Or perhaps, instead of the poet Orpheus leading Eurydice, back to front, it’s the other way around: writing as he’s being led (forward? upward?), and from the back he must speculate on the face — a face lost to him, if we believe the powerful myth, leaving as it glimpses around.
The effect of this narrow form (in “Forcing House” and in most of his poems) is, I think, not aural or spatial but temporal. Much space does exist on the page, practically a whole room in fact, room enough almost to “leave everything / open.” But it’s the time it takes to read these poems, or the lack of time, that leads my response.
In 1932 a young George Oppen (1908-1984) wrote to William Carlos Williams, and in his reply quotes something Williams had said that alluded to having shown Oppen’s poems to others: “I was very pleased — naturally — with what you say of my work. And that ‘they will not think it aesthetic, but —’ : is ‘they’ the public (what the poems do lack, I think, is the dimension of reading — the direction in which one reads; that is to say, they do not and are not really intended to create an environment, so that if reading is to ‘fill time’ — enuf to matter — I can see that they are not very desirable)” (2).
So in defense of his poems Oppen agrees that they lack “the dimension of reading,” they do not “create an environment,” and reading them will not “fill time.” None of these normal requirements, though, satisfy his desire. It’s the fourth suggestion on what the poems lack — “the direction in which one reads” — that most vividly describes his attempt to turn reading 90 degrees. Reading normally moves across, helping to establish a sense of duration. Instead look down. From Oppen’s Discrete Series (1934): “The fields are road-sides, / Rooms outlast you” (13) and
In the frame
Of the building — —
Her immense keel
Under fifteen feet
Water — — (10)
Recall here Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (1855), that luminous moment when the object of the poet-knight’s search suddenly appears and he realizes that his looking forward has blinded him to all else beside. As Oppen’s poem will do, the moment of the poet’s encounter with a building is compared to a boat running aground:
What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
The round squat turret, blind as the fool’s heart
Built of brown stone, without a counterpart
In the whole world. The tempest’s mocking elf
Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf
He strikes on, only when the timbers start. (181-186)
With an eye to the future Browning’s poet-knight stumbles on the tower, the metaphor to prove it taking us down into what happens out of sight when a ship cracks open on a dark “shelf” beneath. (See the end of Foust’s “The Flooded Grave”: “We shatter that way. / We don’t and then we do” .) Contrasting this, then, is Oppen’s unscathed boat — it’s the ground instead that suffers.
Rather than “fill time” (duration), Oppen’s poems empty time, so that we hear the seconds chip away more clearly. The insistent lineation sifts sentences into phrases and words, so that “Bolt,” “Grounds,” and “Chips” can be read as either nouns or verbs. Read as well, in my translation, “Bolt / In the frame / Of the building” as “Word / In the frame / of the poem.” Oppen’s poem drops or spills down the page as the content too shifts from buildings above ground to underwater contact. Reading Foust’s poems is likewise a reading down, not across, from the cornice to the basement. A sighting, a plumbing, each poem a yo-yo wheel spinning down its line, unraveling the title. This next poem literally begins and ends with (returns to) its title.
we beat against
a dream —
we are gradually
These “pieces / of shadow” recall Stephen Crane’s “Black Riders,” those letters gathered (“casually amassed”) into words (“we”) and galloping across the page, a drumbeat in a white and hollow dream-land. A silent silence does not exist: ask everyone to be quiet or even leave the room (to itself) — as words might leave a page to itself — and you still see the sounds that black shadows make. Establish in the room a stillness and even then will be crumbling: “Tomorrow is the newer / of two ruins” (27).
What Foust seems to beat against or is beaten with is the question: What makes something exceptional? What makes a person or relationship or an event or a language exceptional, singular, or distinctive? As a start, I find implied in the poems the idea that nothing in ordinary experience is exceptional, and yet a poem itself can be an exception. Because exceptions do not preexist (in our lives), the challenge is to make them happen — and they can, in a poem. To begin it must be real, whatever it is: “the robot so real / that I thought / it was a robot,” from “Study for Stander” (29). Foust’s impersonal poems do nothing to affirm or deny your own particular experiences in the world (experiences that theoretically we all might share). By “impersonal” I mean poems written by someone who insists that nothing about his particular life necessarily makes him an exception. I’m thinking sideways here, of Foust’s
The General Desire
If waves were places.
If things were more
if things only fit
into the store.
as need. (37)
It’s the “Nothing is / / as” construction near the end that I take to define Foust’s attitude towards poetry’s exceptionalism. This phrase alludes for me to line four in Wallace Stevens’s “World Without Peculiarity” in The Auroras of Autumn (1950).
