Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

To Anacreon In Heaven and Other Poems

By Graham Foust

Reviewed By Andrew Nance

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Graham Foust’s new book of poems, To Anacreon In Heaven and Other Poems, is both a logical next step and an extreme departure for a poet whose previous four books are predominately comprised of short, compact lyrics. Some critics suggest that Foust’s fourth book, when compared with his previous three, is a quite “wordy” collection. But if that is true, then compared with all four of his previous books, To Anacreon is positively garrulous, periphrastic, and even, at times, verbose. Meditation would be too tame a word; instead, it is more appropriate to describe To Anacreon as an exploration—the record of a poet building and breaking boundaries of syntax and sense. While the poems in Foust’s others collections tend to be constructed of short lines with quick, terse line breaks, the poems in this collection are comprised of a series of end-stopped sentences that don’t code as verse (as there are no line breaks at all) and don’t code as discursive prose either (as no “paragraph” in the book contains more than one sentence).

But this fifth book of poems is not without those moments of shrewd concision that are the splendid fabric of Foust’s previous work. In fact, moments of intense, aphoristic poeticism not only punctuate the longer phrases of these new poems, they also often act as keys for reading the collection as a whole. For example, take this early text block (which I hesitate to call a stanza or a paragraph):

Days your voice is the house; days the house is the house;
days it wouldn’t be so wise to state my case—there must be
others.

Like most of Foust’s work, To Anacreon is an intensely palindromic book. And nowhere is this more apparent than in sentences like this one—sentences that nearly form orthodox palindromes in their grammatical structure and sometimes in their meaning. As the poet declares early on in the collection: “Every poem’s a failed palindrome.” This isn’t to suggest that Foust’s work is riddled with palindromes in the literal sense (as one might find in the work of some Conceptualist poets), but rather that Foust’s poems are constantly engaged in an exploration of the structures of language, sense-making, and rhetorical figures. Ultimately, this is to say that Foust’s new work explores the ways in which sense-making itself is an intensely palindromic algebra—one of interdependencies that reach, often simultaneously, both forward and backward. And yet, of course, these poems always “fail” to create orthodox palindromes because, while language is often cyclically self-referential, it is also bound to linear structures, and in the end, to the sequencing of time.

Besides concretely subverting the grammar of a sentence, this collection plays on our expectations of where a sentence might go by bending its meaning back onto itself. This is both explained and illustrated by an early nod to the book’s own (re)structural obsessions in “Inhabiter”:

Of all the things of which you’ve never once thought, the
ways in which this child could die and this sentence might
end can’t now be said to be among them.

The previous line in this poem reads, “New hums in this room, new bones;” so if you thought that the meaning of “ways in which this child could die” might be defined via an antecedent, think again. The first part of this sentence—“Of all the things of which you’ve never once thought”—is acutely ambiguous, as it evokes nothing less than anything you’ve never thought. The next part of the poem is, in contrast, acutely precise: “this child could die” (emphasis added). In this way the middle of the sentence proceeds as we might expect: through linear subordination. But then we continue to the last part of the sentence—“[the ways in which] this sentence might end can’t now be said to be among them”—and here, instead of returning to a grammatical C-note by giving the reader the usual structural and tonal comforts, Foust suddenly propels us backward not only by ending on the somewhat vague “them,” but by ultimately only defining what “can’t now be said to be among them” as “the things of which you’ve never thought.” It is in this way that the sentence acts as a feedback loop, returning us to its beginning just as it ends.

While this kind of structural play is sometimes less overt in Foust’s new poems, the feedback loop is almost always at work grammatically and denotatively. As a result, one frequently feels that the structural arrangement between the subject and object of the sentence is being tinkered with. Take for example this short question in the poem “To Graham Foust on the Morning of his Fortieth Birthday”: “Would you look at you look from your skull?” Like so much of To Anacreon, the grammar of this sentence actively displaces the subject from its usual location and, in turn, confuses it with the object. Here is also an example of a denotative twist: the image itself is a kind of Cubist paradox or impossibility as, of course, a subject cannot look from two places at once, even if she could look at herself in the first place.

In To Anacreon, metapoetic statements occur more often than I can quote. Here are just a few from throughout:

World without anything, dark without stars—and then the
poem, some imagined glass, half full of its own shards….

 The poem is the continuation of poetry by other means….

 I drag the poem through a heart that would explode in its
own image.

 This last statement—the idea of the poem exploding in its own image—is just as apt a characterization of the entire book as any other language taken from the text. This is a book that quite literally sustains itself—it is made of itself; it is poetry made of poetic thinking. Primacy is given to rhetorical movement over fixed images, to relationships over static points of value. And the cumulative effect of this kind of grammatical gymnastics is both a visceral and intellectual out-of-body experience. In fact, much of the pleasure that one derives from reading Foust’s new book is in the feeling of being swung from one eddy to the next. The subject is established, flung from its place, and sometimes, comes to rest somewhere else entirely. The pleasure is visceral. It’s palpable. The air seems to swirl with it. In this stunning new collection, Foust has expanded beyond himself and his previous work. It is a daring departure that gives one the concrete sensation that new ground is being discovered and that we, fortunately, are lucky enough to witness the poet as he charts it.

Andrew Nance is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His poetry has recently appeared in Linebreak, Petri Press, Turbine, and Narrative. In 2013 he taught poetry at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters in New Zealand.