A Mouth in California
by Graham Foust
Worth the Challenge
A review by Sean Patrick Hill
Approaching Graham Foust's fourth book, it is tempting to say that Foust is at heart a Romantic lyric poet, no matter his allegiance to, say, Robert Creeley or Jack Spicer. But upon reading the line "Loose shingles are perfect for poems" from "Scraps After Reverdy," one can likewise say Foust is a poet of construction; that is, his poems, though they allude to a self however shaky or illusory, are not concerned with self-expression, but rather anchor themselves in the self merely as a point of reference, opting instead for a simultaneous exploration and creation of a virtual reality in the vein of Stevens and Dickinson, Foust's other deep influences.
None of this is news, of course, to long-time readers, but Foust seems to have progressed further with this book. Two fairly consistent themes stand out here: one of a social/political bent, the other concerning poetics. The statements on "money," for example, echo the best of the whole Dada agenda, not to mention the political subtlety of Trakl or Celan, as in "After Taxes," a villanelle: "We're more distant in the red, more ugly. / I don't know, I've been told it's a fear: / There are things less important than money."
Foust even boldly makes his own "9/11" poem, which could in lesser hands quickly become a cliche, in "Nine-Eleven In A Joke": "We think / we see the blast / and then we watch the blast / relax. We learn the chains." The poem closes with finality on a quotation spoken by an indefinable "you": "'The laugh in grief's way / is grief's way with us.'" Such poetry completely and unforgivingly disrupts any sentimentality left in us, part of the reinvention of both writer and reader.
Stylistically, Foust seems to be moving in this book decidedly toward what Kenneth Rexroth, in his translations of the aforementioned Reverdy, deemed in the French poet to be "classical," both in his manner and in his allusion to figures from Pound to Coleridge. Foust really does seem to be flirting with the lyric tradition; "Poem With Feelings" is almost uplifting ("There's always / been a pointlessness. / Rejoice"), and "Their Early Twenties," with its image of the young drinking beer by an indeterminate ocean, approaches the intimacy of Hart Crane or Frank Stanford: "They scratched the air; / they burned and buried things. / They were the fruit they couldn't reach." Such a poem is willfully true, and fully responsive to the fact that there are readers who long for interpretation of themselves and their own reality.
Yet there remains that old question Foust asked back in Leave the Room to Itself: "What is the poem." That question continues unabated here, beginning with "The Sun Also Fizzles":
What's this place, between
geography and evening? The sun
also bludgeons; a car has three wheels;
and what's the wrong way to break
that brick of truth back into music?
Time and time again this question is exhumed, the titles reflecting the task: "Poem Beside Itself," "Poem To Realism," "Four Poems Called 'The Poem'." All this goes back to Spicer, who in his "Letter to Lorca" muses on the very "invention" Foust undertakes: "How easy it is in erotic musings or in the truer imagination of a dream to invent a beautiful boy. . . . The poem is a collage of the real."
In this sense, Foust's undertaking collages a fashionable 21st-century Surrealism with a perennially anarchic Dadaism, exploring an enhanced sense of the emotional self as well as his political stand in the world. Though Rexroth differentiates between Surrealism ("free association") and Dadaism ("the combination of unconscious utterance and political nihilism"), A Mouth in California draws from both these wells. However, an intimacy is always present, that peculiar longing in which we all share. Though Foust will seemingly never make it easy, still he intrigues us enough to listen and participate -- which is what any tradition, no matter the school, asks of us.
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