Book Review

There’s an old, if specious, adage that poets have a single idea they return to and complicate throughout their careers—Whitman’s democratic exuberance, Stevens’s imagination, Glück’s solemn mining of interiority. No doubt these are reductive stereotypes of what prove, in all three instances, vast and varied poetic oeuvres, but it is also true that such an approach helps us begin to understand what a given poet—any poet—is really about. For Graham Foust, the subject to which he has returned most often across the arc of his previous five volumes—coming back like bees circling though the hive has long vanished—is postmodern malaise, the quiet desperation of 21st-century suburban life and the scattered moments of authentic joy that sometimes, intermittently, charge that life with an emotional electricity it otherwise lacks.

Foust’s latest collection, Time Down to Mind, continues to form and reform this subject, presenting a speaker weary not only of the world around him, but weary too—and this is the new twist in Foust’s long-developing study in malaise—of poetry’s pretension to in any way speak to, let alone capture, contemporary reality. If something like mimesis or verisimilitude has been, since Aristotle, central to poetic practice, Foust shows the naïveté—indeed the arrogance—of such shibboleths. Momentarily inhabiting certain “kinds” of poems or poetic gestures, Foust reveals each, in its turn, as an artificial imposition of meaning on the always-excessive reality of postmodernity; lyric confession, the found poem, the deep image—it’s all been done before, Foust suggests, and none seem quite to apply to the fractured, hyperreal ennui that Lyotard diagnosed as our “postmodern condition.” “There are no ‘kinds’ of living,” Foust writes in one poem, denying any commonality of experience and framing “living,” instead, as a singular affair irreducible to poetry’s generic conventions. “Poetry,” Foust writes, “is about the way the world won’t look.”

By now, of course, the duplicity in and suspicion of language’s claims on us are, post-poststructuralism, common coin, yet the problem, for Foust, is that poetry seems to present itself as what Kenneth Burke called “equipment for living,” as a set of procedures for meaning-making that might help reconcile us to the world we inhabit. Such reconciliation, Foust argues, is simply no longer possible, if indeed it ever was; in its absence, we are caught in the disjunction between always-antiquated poetic convention and our attempts to narrate our lives in ways that matter. “You force yourself back into the pastoral,” Foust writes in “Slow Survivor,” “which is itself forced into the summer day.” And, later in the poem, the advice: “keep plowing // toward whatever you can say you almost are.” It is not quite, for Foust, that this shuttling between poetry and the world produces the “schizophrenia” that writers like Fredric Jameson argue characterize postmodern subjectivity; rather, poetry’s impotence in the face of reality results instead in a pervasive disaffection, a kind of hazed, one-note affect in which, as Foust brilliantly demonstrates, not even poetry can muster the effort to finish what it starts.

Here, for example, is the beginning of “Jeopardy”:

Just off campus, ridiculous, precious—
a little green Bible in a puddle.


Like his or hers, mine’s a promise mostly of swerves;
a mostly honest and dreamt-around-in knot
I find remarkable to have to undo.

The opening image is a poignant one, a gesture toward the kind of poetic subject matter that might follow—religion in a secular age, imagistic minimalism, personal loss-of-faith. Yet in Foust’s hands it remains a gesture only, an attenuated pathos abandoned as the poem “swerves” toward newer, more promising material.  In Time Down to Mind, this swerving often takes the form of Foust’s playing with varied poetic types; if “Jeopardy” is Foust vamping as Pound or Williams, for example, the poem “Sur-” is Foust as Frost.  Here it is in its entirety:

One season, the weather went the other way,
and above me, something—an empty trellis?—

appeared so I could snake myself back up it.

That’s the way (uh huh, uh huh) I’d like to think
of my having arrived at pain’s barricades—

the cursèd place that uncertainty requires—

or of a gift I can neither hold nor have:
permission to prepare to be abandoned.

