaps run to the dictionary, recognize a literary reference, or throw out a phrase that asks me to connect the dots or turn an image on its head, I'm not a fan of poetry that advertises its erudition by making it all but inaccessible to readers who haven't just received an MFA in contemporary literature. For me, one of the great virtues of Foust's poetry is that it can be read and appreciated on numerous level levels and that it rewards repeated returns.

One of the ways in which this accomplishment comes through most strongly is in the author's handling of literary references. Frequently, on poems that she has built up from a line by a particular poet, as in "Couldn't She Just," Foust adds a subtitle " after a line by Sylvia Plath," giving readers who are interested the opportunity to check out the line that prompted the poem if they choose. At other times, when the reference is fairly common knowledge and not critical to appreciating the poem, as in the line " Full fathom five Pilgrim's mother lies" that begins "Bright Juice," she will simply leave it without any other comment than Italics. For references that do impact the poem or who source she does not expect readers to be able to intuit, Foust has provided a "Notes" section in back. After an initial reading of the book without reference to those notes, one's immediate impulse is to go back and see how having read a note helps to enlarge the experience of reading a particular poem. In this way Foust allows both herself and her reader the opportunity for creativity and exploration without slamming the door in the face of readers with lesser literary interest or background. It is an approach that works well for those of us who dwell somewhere between a literary Marin County and a literary Altoona.

Throughout Paradise Drive, Foust is continually aware of her debt to masters of the sonnet, both modern like writers Berryman and classical ones like Shakespeare and Donne, and of what she calls the "infinitely elastic sonnet form." In many of the poems already cited, she lets the reader know how she is working to try to make poetry and what she has to say comprehensible. Like the women she skewers in the first section of the book, Foust acknowledges that she has had the privilege of an elite education, but because of her roots, wants to be sure that her poetry is able to connect with those who have not. Despite the multitude of literary references, she largely accomplishes this goal. She keeps the language of the poems within the grasp of the ordinary reader; her skillful use of traditional devices she as alliteration, slant rhyme, and repetition that require no conscious literary training to have their affect. In "Forgotten Image" a poem, according to the subtitle, based upon Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, she repeats the phrase "Your mother, reading" three times and uses several alliterative devises before ending in the lines,

You are a mother now,
Too—so many open mouths, so much to do—
Your mother, reading herself alive. Showing you.

Few who would pick up a book of poetry in the first place, would find difficulty in those lines.

It is true that those familiar with Foust's vociferous defense of her son's autism in Dark Card may find themselves disappointed that she seems to have neglected disability in Paradise Drive, but it is not entirely absent. In "(The New) Eugenics" the author addresses one of the hottest topics in disability literature, the attempt by science to use genetics to completely eliminate human diversity, including those with non-conventional bodies, and ends the poem with the plea " no more purges, please." She also references PTSD and dementia, but contributing to disability literature is not the goal of this book and there is no point in holding it against her.

In the spirit of accessible language and repetition, then, I'll end with the words that I began with: It's hard to say enough about Rebecca Foust's Paradise Drive. Go buy the book.


Michael Northen is the editor of Wordgathering and an editor with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability.