Winston-Salem: Press 53
Softbound, 114 pp
The titular poem in Rebecca Foust’s Paradise Drive richly envelopes the reader’s senses, beginning the submersion into Foust’s exquisite collection of sonnets. “Roses blooming straight through fall. / Hawthorn leaves in drift…” This poet has something to say and says it with a superb dance of language that creates a fine collection of poems with complexity and nuance that engages the reader on several levels.
So often contemporary poetry presents a closed off space that requires the poetic equivalent to a vault’s password for a reader to feel drawn in and engaged; the poet offers poems that make sense to only a small contingency of peers. Not so with this collection of 80 sonnets. Foust invites reading with an interesting narrative with connective fiber between each sonnet. She extends an invitation to play with her on the page, seeking out layers of complexity and meaning. These poems also offer a dance of sound in the cadence when read. And make no mistake, these sonnets are best savored when you give voice to them. When meeting Pilgrim, she is a recognizable character who pings an echo within the reader as either self or reflection of someone else – from past or future remains open. And now one is not just reading poetry, but engaged in conversation with the poet.
When Foust’s narrator Pilgrim is introduced in “Meet Pilgrim” so is the sense that life is wanting: “Who, voice-trained form birth in desire, / wakes one morning wanting-nothing-/ in the way of things. Wanting some not-thing / not quite not seen.”
Pilgrim embarks from “House of no children, guest room of no guest; / no god or guide, a broken song. Her quest.” The author adeptly sidesteps any politically correct slings and arrows regarding “Pilgrim” as a word laced with culturally defined insult and historical wounds and revels in the fullness of what the word literally contains in “Why Pilgrim?”
…Look how the word / constellates a whole world: girl, glim, imp, / grip, grim, rip, lip, not to mention / the wondrous pi. Also yes, pig. / Pilgrim holds – good and bad – what I am,…seeker, someone who leaves home
The quest begins in “Cocktail Party” with Pilgrim exposed as that individual attending who is present yet not, who would rather read than submit to the fluff conversations of social niceness. We’ve all seen (or been) Pilgrim at similar house parties. The one who sits in the corner, leans against the book case, or as Pilgrim does, retreats to a room alone. This poem introduces the reader to the poet’s flair for humor and surprise that is found when several of these sonnets conclude. Or provoking turns of thought such as in “Pride, Bickering with Vanity” “Then thinks again: wait / – isn’t it also elite – just – to eat?”
Pilgrim’s tale as she continues her quest is full of pain and anger, or is it sadness? In the seven deadly sins Pilgrim gives voice to lines overheard at Marin’s social gatherings as in “WRATH, Talking about ‘The Change’” We bloom and bloom into old age, / then fade and linger; it’s hard not to hate / those new buds that keep swelling the vine.” Pilgrim’s pain began in the hard lessons of a hardscrabble childhood when tough life lessons defined a family, Pilgrim “…vowing like Scarlet never / to eat dirt again. So clear then, the rules: / better yourself. Work hard. Save. Pay the bills.”
Pilgrim continues in her quest. A life brought from poverty to live in one of the most expensive, and environmentally beautiful, parts of the country, that teems with wealth’s sham of concern for those less fortunate, or distaste for those different. Three sonnets subtitled under “Party Etiquette” with its three subtitled poems reinforce Pilgrim’s anger, helplessness in the face of randomness in life with significance of a single detail and then a mother’s heart stopping fear and rage:
And about what brick does, on contact, to a child’s perfect face… /Funny, one letter making a difference, and just one gene, in an infinite sequence… /I wish I were dead, Mom….Tell me Dr. Spock, what does a mother fucking do about that?
In “Gone to the Dogs” the poet provides perspective from a canine’s point of view that underscores the façade of status conscious communities: “…and I like the cultural diversity / from Yorkie to pit bull, with a surplus, / and I do mean surplus, of bird dog thrown in. / God knows why. That dog don’t hunt in Marin.”
In “Ennui” Pilgrim wonders “Perhaps she needed to dial it back: / booze and Prozac. Recall pain for a while.” (58) Pilgrim’s pain is a deep well that the poet balances when least expected. Foust’s sonnets are laced with dry humor such as in “Extreme Rendition” “…relocate, with upgrade, to a place / where a rat can be loved…Orange County, perhaps. Or, Crawford, Texas.”
Difficult, challenging, tough issues are brought to light: subjects not talked about in so called polite company such as divorce, autistic children, suicide, stillborn, a child’s gender transition, violence in the home. Though would anyone deny these same subjects are whispered behind the unfortunate’s back? Foust, through her Pilgrim’s quest gives voice to what civility encourages remain in the shadows. In the sonnet “Dirt”, Pilgrim realizes towards the end of her quest that she is “…feeling hot, stung, / sealed in her hair shirt. Then it hit her / that having a powerful itch to scratch / meant she was alive.”
And so, Pilgrim has learned upon her quest that there is no final holy grail. Rather, life will go on with all its blurred edges and variations of gray. So too, your responsibility for yourself and more importantly those you bring into the world as she writes in “How to Live, Reprise”:
The world was not as she’d been taught
laundry one neatly sorts
into blacks and whites;
it is gray with children
and other defenseless acted-upons.
All you can do, Pilgrim decides,
is keep asking the questions.
Admit when you’re wrong. Go on
for the kids, especially the kids
you have personally caused
to be brought into the world.
As far as you can, regardless,
clean up your own mess.
Do not use bleach on every load.
Rebecca Foust’s Paradise Drive won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry. This fifth book of hers is one that is “A dance done with wonder – in every sense.” Highly recommended.