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David B. Olsen

People are Stranger

Listening to Graham Foust

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There is poetry and there is pop music, and they have almost always been strangers. Rarely do they abide each other, and they almost never bed each other. When lyricists like Jim Morrison or Jewel forsake pop for a book of verse, the results are often silly or sad — lost songs that long for their sounding. Conversely, even the best lyrics languish when they are bound in a book, as the words seem both bled of their former urgency and wrestled from the muscular movements that make the human voice happen; in these books, it is as though the lyrics aspire to an upward mobility that is accorded by the page and not the stage. But in Graham Foust’s most recent volume of poetry, Necessary Stranger (Flood Editions, 2007), one finds a reconciliation of poetry and pop that lets them still be strange, as Foust’s work remembers the central tenet of the stranger as such: to register without recognizing.


If there are to be strangers at all, we cannot know them — but we also cannot ignore them. The stranger simply must be there, and we must see or sense him, there, with us, lingering at the far margins of familiarity. There are no strangers in isolation. Rather, the encounter with the stranger — this moment of the register — is also an affirmation of our own strangeness. We, too, are also in this case the stranger, and our cautious gaze is returned to us. We are also being registered, yet are equally unknown to the other. The stranger is therefore unsettling, because he forces us to become him, and at that very moment lose ourselves. But there is also something familiar about the stranger; at the first flash of registration, all strangers are the same. Because we don’t know them, we therefore don’t know them equally.


And, of course, if the stranger is to remain strange, he must vanish. We can never really know the stranger at all, or he becomes something else entirely.


Foust toys with this transformation throughout Necessary Stranger – a transformation which is at its most pointed and poignant in its relation to music. Foust’s poetry at once sounds and sounds like. We find fragments that we recognize, but do not know. Or at least do not know by heart. Instead, Foust sounds the movement between radio stations, like fingering those old, forgotten dials that travel back and forth across the band — lost now to digital precision. There is the sense throughout Necessary Stranger that we are with Foust in looking for something that can only be found by snapping up the samples and scraps that we must first identify in order to then identify with. In “Of What Seems Like My Father,” for example, Foust begins with a seemingly well-worn song:


I met him in the candy store.
He turned around and smiled at me—
you get the picture
Yes, we see. (1–4, emphasis his)


Here, the speaker stages the conversion of strangers — the moment when the stranger ceases to be strange. This “picture” is a familiar one, like those moments when a strange face fades into someone we know as they come closer. Yet at this same moment in the poem, the reader may also recognize the source of Foust’s lines: the opening of the Shangri-Las 1964 hit, “Leader of the Pack.” We are aligned with the speaker, then, in that what began as a strange poem — which we could not know at all at the outset — becomes something we may recognize. But how do we know these lines, and how well? The lines in this poem may seem familiar, but almost imperceptibly, Foust has altered them from the original. The original lyrics actually begin: “I met him at the candy store.” It is a minor difference, to be sure, but we can see that Foust has not only changed the line, but the relation between the speaker and the unnamed man. To meet him “at” the candy store may imply something potentially more calculated or predetermined — a rendezvous, perhaps. (If we were making plans, to meet “at the store” sounds somewhat more likely that to meet “in the store.”)


Foust’s alteration of “at” to “in” makes the poem more persuasively about the relationship between strangers and the chance encounter of the speaker; the change seems to foreclose on the possibility of something planned, affirming instead a first meeting. But at the same time, “in” also assumes a proximity or closeness that is not necessarily apparent in the original. Foust’s new line is therefore a strange surprise and an intimacy all at once. But that the subject of the poem only “seems” like a father as well can be read to again force familiarity’s hand; we are plunged into doubt at the moment when the figure is first registered. Is he or isn’t he the father? The quintessential stranger resides in such doubt; we look in that first glance for the face to somehow become familiar to us. Finally, that Foust makes the poem ostensibly about a father – and not a lover — further challenges our familiarity and offers a distorted riff on the family romance. Even in its initial lines, the poem is already stranger to us than it was before we’d even registered it by taking that first, unfamiliar glance at the page.


