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John Olson reviews

What He Ought To Know, New and Selected Poems
by Edward Foster
Edward Foster
Marsh Hawk Press, 2006. 126 pages. $10.00

Photo, above: Edward Foster.
This review is 1,200 words
or about 3 printed pages long

Inner light

Desire is grisly and labyrinthine. It goads us, provokes us, imbues us with infatuation and intrigue. It can bring us, reckless and teeming, to painful recognition or soothing absolution. When desire leads us where we cannot go, we have philosophy to succor our frustration with (to borrow a line from one of Foster’s poems) the “ecstasies of solitude.“ No one can remain free of desire. Its very abatement and mellowing with age becomes a kind of desire, a lavish ambivalence, a desire for desire to make us feel young again and a desire to dispense with desire and let us be. Simply, lusciously be. Sweet pure being unencumbered and serene.

Emerson, Dickinson, Thoreau have all had things to say about desire. It is the nature of desire to not to be satisfied, and it is the nature of the New England temperament to be stoically alert to the propositions nature provides for a more inward fulfillment. There is a strain of powerful transcendence in the New England sensibility. Perhaps it is a legacy from their Puritan forbears, a temperament undiluted by California hedonism or Midwest matter-of-factness. When Emerson wrote that “every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact” he was describing a sensibility so suffused with transcendence that everything becomes a reading, a translation of common occurrence into Orphic splendor.

This is especially true of Foster’s poetry. It reads in its entirety like a hymn to intellectual beauty. Its mood is almost always one of deep contemplation, a search for harmony among tangled relations. Each poem is an attempt to bring an inner light to the surface of the paper. The desire for intimacy is reverential, yet restrained and warmed by a private friction. This results in a language that is measured in its tone and sensuality, that is somehow able to be personal and impersonal simultaneously. Each word has a feeling of critical distinction, as if distilled out of some more turbulent compound of longing and agitation.

Bernini’s sculpture The Ecstasy Of St. Theresa comes to mind. St. Theresa leans back upon a rock as an angel stands near her smiling and holding a golden arrow in his hand. The drapery of both figures is full of agitation and energy (which is very unlike Foster’s velvety smooth poetry), but the underlying grace of the sculpture, and the formality of its medium  -  marble  -  offers an outward manifestation of this kind of disciplined rapture, a ravenous sensuality measured by stone and chisel.

There are forty poems in this collection garnered from earlier books. Thirty are new. Those familiar with Foster’s work will be able to identify the old from the new, but those new to his work will have to guess. None of the poems are dated, or identified as being from a particular collection. In a promotional flyer, the publisher identifies a cluster of poems as new: “Dear Image Maker,” “The Physicist Who Wants to Act, But Needs To Sleep,” Itinerary, 2004,” “Living Almost Without Cause,” “The Fractal Lie,” and, in particular, the long poem “The Way We Live Now: TL And I Splash About In The Tub, Resolving Differences.”

“The Way We Live Now” begins with an epitaph by Oscar Wilde: “What is said of a man is nothing. The point is, who says it.” Foster makes no mystery of his homosexual preferences; thus, the quote from Wilde is especially piquant. Whoever TL is, the pronoun ‘he’ makes it very clear it is not Tamara Landry of Beach Babes From Beyond, or Traci Lords of Boogie Boy. The poem appears in ten sections, alternating lineated verse with prose paragraphs. Each line is a tantalizing, maddening riddle hinting at a shared intimacy. Only hinting; it drives one a little crazy, reading this poem over and over again. And yet, one is drawn into it again and again, teased by the paucity of detail, lured by a lavish ambiguity.

Each section is given a title, as if it were part of a movie filmed over a long range of time: Pillows, Cruelty (first true story), A Dangerous Drive, Idealism, Try Ignoring Him, Realism, Club Sandwich, Memory, Cruelty (second true story), and Full House. Full House ends with a desperate assertion:

And so I sit up straight and give him one more chance, with rules. Rule one: don’t overload with details when I clearly understand. Rule two: October’s logical; that’s the time I want to be alone. Rule three: I don’t mind if you’re crafty, but don’t forget I know the system, too. Please note: I never ask (that’s just a tone I use). But I retain the right to plead.

Here it ends, so we do not know how TL reacts to this. One assumes his eyes are wide-open, perhaps more than a little surprised at the suddenness of this outpouring. What is telling is the conflict at the heart of this, the need to gratify desire, enjoy a relationship, yet maintain one’s boundaries. This is especially important of one happens to be a poet with a philosophical disposition. Frank O’Hara was happy to write in the midst of a crowded party. One senses this is not the case with Edward Foster.

One of the more detailed and straightforward accounts is “White Fever,” which is written in the informal mode of a diary entry and concerns a trip Foster made to Russia. He travels with a friend named Dima who takes him to see such sights as Moscow’s Donskoy monastery and (by way of Dima’s father) the Church of St. Nicholas in St. Petersburg, “so sacred to the Orthodox, that even during Soviet rule it was never closed.” “Beyond this opulence I sense an inner sanctity I cannot reach, so all is formal joy.” This sentence is steeped in precisely that kind of New England transcendence celebrated in Emerson’s and Thoreau’s essays, a spirituality as keen and sober as a knife blade, bountiful as stars yet fugitive as ether. There follows a moving description of a transept (“admiring the intricate perfection of the icons”), which ends with kissing the head of a man whose corpse lies in a coffin: “I’m drawn to him and watch as mourners bend and gently kiss his head. There’s no intention in the act: I bend and kiss him, too.” I find the phrase “no intention” very puzzling. By “no intention” does Foster mean nothing ulterior, nothing self-consciously deliberate? I believe so.

In addition to the poetry, there is also a generous collection of photographs taken by the author. The photographs are imbued with that “formal joy” illuminating the decorum of Foster’s poetry. There is one in particular, on page 47, I find especially haunting: a twilight view of the edge of a forest with the moon shining through a wraith of a cloud. The tree limbs are exquisitely fine, a pre-Raphaelitic vision of crepuscular beauty. The scene is chill and full of solitude. A perfect observance of what cannot be reached, but somehow immanent as bone.

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