Poetry with the Power to Rescue Us

(Pixabay)
A new collection of poems from Brett Foster helps us see lost goods, neglected beauties, and forgotten truths.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE B rett Foster and I had planned to meet for dinner on November 14, 2015; instead, I attended his funeral. I had not heard back from him in weeks about our plans and was fighting off my suspicion that he was losing his fight with colon cancer. In my last emails from him, Brett remained optimistic about his future, especially about his poetry, which was pouring steadily from his mind and heart, even as his body weakened. He announced the forthcoming publication of Extravagant Rescues as “answered prayer—good news in a bad season, indeed. And,” he added, “this is an entirely different, pre-sickness book.” The poems in this collection do not reflect Brett’s final words, but they give evidence of a perpetually significant vision, one that outlives the poet and has the power to awaken us to what is real.

The collection opens with three epigraphs that act as invitations to the reader, undulating between roars of disquiet within, silence in the world, music in the air, and the necessity to tell what you see. C. S. Lewis makes the great point that music and silence are the two things not found in hell, for inferno is pandemonium—roaring disquiet—whereas poetry is paradisal in how it plays the silence with sound. As a translator as well as a poet, Foster hears the accent of a word, its reverberations through time, how it collects meaning by the words that surround it. Like T. S. Eliot’s or W. H. Auden’s early work, Foster’s poems can be appreciated merely for their sound without pinning them down to find out what they signify. His poems pull you out of the chaotic noise of the world so that you can better attend to music and silence. Hear, for instance, this litany from “Upon News of the Important Fossil”:

It says something, to imagine all
remaining ahead, dizzy festival
of ozones, phonemes, green zones, iPhones,
charred craters of conscience, newer loneliness.

As the poet questions the purpose of the tool of the imagination, the sounds of the words, for the reader, alter the pattern of the usual clamor. While we have become accustomed to the beats of advertising, Twitter, and headlines, which have their own rhythms of chatter, Foster’s poems reset our ability to listen. In his “Quiet Ars Poetica,” he describes his art “like a joy itinerant begging / through far domains of prayer, / curse, and oath.” We hear this holy fool singing and love the music of his words, then we investigate their meaning.

In this collection, Foster’s poetry is playful without being trivial, a hard balance to keep up. How to write so that readers enjoy the ride without worrying where you are leading them, only to find themselves vested with an eternal question that they cannot shake off any more than a dog whose jaws lock around their ankle? Foster claims his words wear “disguises, dolled up in curlers, / wearing a ski mask or sackcloth, / strategizing to mean otherwise.” He must sneak up on his reader indirectly, catch the reader off guard, trick the reader into thinking. And his verses do scandalize; he’s an iconoclast with verse. Yet, as Foster tips over sacred cows, he does not divest the sacred of its import. In “Avery Da Vinci, Our Lady of the Western Suburbs,” the biblical upper room is his daughter’s bedroom, and his teenager is adapting the “Last Supper into a full-blown birthday party / leaving the apostles to rave with the best.” With almost a wink at his reader in a parenthetical admission of bias, he describes his own poetry: “I love her subversive genius in the pious / suburbs, fancy it a legacy.”

Foster first took on the beauty in the mundane in his 2011 collection The Garbage Eaters, and this new collection broadens its scope to the spiritual vacuum created by the omnipresence of technology that leaves us empty and confused. Each poem questions the existentialist dilemma caused by social media, celebrity culture, iPads, and iPhones. In “Polaroid Elegy,” the poet ruminates on the lost art of Polaroids, which could capture imperfections that are erased in the photoshop era we live in. What is missing that these photos caught? How do we acknowledge sin and mortality, or the imago dei, when all our images are doctored? In “Looking Back on the Era of YouTube,” people’s desire “to make themselves immortal” becomes futile, as they “make penny offerings / to the great god they had raised to make themselves laugh.” Although the poems are more comic than grim, they speak prophetically from outside our norms. Foster tries to point out, with wit and a jab in the ribs, that, without our realizing it, the Kool Aid we have been drinking for years was poisonous.

Yet, the poet never stands above his readers but sits next to them on this journey. In “Elysium,” the poet barely tolerates the enthusiasm of a first-time flyer seated beside him:

Wow, it’s really beautiful! says the boy,
Surveying how the whitelit crop of stars
Appears as shades amid the fields of Nashville
Far below. How I want to be worthy,
A perfect witness of that speechless trance.

Readers must practice generosity towards the annoyed persona and in turn must see themselves in his position. These poems ask us to see our world with different eyes, to reconsider our place in it. Who would not prefer to be the boy staring out the window in wonder versus the aging scholar immune to nature’s beauty? The poem provides us an ascent from where we are, perhaps, as those anesthetized to beauty, by evoking for us the “whitelit crop of stars” as the boys sees them. They are compared to shades, and the poem’s title alludes to the ancient myth of paradise; and the final lines point to The Aeneid, specifically. Like the majority of Foster’s poems, this one wears the vestiges of the tradition without pretense. His poems allow readers to enjoy them as they are, with the poet as their generous guide. There are hints that one could go deeper: You could re-read Virgil and Dante and Berryman to understand Foster’s poems better—perhaps even to see yourself better—but you don’t have to.

We all know the Robert Frost poem and the advantage of taking the less-travelled road. The word “extravagant” in the title means, etymologically, to wander outside. From my perspective and without any knowledge of authorial intention, I suspect the collection is titled Extravagant Rescues because the poet hopes to recover things lost, by wandering outside the beaten path, for that is what these poems do. They seek out lost goods, neglected beauties, forgotten truths, in a world that will not stand still long enough to notice it has worn down the wrong road. In a move that reminds me of Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos, which opens with a series of alternative subtitles, Foster includes two pages of “Alternative Titles for the Book You Are Holding in Your Hands.” Some of these are: “Afternoon Pilgrims,” “Apostle of Markets,” “Google & Prayer,” or, in honor of the epigraph, “Music in the Air.” This list poem indicates the questions that Foster was asking as he wrote these beautiful, playful, scandalous, wise, generous verses. He writes poetry that reminds us of words we’ve heard before (from Virgil and Frost, et al) but that we’ve forgotten how to listen to; they rescue us from our banal way by asking us to wander and wonder down a better road.

At Brett’s funeral a couple of other poets read verses that they had penned as eulogies, including Jeffrey Galbraith, who wrote the foreword for Extravagant Rescues. As I listened to the good words of all of Brett’s friends, I kept expecting him to stand up, to be among us again. He felt so alive through their words. Readers of this collection of poetry may get the same feeling. The literary critic George Steiner, who passed away this year, said that to read great literature is to body forth the text; it becomes a real presence for the reader. Foster’s collection brings forth for us so many real presences that we begin to see through the falsehoods that we’ve become accustomed to. Extravagant Rescues should be read not only to hear again a voice that faded too soon, but because the poems rescue us from being lost to ourselves.

Jessica Hooten Wilson is an associate professor of humanities at John Brown University, where she directs a graduate program in classical Christian studies. She is the author of books on Flannery O’Connor, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Walker Percy.

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