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   Jacket 32 — April 2007        link Jacket 32 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Jason Stumpf reviews
Necessary Stranger
by Graham Foust

Flood Editions, Chicago, 65 pages, ISBN 0-9787467-1-6

This review is about 2 printed pages long.

“A wind-up // device that slurs / its words”

“Today be huge / and strange”: so the poems in Graham Foust’s third collection make it seem. These fragmentary lyrics ponder the difficulties of daily life from amidst uneasy silence. They are jagged, short, short-lined intersections of thought and reality set against a backdrop of white-space. Valuing carefully weighed language over expansive recollection, Foust’s poems distill moments to minimal essences: aphorisms, musical bits of language, humorous juxtapositions, and vivid abstractions.
     Throughout Necessary Stranger, tightly wrought poems build context for one another, gathering into de facto sequences that illuminate physical, emotional, and social anxieties. In “Jump,” one of three poems to take its title from a Van Halen song, the speaker muses:

      [… ] God,
      the body is odd —
      the most remote and unacceptable
      of luxuries, in fact.

Not prayer and not quite exclamation, both a response to the physical scene that begins the poem and an associative leaping away from it – this, like many of Foust’s statements, is remarkable for the multitude of registers in which it can be understood, what the late poet Robert Creeley, in an extensive blurb, calls “the myriad ‘rhetorics’ that overlay our speaking.” This polyphony allows Foust’s poems to tilt between reticent gravity and confused action in a single turn of phrase, leaving readers to dwell in the possibilities of misunderstanding—

      in order to stop what I thought
      was a rape, I once threw up
      on an unsuspecting couple

                  (“A Note on Ontology”)


      I, too,
      riot to

      hear if I can hear

                  (“To a Broken Payphone”)

—and aphoristic truth:

[… ] The only critique
of paradise is paradise

                  (“Los Angeles”).

These weavings between nonsense and earnest epiphany lead to anxious ends. There are conclusions but there is little closure. Rather, shifting between registers, Foust’s poems restlessly dismantle and reshape themselves and their subjects before our eyes.
     Nearly as intriguing as Foust’s deductions are his questions, capable of spinning a poem into being. One example is the poem “Of What Seems Like My Father” which propels itself along with simple questions such as “and then?” and “do you hear me?”, creating a dialog with a disembodied inquisitor that puts the speaker on the defensive. What follows is part storytelling, part cross-examination as the speaker modulates between reciting the lounge-wisdom of Tom Jones (“It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone”) and something like a Zen koan (“Try closing your eyes with your eyes closed”). These many rhetorics create poems that are not lonely creations but uneasy patchworks of spaces from which to think.
     The poems in Necessary Stranger consider ways in which the minor is inextricable from the grand. Here, as in Foust’s other books, are lyric poems tinged with wit and titles suggesting personal account (“Life Story” and “Of What Seems Like My Father”), philosophical definition (“Marital” and “Parental”), music (“After Aretha Franklin” and “Number One Hit Song”), and even a poem that lifts its title, “Why I am Not a Painter,” from a Frank O’Hara poem. From these intersections of the conceptual with the actual springs humor darkened by foreboding. Here too, are new possibilities for discovery as Foust pieces together shards from contemporary wreckage and situates his thoughts amid new scapes.