These incompatibilities — familiar and strange, father and not father — are emblematic of Foust’s concerns throughout the book. As we continue reading “Of What Seems Like My Father,” we find again a familiar line that is pretty much pop at its most obvious: Tom Jones’s chestnut, “It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone” (11, 13). Of course it’s not unusual; if anything, it would be unusual to not be loved by anyone. That the line bears repeating in Foust’s poem, however — especially when brevity and economy are one of his greatest strengths — seems to suggest a kind of comfort in it. This chorus, for Foust’s speaker, is something to be clung to and kept close even when the words themselves may be far from true. The poem reminds us that pop music will often captivate us as though a wish or a promise, when in fact no cliché can ever capture the sheer singularity of experiences. We can thus imagine that the speaker here is less one who speaks and more like the thing from which music is heard, as in the speakers of a stereo system, spitting out sounds — the origin of repetition. If we therefore see the speaker as an object of articulation, and not necessarily its source, then the curious intersection of the aural and the visual in the latter half of the poem makes more sense: “I’m precisely the quiet of his blind spot’s eye” (22). The loneliness that is belied by the love songs is imagined as though a silence that cannot be seen. It seems a little strange, yes, but that we can register this aporetic image without necessarily recognizing it is precisely the point. As it calls forth both sight and sound, it cements the figure of the stranger as we know him — at “A border’s bruised clarity” (27, emphasis his) — as well as what happens when popular lyrics commingle with the properly poetic.


Foust freely admits his fondness for pop music, and the process by which it transforms itself into poetry. In an interview with David Pavelich, Foust seems to suggest that even the most innocuous lyrics can become disconcerting over time: “I grew up listening to and buying and loving pop music, and again, I think it’s what put me in touch, in some way, with the idea of speaking to the world from an unsettled place” (3). One of the reasons that this music can be unsettling is precisely because the lyrics are eventually unstable to Foust: “A lot of times I’ll hear something incorrectly and then like it better than the ‘correct’ version and then decide to use it in a poem” (4). Of course, there is nothing strange — or even unsettling, as it were — to find allusion, quotation, and even misquotation in poetry. This is perhaps the most familiar aspect of Foust’s work. One finds repetition and resemblance that, though it may be willfully misread by the poet, has already been indeterminate in our own ears. Foust’s poems are doing what we do already. In a musical culture in which the chorus is king, who doesn’t have to fake, change, or fade out for a few unfamiliar lines while singing along with the radio? Yet we are rarely lost in Necessary Stranger; rather, we become more aware of our own looking. Sometimes we are looking for Foust himself, who is occasionally obscured by his own found sound, becoming a stranger to his own poem.


This is perhaps at once the collection’s greatest strength and weakness. For all of the seamlessness with which the familiar emerges and recedes, one also begins to read the poems with a certain paranoia. Upon recognizing — or even misrecognizing — so many lines so frequently, the origin of any given line becomes slightly suspect. The poem “Day Job,” for example, begins with the prospect of a retentive psychic pain: “What’s it not like? / You’re all memory, plight” (1–2, emphasis his). The poem ends, however, with a seeming evacuation and release: “The unconscious is structured / like a bladder” (8–9). Here again is that shock of familiarity that Foust finds so fertile. These final lines almost surely originate in Jacques Lacan’s famous dictum that the unconscious is structured like a language. And with this in mind, there may be an attendant humor not immediately evident in the poem itself, since Lacan also once remarked that what sets humans apart from animals is the fact that excrement (and how to get rid of it) constitutes a serious and singularly human problem for us. Foust’s two lines are therefore the epitome of elision: linking language, psychology, and waste with far more economy than Lacan would have ever dared.