World Without Peculiarity
The day is great and strong —
But his father was strong, that lies now
In the poverty of dirt.
Nothing could be more hushed than the way
The moon moves toward the night.
But what his mother was returns and cries on his breast.
The red ripeness of round leaves is thick
With the spices of red summer.
But she that he loved turns cold at his light touch.
What good is it that the earth is justified,
That it is complete, that it is an end,
That in itself it is enough?
It is the earth itself that is humanity . . .
He is the inhuman son and she,
She is the fateful mother, whom he does not know.
She is the day, the walk of the moon
Among the breathless spices and, sometimes,
He, too, is human and difference disappears
And the poverty of dirt, the thing upon his breast,
The hating woman, the meaningless place,
Become a single being, sure and true. (388)
So in Stevens’s poem the formulation “Nothing could be more” anticipates Foust’s “Nothing is as.” Both constructions posit an exception: only this, nothing else but this, nothing else compares. On the surface, then, the exception is anti-poetic, eluding simile. Some etymology: while “exception” (usually used to mean “deviation from the norm”) derives from excipere, which means “to take out,” “peculiar” (usually used to refer to something “distinctive”) returns to peculium, which means “private property.”
“Without Peculiarity” thus well suits the world in this poem: the poet does not own what goes on, instead just handles the dirt (not land) and moon and spices for a time. “Without Peculiarity” also describes the world in a Foust poem — as he writes, “my place / won’t take” (66). The exceptions (“Nothing is as” and “Nothing could be more”) do occur in the poems, but they reflect, I think, the desire of both poets to make the poem itself an exception to the world. After all, in Stevens’s poem things happen that ordinarily cannot: “difference disappears” and all become “a single being.” Foust’s “Forcing House” too: in it one can “leave everything / open.”
This idea of poetry as exception was common among Modernist poets. The poem’s materials were to be everyday (without peculiarity) but real attention to them makes the poem itself an exceptional thing. In the “Prologue” to Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920), for instance, Williams claimed that the “true value is that peculiarity which gives an object a character by itself. The associational or sentimental value is the false. Its imposition is due to lack of imagination, to an easy lateral sliding” (14); and most “keen is that power which discovers in things those inimitable particles of dissimilarity to all other things which are the peculiar perfections of the thing in question” (18). For Stevens and Foust, “the thing is question” is not so much a person or a wheelbarrow, but poetry. And while Williams might quibble with Stevens and Foust on the power of associational thought, his general point that the poet through imagination must make the poem peculiar (to the world) shaves off much of their difference.
Other Modernist claims were that readers should see the edges of words and that they should move. In 1935 Laura Riding collaborated with the experimental filmmaker and sculptor Len Lye on the essay “Movement as Language,” which begins: “Movement is the result of a feeling in one thing of strong difference from other things. Movement is always one thing moving away from other things — not toward. And the result of movement is to be distinct from other things: the result of movement is form. The history of any definite form is the movement of which the form is the result” (39).
Foust’s poems are full of this movement (not duration): the words drift away from each other; there exists a splitting — language fission — and a consequent release of energy. The poet must be exceptional (“take out”), surgical, so that the body in this language cannot be whole. “I am all / of a body,” the poet writes in “Untitled Poem” (12); but in “Against a Future Need” that body has been particularized: “his insistent / skin — / / strewn / bone, stuck / / muscle, cut / heart” (45). Foust’s poetics thus builds in part out of these Modernist ones. To suggest this does not imply backwardness, of course; gaining momentum recently has been the argument that the best contemporary poetry extends Modernist poetics (for example, Marjorie Perloff’s 21st-Century Modernism ).
When Williams was in his 70s and looking back, he commented on the poet he was at around age 30: “The orderliness of verse appealed to me — as it must to any man — but even more I wanted a new order” (18). Also around 30 when he wrote these poems, Foust equally seems to be attracted to the “orderliness of verse.” Many of his readers have already commented or will at some point on the precision (but not preciousness) of his language use, but to me there’s the right amount of play (though not a looseness certainly). Such play tempers itself with the thought that nothing is as exceptional as writing (poetry). Near the end of the book a poem with the title “The ever-present danger of perishing would not permit of a language restricted to gesture,” a quotation from Rousseau, is followed by even lovelier lines: “I can’t / breathe can ever / only be written” (64). Only be written. This belief in language makes (the writing of) “I can’t breathe” that much easier and harder to read.