- by Rebecca Foust
- (Texas Review Press, English Department, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX) 77341-2146, 2008
- 36 pages
- $8.95 paper
The biggest problem with Rebecca Foust’s DARK CARD, winner of the Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Prize and finalist in the Black River Poetry Competition, may be that its subject is too interesting. If the book’s Amazon page (http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Card-Rebecca-Foust/dp/1933896140) and the author’s website (http://www.rebeccafoust.com/) are any evidence, reader after reader, including reviewers, focus on the book’s ostensive topic: raising a child with Asperger’s syndrome, a tricky, sometimes exasperating, frequently amazing, neurological condition.
While this reading is certainly valid – this collection does cohere around a clear narrative trajectory – it fails to appreciate the virtuosity of these poems, the wide variety of tone and mastery of line demonstrated on every carefully-wrought page. Thus, these readings fail to elucidate the subtle underlying – and possibly inadvertent – messages revealed by the poetics that may actually be the true subject of this work.
Instead, what is generally cited is the bravery of the narrator’s truth-telling via a dynamic tonal and emotional range. Indeed, from the wonder and celebration of the opening poem from which the book takes its title:
- the patterns in everything – traffic, dirt piles,
- bare branches of trees, matrices in jar stacks,
- Shang Dynasty history in tick of school clock,
- music in color and math, the way shoppers
- shuffle their feet whole waiting on line
to the starkly fear-inducing, PERFECT TARGET:
- How one time they cornered him
- behind the storage shed and stoned him
- in a hail of green oranges, left him
- facedown bloodsnotted in dirt.
Foust does unflinchingly explore and expose complex responses. Personally, I have encountered few demonstrations of anger in poetry as potent as these lines directed at an obstetrician face-to-face with his enraged Stanford Law School graduate patient in PALACE EUNICH:
- you ball-less prick soft dick eunuch
- cowardly coin-counting conservator.
- You were practically pissing yourself
In fact, it would seem Ms. Foust so earnestly attempts to convey her experience that she repeatedly discovers the English language cannot contain it. In fully seventeen of the twenty-seven poems, she coins new hyphenations, such as “muted-coronet/pain” from INSTUMENT and “his face flower-open” from PERFECT TARGET.
Clearly, this is a poet who is wrestling. One who attempts to cage her wild beast of a subject with form.
That the author is conscious of form is immediately evident on a first flip through the collection. Regular stanzas are preferred, but of widely various line-lengths and structure. There are also adventurous touches: the spacious presentation of the Japanese-influenced HOPE, the concrete quasi-mathematical proof in SHOW YOUR WORK.
A first reading then reveals an ear-poet skillful at exploiting repetition and sound-play, particularly consonance. For example, notice the interplay of “d” and “s” in these lines from UNREACHABLE CHILD:
- eyes all dark and diffused,
- to that dreamland of dew-soft fields
- encircled by mist-mantled mountains
- small superhero you
Above all, rhyme, though used infrequently, is consistently employed to startling effect. See how, here, in TOO SOON, she uses nursery rhyme rhythm and repetition to speed the tempo in a manner that perfectly meets her subject:
- Now here I lie on my left side,
- mandolin belly for the moment alive
- with my restless son; my hands make him a cradle
- rocking him, rocking him early to sleep.
- My labor heaves up in great waves
- like the moon-crazed tide;
- it raves like the tide-crazed moon,
- rising and rising, to soon, too soon.
Likewise, style supports meaning in the quirky INSTRUMENT, with its weave of incidental end and internal rhyme, as well as in HEAD INJURY ODDESSY, where a floating scheme slip-slides from a/a/b into b/b/a when it's not stealthily shifting inside the line or disappearing all together.
Quite obviously, this is a poet interested in and capable of controlling her form. And it is in that – the impulse to control and the effort to contain – that I find the true project of this book.
Consider, for instance, the several mentions of the now-banned drug DES which the author’s mother was prescribed. Is it the cause of the young man’s differentness? Or is it the nuchal cord as is, at other points, suggested? My suspicion is that Ms. Foust well knows that the cause of Asperger’s remains a mystery. But if blame can be laid, if names named, then, then at last one can begin to take control of random and chaotic fate.
Notice too, the address of these poems: three are to doctors of various stripes at whom she opens fire with both barrels; one to young man similar in some ways to her son; six directly to that son; two more to the author herself; and fully fifteen to the reader. Not addressed is the father, the siblings, or the mother who ingested that DES.
Does this mother have a profession? We know, from the book’s jacket, of the afore mentioned law degree, but does she practice? Perhaps she withdrew to champion this child. Only quite near the end, in the poem she has called HOPE, does Foust glancingly include friends, pets, or extended family. Rather the universe of the conversation is enclosed, carefully orchestrated by our lawyer-author to plead her case.
With DARK CARD Foust presents her opening argument:
- I’ve figured out that difference pays freight
- when linked with intelligence; genius trumps odd
She then proceeds through an eminently logical sequence: birth; early childhood; adolescence; an opening out to the greater world through allusion and invocation much like a calling of witnesses; and finally, a return for summation with THE PERIPHERAL BECOMES CRUCIAL, which concludes with four repetitions of the word “curse” that
unravels with his years, unwinds, unfolds,
Where would this collection have taken the reader if it had, instead, begun with the dramatic desperation of the directively-titled, UNREACHABLE CHILD? Alternatively, what would have happened if it had opened on the sympathy-inducing, PERFECT TARGET? Opening with the less tidy portrayal of her son in UNDERNEATH:
His face is blank as a kettle pond
dawn, but he feels everything
would have privileged her son as opposed to the opening lines from DARK CARD
- When they look at my son like that
which privileges everyone else.
While the choice of THE PERIPHERAL BECOMES CRUCIAL with its pointers towards an unknowable future is, in fact, a superb choice to end this collection, it is an obvious one. Choosing say, BEGIN AGAIN, in which the poet, writing to herself, attempts, but ultimately fails, to reassure, would be equally conclusive, but darker, more problematic, less, well …likeable.
Why is important to be likeable? Why necessary to make a case, or search for cause? Why finally, is it necessary to privilege everyone else? I propose that it is a response to charges, both subtle and overt, that are, unintentionally or otherwise, leveled against mothers of people with disabilities. Charges, Foust tells us, brought by shopkeepers and shrinks, by school principles and class bullies, by family history and recurring dreams. Charges brought, again and again, against women for creating a problem that won’t go away.
And so, in defense, DARK CARD: evidence of one mother’s compulsion – her perfectly normal and healthy compulsion – to regain control. To create a cocoon around this child and herself that father, grandparent, and siblings cannot violate or complicate. To protect. To wrest back the control taken away by teachers, by doctors, and – let it be said – by the child himself. A container to say so out loud, fiercely, and in so doing, at last, exonerate herself.