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The Beginning Of Sorrows
East Rockaway, New York: Marsh Hawk Press, 2009. 105 pages. $14.95.
“Colors, sounds, temperatures, pressures, spaces, times, and so forth,” observed Ernst Mach in his groundbreaking work The Analysis Of Sensations, “are connected with one another in manifold ways; and with them are associated dispositions of mind, feelings, and volitions.” Nothing is static. Everything changes. The planet tilts and winter turns to summer; a photograph of rivets on a ship’s hull appear to be divots if we turn the photograph upside down because we are accustomed to seeing shadows formed by overhead light; pain turns to pleasure; pleasure turns to pain. We do not inhabit a reality that is put before us preassembled and inanimate. We assist, consciously and/or unconsciously, in the creation of what we experience. But neither is it accurate to say that what we experience is entirely our creation; that leads to solipsism, and madness. There is an objective reality. There is a subjective reality. We inhabit a realm somewhere between. This is where language quivers, transubstantiates, and becomes poetry.
Or The Beginning Of Sorrows.
No one is ever satisfied. No one can ever be satisfied. We are each a Tantalus reaching for elusive answers, holistic patterns, meaningful parallels. We live in a world of relations and it is through relations that we try to stitch together a pattern with enough consistency to permit narration. Or at least navigation. Each, in our own way, try to make sense of chaos. Yet the world all too often remains refractory, fragmentary and weird. The lover we thought faithful proved false. The goal we worked so hard to attain proves disenchanting. The religion in which we hoped to find solace proved stifling. Careers are disrupted by sudden paradigmatic shifts. This is not to suggest that all is disappointment, bitterness and regret. Sometimes it is just the reverse. Quite often it is simply a matter of turning the photograph upside down and seeing everything from a different light. Davits become rivets. Impediments become pediments.
The poems and short fictions in Foster’s new collection are meditations on the subtleties and nuances of the human condition. The vocabulary and phrasing is simple, often exquisite in its balance and poise, yet each work in its totality is often quite elliptical. One senses a conflict or human drama without knowing exactly what the circumstances are. The statements are rich in evocation, and this helps. Each is a poignant clue that goads us on and brings us back repeatedly for another reading, another meaning to reveal itself, another sense to coax from the shadows and coruscations of the poem.
“Was He Ever There?,” a short, homoerotic and intensely mystical poem of ten lines, packs a wallop. Like many of Foster’s poems it has a flavor of neoclassicism, a sense of the tragic mixed with sensual beauty, such as the strong devotional emotion and unflinching lucidity in Jean Louis David’s The Death Of Marat. This aesthetic, in turn, is mixed with the humanistic beatitudes of New England transcendentalism, a sense of oneness with nature and a divine presence immanent in all things. It begins with an epigram from The Greeks and Greek Love by James Davidson: “Eros is, with only a few exceptions, utterly one-sided. You can be longed for, loved (philein), desired ‘in return’ (anti-) with no problems, but for the Greeks there can be no mutual eros, not concurrently.”
Here is the poem:
The imagined one, the one above the
roof, my patriarch of skies. We see him
pointing out from posters.
We count the chains that twist about his neck.
Who captured him?
Who pushed aside the girl
yet still brought lethargy?
Our breath is made of his.
We satiate his need.
We pleasure him.
The line “point out from posters” evokes, for me, the iconic Uncle Sam pointing at you, the citizen, with a furrowed brow and sporty goatee. But the next line quickly unravels that sense: “We count the chains that twist about his neck” makes me think of Prometheus, the Greek god punished for brining fire (i.e. science and knowledge) to humankind. It is, in any case, a deity that has been brought down from the skies and imprisoned. This suggests a fallen world. And who, considering our world in its present state, could possibly be surprised with that?
“Who pushed aside the girl/ yet still brought lethargy?” is an utter enigma to me. Perhaps someone better versed in mythology might make better sense of it. But as much as this mystery confuses the narrative of a fallen deity, it also invigorates it. It increases the amperage by thwarting the current. We must pause, and enlarge our sense of this drama.
Or not. This is a point where the reader becomes complicit in the manufacture of meaning. If, as this poem does, our imagination has been stimulated by the other elements at play in the work we are that much more disposed toward completing its circuit. Mary Magdalene comes to mind, as well as other female religious figures, Khema and Uppalavanna from Buddhism, and Aisha bint Abu Bakr and Khadijah bint Khuwaylid from Islam.
“Our breath is made of his” is the strongest line in the poem. It is charged with transcendental philosophy, Emerson’s Oversoul, or perhaps Meister Eckhart’s Godhead, the immanence of a divine spirit. The divine spirit within comes out in the form of breath, of which words are made. Breath gives life. It also gives speech and singing and incantation.
