Book Review

Sub-genres of writing often develop unnoticed, but then with the appearance of one or two new stars, there is suddenly a constellation. Poetry based upon the personal experience of living with a family member who has a disability is not unknown. Tom Andrew's The Hemophiliac's Motorcycle and Gregory Fraiser's Strange Pietá are powerful works by two pioneering figures in disability poetry that are based at least partially upon relationships with siblings. More recently, the work of Barbara Crooker in which she writes about her son's autism, especially in Ordinary Life and Megan Webster's poetry about her son in BiPolar Express focus this trend even more specifically in a way that explores the relationships between parents, especially mothers, and children. With the publication of Rebecca Foust's Dark Card, these works begin to look like a constellation. Together with the work of Webster and Crooker, Foust's work is extremely important because in dealing with disabilities that are not primarily physical, their work sits on the edge of that thin blade between disability literature and illness narrative. It is up to the work of these writers to show us which way the knife will cut.

The title poem, and initial poem of Dark Card, is a microcosm of the book, a poetic précis whose implications the remainder of the book explores.

When they look at my son like that
at the grocery store check out
or at school assemblies,
I wait for the right moment, till they move
through laughter, raised eyebrows, clamped lips
- but before fear. Then I switch gears,
go into my tap dance-and-shuffle routine.

yes, he's different, all kids are different, him
just a little bit more - oh, he's knocked down
the applesauce pyramid? So sorry, here,
my sleeves conceal napkins for messes like this,
and I can make them disappear. But before I do,
make sure you marvel at how the jars
made an algorithm when he pulled that one free.

At the heart of the poem are two lines that set the book's thesis and posit a basic social reality about our perceptions of disabilities as well:

I've figured out that difference pays freight
when linked with intelligence; genius trumps odd,
alchemizes bizarre into merely eccentric.

As poet Eric Gadzinski has written in "Van Gogh":

If you must be tortured
you ought to be talented.

Recognizing this, Foust says, "So I play the dark card of the idiot savant." The remainder of the book is an elucidation with specific examples of how and why she has had to play this card over the course of her son's life.

Foust's descriptions in Dark Card of the disjuncture between reality and how it is presented, in phrases like "dance-and-shuffle routine," "parlor tricks," and "a swindle, a flimflam, a lie" also raise questions about the nature of art. While few poets today would defend the mimetic view of art, one needs to ask to what extent Foust is giving the reader the flim-flam treatment as well. Are we like those onlookers in the grocery store or school assemblies of the poem also being conned? Undoubtedly, the answer is yes; this is art and not life - but to what extent? It is a question worth thinking about as one reads through the poems.

After the first poem, which has served as an apology in the Miltonian sense, the book begins to carry the reader chronologically on the journey that Foust has taken with her son. They begin with "Too Soon" and "That Space," a poem in which at the moment of birth Foust sees:

hope up
en point
its compass foot
life against death

Throughout much of Dark Card Foust depicts the many obstacles she and her son have to negotiate in trying to claim a life for themselves. Though such obstacles are hardly surprising to any parent of a child with a disability, the pedestrian cruelty she has to watch her son endure becomes fresh in such poems as Perfect Target:

- how they'd leer when he walked up
to them with his face flower-open, then
one would shrug a book-ballasted backpack
to sprawl him out flat on the asphalt.

How they'd tell him that the teacher
wanted, no really wanted him to jump
on the lunch table to see if it would break

Foust's skill in the use of assonance and alliteration, her use of the onomatopoetic "leer" bring an almost visceral feel to the experience she portrays, and it is when Foust focuses on language in this way that she is at her best.

The poems unfold such incidents throughout the book and it is not until "Eighteen" that the narrator is able to say:

maybe I don't have to whisk
the ice smooth ahead of your
curling stone, explain
how you don't always mean

what you say, nor say what
you mean; tell why you don't cry
even though you feel pain

Dark Card, like Webster's BiPolar Express, is not only about the relationship of the child with the disability to the "normal" world, but about its effect upon parents as well. In much of the book the narrator is dealing with her own volcanic emotional reactions. "Refrigerator Mom" finds the speaker defending herself against a once popular claim:

They call them cold and withholding
"refrigerator mothers," indicted them
with their kids' autism.

Other poems including "Unreachable Child," "Head Injury Odyssey," and "Sometimes the Mole is Merely" further explore parental emotions. Of these, the most spare and most effective is "Begin Again":

You think
the worst
is over,

that there's

to lean,

You think
to darkpath
worstcase fear.

But when they
find his bike
at the bridge -

he was the
same age
as your son -

you begin
to dream

that dream
you thought
was done

of boys
who climb
the spans

and fall
like leaves
or swans.

One of the many functions that disability poetry has served is to critique the medical establishment and its paternalistic attitudes toward disability. Jim Ferris' The Hospital Poems is possibly the pre-eminent example. So when Foust expresses her animosity towards the hospital, staff, and doctor in the sarcastically titled "Apologies to My OB-GYN," there is certainly nothing new in her cries against the medical establishment. In fact, in disability poetry, it has almost become expected. The nature of such a critique in poetry, however, can be interesting.

The narrator of "Apology" says:

Sorry that my boy birthed himself
too early,
took up so much room
in your pre-natal nursery
with his two pounds, two ounces
and did not oblige your nurses
with easy veins.

This may well be one of the poems that poet Molly Peacock refers to in a quote on the back cover when she praises Foust's "passionate verbal intensity" on the back cover of Dark Card. However, it also raises a question about voice, especially when the reader recalls Foust's proclaimed adeptness at flimflam and "the shuffle and dance."

In a recent essay on disability poetry, Breath & Shadow poetry editor Arden Eli Hill writes "The literary convention "I" in a poem, unlike the "I" in an essay, is not necessarily the voice of the poet, provides me with a space that I do not find intimidating. I even have the freedom to shift voices." Such ambiguity raises the question of just what Foust is up to in "Apology." Is the narrator of this poem (and of Dark Card generally) a fictional voice that is leading us through a series of experiences as the narrator "experienced" them at the time? Is the voice here that of a skilled poet conveying the emotions that her protagonist experiences at the time, or it merely the verbal equivalent of an adolescent in a snit, sticking out her tongue. In the context of the book the former seems to be an answer, but divorced from the book, the poem presents as the latter. If this is a shuffle and dance, it is a risky one.

Risk, however, may be a prerequisite for any writer attempting to make her way through the territory of a new genre where the landscape is more created than discovered, and what impresses the reader about Foust is not so much the loudness of her voice as her skill in depicting this landscape. Lines such as

My son is gentler with moths
than people ever were with him


Who are the lovely ones that charm you to wood,
leave you dreaming alone on the rug


...he never asked for
that special
mark of blood on
his door,

that forehead-
touch-chin flash
of fire; he never
the giver in

do more to convert the reader than any polemic.

Crooker, Webster and Foust are all writers who in writing about their son's disabilities inevitably become as much the subjects of the poems as their children. While each one speaks with a distinctive voice, Ordinary Times, BiPolar Express, and Dark Card should almost be bundled because it is in their collective voices that one feels the full impact, the power of their experiences, as poem after poem ushers in an understanding. Dark Card was the 2007 winner of the Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Prize, and it is little wonder why. The book has much to teach. It is an important star in a new constellation that is forming.