But let’s say that I didn’t recognize the source of the line. What is lost in not hearing Lacan here? Or what happens when I read other lines in Foust that I think are purely imaginative and inventive and cool, when they are in fact borrowed from sources that I have simply not yet heard or read? Or what happens when the tone of a poem doesn’t seem to match up in any way with its seeming source, as in “Two Versions of the Same Watery, Domestic Poem,” the title of which is (I’m pretty sure) an allusion to Pavement’s 1992 EP Watery, Domestic? And what if actually it is Pavement themselves who alluded to something with the words Watery, Domestic, and I have no idea what that allusion is? This is paranoia par excellence — the insatiable eye for something to point beyond itself.


Yet there is nothing postmodern in the allusiveness of these poems. For a collection in which the titles of the first three poems establish a pretty obvious debt to the histrionic, pyrotechnic excess of Van Halen — “1984,” “Jump,” and “Panama” — there is surprisingly little irony in Foust’s verse. The allusions are not labored or strained, and there is no sense in Necessary Stranger that the poems are somehow better than popular culture or psychoanalysis for having borrowed from these discourses. There is distance in Foust, but it is not ironic. It is instead the space between strangers as they vanish from each other. For as much as Foust has fun, his poems are also incredibly lonely.


So what happens when Foust’s watery, domestic versions sound nothing like the educated irony of Pavement’s principal lyricist Stephen Malkmus? In this poem in particular, one finds a distillation of the loneliness and longing that marks Foust’s poetry as a whole. In more popular media, the trope of two versions often juxtaposes the comic and the tragic — two stories may unfold synchronously, offering alternate renditions of the same initial spark. Woody Allen’s 2004 film Melinda and Melinda, for example, wonders which mode of storytelling is best suited to follow an interesting idea for a first scene. Even British rapper The Streets ends his seminal A Grand Don’t Come for Free with the song “Empty Cans,” which provides two distinct conclusions to a narrative arc that has occupied the whole album. In each instance, the use of versions allows for comedy and tragedy to coexist in the same space, revealing that the difference is often only a simple shift in perspective. In Foust’s “Versions,” however, it is the situation that changes, not the emotional weight; both versions of the poem seem to suggest that neither proximity nor distance affords any lasting contentment, and both are equally heartbreaking. In the first, Foust again calls on cliché to set up a more precise revelation: “I had good news and bad news: / Love is trust in time” (5–6, emphasis his). It is the nature of this time that is at stake here, and the question of whether love can outlast the inevitable. For the first version, the answer seems no, as the speaker takes little consolation in the sad prize that has been left by his loved one:


You left and you left
an earring in
the bed.

I took it
for a little rearview mirror. (7–11)


This version ends, then, with an object that can falsify the story itself: a version-creating machine. The earring becomes an imagined mirror that ever obscures the present by looking only to the past; the object obliterates its own reality — the fact that it is all that’s left of her — by pointing away to a relationship that never could have been in the end. In the second version, though, we find that the lover may not have left at all, yet there is no comfort in the converse of the first situation:


I want to tell you
I miss you—
you’re not gone. (12–14)


Literally, at least, the lover is still close — her clothes are still there, “folded near / an overturned chair” (16–17) — but still she is missed. In this version, the absence may not be apparent, but again the tone conveys that time will still win. Desire is itself an impediment to intimacy here. That the speaker wants to tell his lover she is missed suggests that he either cannot or will not. To want is always to affirm that something is strange to us — that it is somehow outside the possibility of possession. The last lines of this version echo its first to suggest that when it comes to wanting, there is no assurance that the realization of desire is itself desirable: “It doesn’t seem / to want to rain” (21–22). In this scenario, if it does rain, it does so against its own desire; if it doesn’t rain, then desire is a whimsy that thwarts satisfaction. Foust uses his versions, here, to remind us that the outcome of desire is often the same whether its object is realized or not. Thus, in each possibility that this poem instantiates, Foust affirms only the stranger: that which invariably vanishes. There is always only loss, and it seems as though the desire to bring the stranger close only drives him or her away.


