Book Review

Where do you begin with a book of poems? Do you read the back cover for bearing? Do you read each entry in the table of contents as you would a map? Or do you dive right into the first poem? In Jennifer Elise Foerster’s second collection of poems, Bright Raft in the Afterweather, every moment happens, is, within the poetic gesture. So too the dedication, “To Magdalena, almost visible.” For that, too, is the purview of the poetic—the almost visible, what almost was, or is, “A star, the sun, was born in the dark,” the first poem begins. These are poems that tell of beginning, even as they navigate what feels like the end.

And how else are we to navigate the end and beginning but through poems? Foerster offers everything we need to build our Bright Raft, not just in the poems themselves, but through each word itself—a spell of naming, of weaving. Each section begins with such a tapestry, lists of words over words grayed out behind the section titles, each varying in density, in what one might call noise, but these lists provide a glimpse of the stitching. Like Sirens sent to delay the readers from the poems’ journey. “Acropolis of clouds,” “Wreckage of a distant slope,” “Wings of whales,” “Tiers of the dying sun” . . . they are the “walls / humming with language” that the poet follows home.

The poems proper get right to work, starting with a beginning, and instructions on how to navigate what follows:

What the sea returns
is enough, she writes, the words
over dunes shift, hissing.

What does, or will, the sea return? What will remain from which to build? It requires an act of attention, this contentment these poems seek. It requires us to adapt. Flowers and methane and potted lemons and factories and skunks—they are equally this world we inhabit. We are all adrift together, each as real, as solid, as the toxins in the atmosphere. And yet, there is a tension between accepting the complex nature of our relation to the world with its contamination and burning tankers and a desire to exist otherwise, in some separate paradise we like to imagine once was. “I would have kept us as we were, / the road to Perithia brocaded shut with ferns,” Foerster writes in “Winter in Corfu.”

Perhaps it is coincidence that, as I read Foerster’s latest book, I am also reading Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. What do any of us do when we set out to tell a story but remind us we were here, we mattered, we survived the storm? And yet “Our boat is neither sky // nor sea.” We must find ourselves between the two. It was Odysseus’s gift for spinning tales that finally brought him home. Even as the speaker revels in her surroundings, while navigating between sky and sea, here too the threat of loss and ruin sweep like waves to greet us, “each beach a frieze of Odysseus’s shipwreck.” What can a poet do to save the shipwrecked earth but write, even as words are not enough? Even the desert, these poems remind us, were once sea—canyons bearing evidence of waters that have retreated, that threaten to return. If you pull back the layers of dust, the earth remembers its story: “scrolls, fossilized in radiant strata, read / prickly pear / silver cholla, spicules of sponge.” But what, or who, is the raft at the bottom of the canyon, ready for the coming storm?

If the earth will continue after us, if we are a blink in the universe, what then? The second section in this collection begins with a poem in three parts, the first of which is “Palimpsest,” an original that has been effaced to give way to new parts, all the while remembering what came before. Who is the canvas for this memory, this overwriting? So accustomed are we to being at the center, but we are echoes of which there are many. Make no mistake; these are ecological poems, but not of an idyllic moment void of our mark. We are equally part of nature, and our separation has been our folly. What is our story? Is there another kind? Icarus flies too close to the sun, falls. This is not, however, a lamentation. This is simply the moon reflecting ourselves back to us. Foerster is asking us not to read what she has written, but to read with her what is already written. After being led to reflect on the very act of reflecting, a four-page meditation on grass makes clear that, just so, we are many and different and planted across a field still the same—and yet no less worthy of holding each up to marvel at.

The beauty waiting to surprise the casual observer on closer look is not without a sober reminder of our fleeting smallness:

You will look for patterns

                    and see none.

                        You will look for openings—

                              they will close to you.

                                          The light in each grass fast fading—

                                          we lie down in this dark.

Jennifer Foerster is no passive poet, however, and memory is not always to be trusted. When you think of the nightingale, do you think of that poet’s bird Keats and the Romantics celebrated for its song? Or the lamentable bird from the violent myth of Philomela and Procne? Is it coincidence that, in nature, the female nightingale is mute and only the male? Hardly. In the Afterweather, the poet is called to fashion a new vessel to carry us forward, giving voice in these poems—and presence—to those who’ve been overlooked. Jennifer Elise Foerster is such a poet. “Don’t sleep yet,” she encourages, “I’m rowing toward you.”

About the Reviewer

Abigail Chabitnoy earned her MFA in poetry at Colorado State University and was a 2016 Peripheral Poets fellow. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Nat Brut, Red Ink, and Mud City, and she has written reviews for Colorado Review and the Volta blog. She is of German and Aleut descent and a member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak, Alaska. Her debut poetry collection, How to Dress a Fish, is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in fall 2018.