Whereas Foust’s mashing-up of the Frost nature lyric with KC and the Sunshine Band results in an accurately Frost-like sense of dread, Foust is less willing, for obvious reasons, to channel the boundless optimism of someone like Whitman, a poet who never for a moment, of course, considered the prospect of his own alienation from the world around him. In “Whitmanic,” Foust substitutes for Whitman’s expansive yet ever-centered subjectivity the dreadful anxiety that one is irreparably de-centered: “I’m framed by the day the way a boat is framed / by a lake,” Foust writes, “a little unforgivingly.” Later: “the day’s exact center being hard to suss, / I take my vistas from a flag full of holes.” This is far from Whitman’s celebratory singing of America, as Foust acknowledges at the poem’s conclusion when he writes that “America’s what I assume it to be, / and yet, as ever, or more often than that, / disquiet pulls its plow through every part of me.” Though he moves, as I’ve suggested, through various kinds of poems and poetic gestures, Foust’s writing in Time Down to Mind is characterized throughout by that resigned, disaffected apathy that is, in Foust and others, the singular affect of postmodernity.

At times, however, Foust’s interest in postmodern disaffection leads less to keen diagnoses of contemporary experience than to self-pitying philosophizing. “Nothing I’ve failed to not know could be nearer,” he writes in “Poem for a While.” “To be here is to stay put running away.” Such empty gestures toward ennui risk what Yvor Winters called the “fallacy of imitative form,” the idea that poetry must formally enact its subject matter, or that, as Winters put it, “a poet is justified in employing a disintegrating form in order to express a feeling of disintegration.” For Winters, this is “merely a sophistical justification for bad poetry, akin to the Whitmanian notion that one must write loose and sprawling poetry to ‘express’ the loose and sprawling American continent.” Time Down to Mind is least engaging when Foust revels too much in that world-weary glibness—that archness, that too-cool-for-school disaffection—that characterizes, for example, the work of poets like Michael Robbins, a writer who Foust resembles and often alludes to but whom he ultimately surpasses.

So too is the volume weak when its thinking-through of poetry’s relation to the world takes the form of a suspicion of anthropomorphism, that bogeyman of a contemporary ecopoetics movement that finds in this trope, above all others, an appropriative anthropocentrism imposed on the non-human. “We force into meanings that don’t concern us,” Foust writes elliptically in “Found Poem,” warning, later in the collection, that “the dark / we inhabit is neither fabric nor stain.” Yet poetry has all along been, and is now, about forging unlikely connections between the human and the non-human, about finding ourselves in an alien world that is, for better or worse, our home. This is not to say, of course, that poets have never, and are not now, writing in unethical ways about the natural world; but the un-nuanced rejection, tout court, of devices like anthropomorphism—and one hopes this line of thinking has run its course—ignores the complicated ways in which the world can, without ethical suspicion, be made over in the image of the human.

To point out these two relatively minor flaws in Time Down to Mind, however, is to take away from its otherwise deeply felt, playful, and perceptive engagement with postmodern malaise; the subject is not a new one for contemporary poetry, but Foust’s signal contribution is to thematize in compelling ways poetry’s own ambivalent working-through of this experience. Nor is the collection’s disaffection entirely monolithic. For if it is true, in Time Down to Mind, that we are radically alienated from our world, from each other, and from ourselves, it is also true that there exist for Foust moments of joy and satisfaction given off in what Williams called “isolate flecks,” phenomenal instants of sublimity in which we glimpse the possible oneness of experience. “There exist just blips of sublimity,” Foust writes in “Poem for a While”:

so how could I not’ve wanted the last light
late in the ash to be a star on the ground,
at least for the durations of my changes?
That some vastness appears to bother with me
isn’t manifestly the wrong thing to feel…

This is a gorgeous meditation on our enduring desire to find meaning—human meaning, poetic meaning—in the world around us, to forge stabilizing points of reference from which we might look on and name that “vastness” in which we are taken up. They are beautiful lines.  And they attest to Foust’s ability to wrench moments of beauty, even lyric beauty, from the pervasive disaffection of postmodernity. “Life stays mostly quiet in its blindspots,” Foust writes of this disaffection. “All there is is that some parts of it might not.”

About the Reviewer

Christopher Kempf is the author of Late in the Empire of Men, which won the Levis Prize from Four Way Books and is forthcoming in March 2017. Recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Wallace Stegner Program at Standford University, he is currently a Ph.D. student in English Literature at the University of Chicago.