This thesis is prominent throughout Necessary Stranger, as though it is the very condition of the stranger’s necessity. It is usually the final lines that do the most work, and many of these poems end with a literal image of vanishing; form and theme converge in the exposition of endings. At the end of “Google” — a poem otherwise littered with unrelated observations — the speaker concedes: “I never find you” (10). As with so much of Foust, the stranger remains strange, and the speaker himself becomes the stranger at the same time. Google provides Foust with an ambiguous image that straddles the public and the private; although it seems to embody and access the whole of public information, it is nevertheless a private activity in the end. To search for someone on Google is to look for them without their knowing, or, in other words, to ensure one’s own strangeness. The searcher vanishes before he can even be seen. And if the speaker had in fact googled himself in this scenario, then we must imagine an increasingly nested coordination of distance and self-difference. If in his relation to music Foust will occasionally obscure himself in the process of quotation and misquotation, then the negotiation of speaking and searching here again asks whether the acknowledgment of the stranger always demands an unavoidable loneliness.


As in “Google,” Foust repeatedly finds his speaker alone when he should be surrounded. In “Iowa City,” the speaker adopts an affected, albeit wistful nostalgia for an era that he did not know, and in the process seems to want to reveal very little of himself:


Compelled to pretend, I get
all elderly. As in beer was a quarter

and everyone would dance. (1–3, emphasis his)


Although he imagines a rollicking scene, the speaker cannot ultimately pretend to not be alone, and the short poem offers a fleeting image of a boy and girl before concluding with a reminder of the true banality of the speaker’s mise en scène:


Graveyard. Graveyard.
Graveyard. Groceries.

I’m the only one on this bus. (7–9)


These are some of Foust’s most haunting lines, as though the view from the bus offers at first only images of indistinguishable cemeteries; the word is the same — “Graveyard” — as though an incantation to the only real promise of life. That “Groceries” intrude, however, is all the more sad, in that not even the specter of death can occupy our thoughts in a world of errands and chores. Presumably, the speaker should not be alone in this, as the fate of everyone in Iowa City and elsewhere is precisely the prospect of death and cooking. But he is instead by himself on the bus without even a stranger looming in the margins to make him feel less alone. In the poem “Only the Asymptotes” as well, we again find a moment in which what should be communal is dissolved into privacy — or more specifically, what should be a chorus is instead a solo. In this poem, which begins elusively with “a sound somewhere” (1), the speaker concludes with an imperative to join him in this sound, followed by the realization that this desire can never be made manifest:


all together now

apart (7–9)


As in so many of Foust’s poems, we encounter again that scene of seeming incompatibility and impossibility, which in this case asks whether we are to read the poem linearly or simultaneously. Does the final “apart” signify an ending in loss and brokenness, or are these lines somehow at the same time — containing a song that is at once sung by the many and the one? If we can accept the latter, then we are again in the regime of the stranger, whom we are with at the very moment we are the least close to him.


For Foust, this kind of antipodal tension is explored both musically — songs at once quoted and misquoted in the same line, as we’ve seen — and grammatically, in that he often entertains the incompatible with the wit of a mystic; Foust uses koans the way punks use power chords. In “Huffy,” a largely unadorned childhood memory is concluded in a way that fixes its fluid place in the speaker’s memory:


This is to refer
to almost falling
from falling. It’s a
dream I’m not ashamed. (14–17)


The image of “almost falling / from falling” dares us, in a way, to establish a concrete coordinate of the action here. Has anyone actually fallen in the poem? If we linger in this almost gelatinous interstice for a moment, we might conclude that to almost fall from the idea of falling itself is to lack something essential in not having fallen. But can what know what is lost? Reading these lines, we are literally stuck in them, and as such are ultimately aligned with the very scene that the poem seeks to describe. Similarly, in “Vacation,” Foust muses on “a brawl / of water, the sea” (1–2), only to challenge the resonance of the image itself in the final lines: “I will always never / see this again” (10–11). The sea is not permanently lost, but is instead always being lost. We find again the stranger, here, becoming stranger and stranger the more we fail to recognize him. To be strange is neither instantaneous nor absolute, but a dance of glances in time; we have to stay strange ceaselessly, or we lose the stranger.


