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Chris Pusateri reviews

Leave the Room to Itself, by Graham Foust

Ahsahta Press, 2003, 54 pages, US$12.95, ISBN 0-916272-77-X paper

All poetry owes something to its predecessors, and in Graham Foust’s Leave the Room to Itself, a number of influences are readily evident: we see Emily Dickinson (stripped of her emdash) and George Oppen (circa The Materials), as well as hints of Lorine Niedecker and Jack Spicer. As we pan into the realm of the living, the poet whose work invites comparisons with Foust’s own is Robert Creeley, whose sparse, economical style espouses an artistic dictum more often associated with prose: namely, that less is more.

And Foust’s work is nothing if not spare. The compact pieces which comprise Leave the Room to Itself are usually under fifteen lines and their brevity demands a very deliberate manner of reading. Like the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it towns of rural anywhere, what meets the eye is only half the story, and unless the eye resigns itself to staring, it will miss much in these small, condensed poems. There are times when an entire poem unravels into a single extended measure, as if taken from the respiration of the Projectivist breath-line:

Collapse back

Keep on

keeping out
and in.


as the world
(any world

I’ve welcomed) would —

on thinnest ice
and medicine

and lists. (45)

Foust’s poetry could be analyzed as workshop topiary, but this would be to do it a disservice. Taken alone, a technical analysis reduces the poetry to little more than a mechanical exercise, and in the process avoids a larger, and to my mind, more important discussion. That is, what wider issues does the work engage? In what ways does it reach, as Joe Wenderoth says in his introduction to the book, the ‘unteachable moment,’ while eschewing the easy metaphysics of the romantic sublime?

On this point, Creeley is instructive: if form is never more than an extension of content, then we must think of the formal structure of Foust’s poems as being a symptom of their interiority. In so doing, we take a page from the architectural songbook, which supposes that the façade of a building should tell us something about what can be found inside.

Foust cover image

It is fitting, then, that one needs look no further than the front cover to discover one of the central features of Foust’s work. His obsession with rooms begins on the title page and continues throughout the collection, as in these lines from ‘Roomsound.’

I should like to have spent
my whole life
in a nursing home.

In the bright, bare grasp of a room
in this nursing home.

These white wrong numerals,
this right
white wall. (39)

When pondering Foust’s use of the room-as-trope, it is helpful to consider how rooms typically function. In an architectural sense, they divide interior space, and by extension, dictate the types of activities that can occur within that space. For instance, some rooms are for eating, others are for sleeping, and still others are chambers for torture. If each poem is analogous to a room, then there are two doors: one leading into the room and one leading out. Sometimes, there is a single door for both.

While prevailing notions of form are often delimited by their inherent self-referentiality, the observational quality of Foust’s work hints at a series of concentric structures, as if the narrator were in a room looking out into another larger room whose spaces are neighborhoods, city limits, and geopolitical boundaries. There is a sense in which the smallness of the poems is calculated to reflect their role as part of the ‘content’ of a larger social discourse, all of which informs a praxis where easy distinctions between form and content begin to destabilize. When we turn the page (open the door) to pass into another poem (another room) we find that the doorknob is warm. The commotion we hear from within indicates that these poems are not empty chambers awaiting our arrival, but are spaces in which something is already occurring.

Rather than acting as a cog in a linear order of temporal succession, each poem contributes to a complex simultaneity, one that better reflects our state of affairs than does any patently ‘mimetic’ (read: sequential) narrative.

Chop this
slaughterhouse logic.

Once is struck
with unimaginable sameness.

Twice is all there is,
is never here. (3)

This discontinuity hints at a crisis of perspective that both threatens and enables the poetic enterprise. Foust’s comment that ‘I have never looked at a landscape/ without seeing other landscapes’ (43) introduces the troubling possibility that the rooms we’ve been viewing are all versions of the same room, each different from the others in the manner that Gertrude Stein’s repetitions were not in fact replications at all, but a series of sovereign occurrences being performed anew. What Foust asks of his readers is redolent of what Nietzsche demanded of the eye:

... an absurdity and a nonsense. There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing’; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will [be] our ‘concept’ of this thing. (Nietzsche, 119)

So there is, as one might expect, no way to leave the room to itself, as everything about this book is calibrated to include the reader as another entity in a universe of things. This entails an elimination of the critical distance that reading so often is. Pierre Bourdieu notes of the observer that ‘the objectivist[’s] relation to the object is a way of keeping one’s distance, a refusal to take oneself as an object, to be caught up in the object.’ (Bourdieu, 19)

Foust allows for no literary tourism, where the reader becomes pleasantly absorbed in the text while remaining, in a sense, separate from it; instead, the reader of Leave the Room to Itself is made to objectify himself. If he hopes to experience the room(s) of Leave the Room to Itself, then he must first become an object of his own observations. Or become, in other words, one of the room’s furnishings.

The profound sense of unease created in the reader, is, in a sense, the key to the room he’s checked into. Foust’s project is doubtlessly an ambitious one, and as the reader exits the room that is this book, he notices, with no small touch of irony, that its east-facing windows point toward ‘failure’s failure’s failure’s fate,’ which is, indubitably, the future.

Works Cited
Bourdieu, Pierre. The Logic of Practice. Trans. Richard Nice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. W. Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage Books, 1969.

Photo of Graham Foust

Graham Foust (photo, left) was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and raised in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. With degrees from Beloit College, George Mason University, and the University at Buffalo, he teaches at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. He and his wife live in Iowa City.

Reviewer Chris Pusateri is the author of Berserker Alphabetics (xPressed, 2003) and the chapbook VI Fictions (Gong, forthcoming). Recent work was or will be published in Bird Dog, Chicago Review, Fence, LVNG, and Magazine Cypress. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

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