“We satiate his need./ We pleasure him,” are unequivocally erotic. This would not be the first time eroticism has been combine with a mystical experience. In Plato’s Symposium, for instance, Diotima informs Socrates that Eros is the “intermediate being between mortals and immortals, a great Demon, dear Socrates; for everything demoniac is just the intermediate link between God and man.” The same could easily be said of poetry. It is the intermediate between the sublime and the banal, the pedestrian and the wild, the turbulence of the new and the stale tranquility of the predictable and tame. It gives whole new meaning to the scene in The Wrestler between Marisa Tomei’s gyrations and Micky Rourke’s enthusiastic attention. There is more than lust going on in that scene. There is also mending and renewal.
In addition to the poetry, short fictions have been interspersed throughout Foster’s collection, each dealing with one of the seven sins: sloth, greed, envy, wrath, gluttony, pride, and lust. Like the poetry, Foster presents these parables obliquely. We are not presented with broadly delineated portrayals of these sins, à la Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, or Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale,” but puts a heavily nuanced spin on each, deepening their meaning with seemingly antithetical contradistinctions.
“Greed,” for instance, tells the story of a woman named Brenda, who, beginning in childhood, cultivates the ability to possess as much as she wants by creating a mental image of it. This ability results in a life of emotional detachment and “trance-like silence,” and the proclamation, by way of the leader of a religious group, that she had attained “the highest reality,” which is that of nullifying desire because she possessed everything. This is greed turned upside down.
Foster puts the same spin on “Lust.” The story is told in the first person singular by a village doctor, who observes that “Our minds are albums of desire and what we don’t desire.” He then proceeds to ruminate on aging, and the strangely persistent, “incoherent needs to reproduce what once was intimately felt” among his patients. The only expression of lust the narrator delivers is a reference to two youths embracing beside a dune on a beach in Alexandria, Egypt. The story becomes a story of compassion, rather than lust. The doctor muses on the timid requests for pills to help his older male patients able to please their wives. “Such silly men they are: my friends, these men are fifty, sixty, even more, and it’s time for them to stop performing as if making love were something that must be seen. There’s a better world for older men. There always was.”
That better world for older men is a world of spectral, intellectual pleasures, a transcendent world in which the heavy burdens and needs of the body are sublimated and “added up to more than what you read, more than just the words. You know such final truths only when you deeply know yourself.” This latter statement speaks to the elliptical quality of Foster’s prose and poetry and his exquisitely subtle manner of conveying the pathos of human existence. When words are engineered by poets their stresses and tensions buttress the crisis of discord implicit in our being.
Foster is also a photographer and has included some of his black and white photographs in this collection. Most are stark, as the photograph on the cover, showing a barren, adamant wall of shale in which some leafless trees have somehow managed to take root and grow. Another, a photograph of a desk and chair framed in a doorway, looks like a painting by Vermeer. The mood is ruminative and quiet, the surfaces smooth and sensual, the lines cleanly and smoothly delineated. All it lacks is color.
Foster’s photographs provide a visual analogue to his poetry. With several notable exceptions, the images are bleak: a large gabled house and what appears to be a garage or workshop appear through a maze of naked tree limbs, their roofs powdered with snow; a stream of rock, perhaps an ancient lava flow, undulates down a slope of evergreen underbrush; the lobby of an office building broods in dim afternoon light, vacant except for an array of plants and drawn inward by a series of diminishing columns. There is a photograph of an “American boy” in a striped long-sleeved T-shirt holding a pair of sticks with a bemused expression and a “Turkish boy,” arms akimbo, looking up at the camera with dark, expectant eyes. All this underscores what a pensive artist Foster is in his quest for the real, poems and photographs that, in the words of Thoreau, “have a core of truth, a necessity, and hence a beauty, as if it were a revelation to him.”
Foster, Edward. The Beginning Of Sorrows. East Rockaway, New York: Marsh Hawk Press, 2009.
Mach, Ernst. The Analysis Of Sensations. New York: Dover Publications, 1959.
Thoreau, Henry. Walden And Civil Disobedience. New York: Viking Penguin, 1983.
John Olson’s most recent book publications include Backscatter: New And Selected Poems, from Black Widow Press in 2008, and Souls Of Wind, a novel about the exploits of Arthur Rimbaud in the American West, from Quale Press also in 2008. “Strange Matter,” an essay about the experiments currently conducted at CERN in quest of the Higgs Boson, or God Particle, appears in the current winter issue of The American Scholar. Larynx Galaxy, a collection of essays and prose poetry, is forthcoming from Black Widow Press, and The Nothing That Is, an autobiographical novel, is forthcoming from Ravenna Press.