One wonders, then, whether it is possible for strangers to reappear and be strange again. To be strange for a second time. In many respects, Necessary Stranger itself risks seeming far too familiar in light of Foust’s previous work. Both As In Every Deafness (Flood Editions, 2003) and Leave the Room to Itself (Ahsahta Press, 2003) have already staged the same thorny, lonely possibilities of his newer work. Like the perpetually receding seaside of “Vacation” and the unpopulated bus of “Iowa City,” Foust’s early “Untitled Poem” find his speaker in a now-familiar predicament:


I am only
not standing


in a room (8–11)


The sparse, serious tone of these lines presents another space not immediately imaginable. Is the speaker not standing alone, or not standing in a room? And to be “only” doing anything belies the impotence of someone who could not do more, or not do enough. In “Cotton Fever” — also from As In Every Deafness — Foust confuses the separation of speaker and auditor in a way that anticipates the bilateral becoming of two strangers: “I’m losing your / voice and I’ll / die in your sleep” (1–4). His repeated return to these preoccupations would seem redundant only if they weren’t so concerning, pressing, and scary. Foust poetry succeeds precisely because it engenders questions too large to be answered. He may still ask the same questions in the same ways with Necessary Stranger, but they resonate with a kind of ancient longing that is transformed and renewed in their very repetition. His poetry is satisfying only insofar as the desire of that poetry cannot be satisfied. This is not unlike the way we will occasionally know every word to the most embarrassing pop songs possible; there are things we want desperately to find — love being maybe the most obvious among them — that are simply not novel.


In poetry, art, and music, we often tend to equate the experimental with the unheard of — that which was previously inaccessible to our ears or eyes. In these cases, novelty is the measure of quality. Foust’s poetry, however, is experimental in a more originary or elemental sense, in that it actually proposes experiments — exercises in thought and language that test their very limits and potential. Foust sees the koan, the aporia, and the chiasmus as indispensable occupations. There is no explosion of form, no damage, no loss of orientation or design in his work. Rather, his poems are carefully contained so that we can find a place in them. Perhaps it is not a place to rest but rather to work, because experiments — as anyone else who has barely passed sophomore chemistry can attest — will often fail. Failure sits on a throne in Foust. His speakers never find, never see, never do enough. But most importantly, they also never seem to stop. The failure to stop searching, looking, or longing is that which compels his poetry. It registers problems without recognizing a solution, or even the likelihood of any solution at all. Without loss there would be no mourning — an activity that has a value in and of itself, but could not occur in any but the saddest circumstances. Foust reminds us that there is always something sad about pop music, since it is all but doomed to write the same songs again and again. Like the stranger who will invariably vanish, love songs must yield their joy in the end so that heartbreak songs can exist at all. But then even heartbreak ends in turn, and we’re all sunshine again for a few more beautiful minutes. Graham Foust simply hears this happen at the same time.

Works Cited

Foust, Graham. As In Every Deafness. Chicago: Flood Editions, 2003.

——— . Necessary Stranger. Chicago: Flood Editions, 2007.

Pavelich, David. “Poetic Profile: Graham Foust.” Chicago Postmodern Poetry. June 2005. 7 May 2008.

David Olsen

David Olsen

David B. Olsen is a Ph.D Candidate in the Department of English at Saint Louis University, where he teaches literature and writing. He is also a graduate of the Cornell University School of Criticism and Theory.

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