Review of "A Mouth in California" by Graham Foust

A Mouth in California by Graham Foust
Flood Editions 2009
Review by Ray McDaniel
This book performs one of my favorite miracles, a classic because it’s a repeater, a novelty that never fades: it demonstrates that the impossible (poetry) is also inevitable (poems). Though it seems as if the latter must inevitably result from the former, this isn’t quite true; the relationship between them is more of a reversal. Abstract expectations of what poetry should be are both proven and invalidated by actual poems, which are composed of lack as much as surfeit. Here, the agent of this haphazard divine comes in a slightly disheveled persona of Graham Foust, who is (in the poem “My Graham Foust”) a presence declared by absences, a shirt stitched from holes:
Gone’s the bite of you he spit. Gone’s
his vague sense of what’s to be done.
Gone’s the dream that likely scraped at him
for more and more and more and gone’s his walk.
Gone’s his crass commiseration. Gone’s
his lack of gauze and ice. Gone’s
his tiny fountain. And gone
is his glutinous light
Gone’s his want-to-need basis. Gone’s his happy
plastic stain. Gone’s his glass wolf, his lazy sperm,
his pack of exactness. Gone’s his played-through lack
of played-through games of pain.
Liberation by abdication: well, okay then. He can’t go on, he’ll go on. The speaker memorializes the ingredients and strategies by which the poem we’re reading won’t be made, though of course without this litany there’s no poem at all. While this poem doesn’t fully represent the style of A Mouth in California (most of the poems are a bit more ad hoc, though Foust does thrown in the occasional sonnet or the like) it does contain something of a mission statement; a missing statement better describes his method and spirit. That “pack of exactness” could easily refer to the precision, or the tonal unity, required by the kinds of poems Foust is disinclined to write. And to often sly effect, this disinclination often masquerades as incapacity. Many of Foust’s poems suggest their more pristine alternatives; it’s as if they are being spoken by a man who is struggling to recite a poem he’s memorized, but cannot perfectly recall. Into the lacunae rush approximations, summaries, tatters of popular song, gluey rhymes, ill-fitting aphorisms, and often the relaxed rhetorical annotations of a speaker perfectly comfortable making editorial comments on his own perpetually collapsing project.
The irony here, of course, is that this jumble should—both in terms of tone and form—result in chaos, and yet Foust’s poems maintain a weird, wobbly integrity: he’s managed to set a failing ship on a recursive journey, so that he can sail it, sink it, and narrate its pending submergence all at the same time. If the effort’s initially jarring, by the book’s end I was fairly convinced that Foust’s ramshackle structures might be some of the most stable shelters around.
One of the ways to achieve something like this elegant clumsiness is to explicitly turn the poems inside out, but the danger of that strategy is that it preserves the mastery of the speaker, and thus risks a toxic cleverness: see, it’s the poem that’s faulty, but I, the poet, remain unsullied by those deficiencies; its failures announce my success. To his credit, Foust avoids this trap, usually via the application of tiny syntactical choices that destabilize the very possibility of masterful authorship. Tiny things, really, but they make a difference: in this stanza from “The Sun Also Fizzles” consider the lines
I’ve come covered in arena dust,
my mouth’s a sleeve’s end,
and those that immediately follow:
I’ve come somewhat up,
and I’m here to lick
the static from the ground.
The parallel structure here certainly prepares the reader for “I’ve come somewhat up, / I’m here to lick / the static from the ground” but that wee little conjunction changes everything, shifts the stanza from obscure grandiosity to the self-parodying bombast of stadium rock. The “and” transforms the gnomic to the comic—I cannot help but hear Jon Bon Jovi intone those lines, though to be fair the modest anglophiliac “somewhat” sets up the joke quite nicely as well.
Some of the poems are so loose, in fact, that they seem more like preambles or postscripts to poems that don’t exist. Take, for example, the truly wonderful “Poem with Fear, As Half-Awakened,” which I want to take the liberty of quoting in its entirety:
See, I might return—the car’s gassed,
the map flat and likely accurate—
to where I’m clear to me to you.
This’d be autumn, let’s say, like late
October, mid-November. By then
the road’ll be choked with leaves
and other ruins, the trees with wind
and smoke and dark (or not).
I’ll make records of these facts,
these other shores. My song’ll be a nail
and yours, a mouthful of mirror.
Seconds before we sing, I’ll be reading
that wading pool’s dismal little slaps
to mean trouble. You’ll punch an animal,
any animal; I’ll touch a small bell;
the moon’ll turn everything lurid.
But what good is said moon
if neither song’ll fit the room?
Come with platitudes, love,
come whatever doesn’t move.
This is a plan for a poem that achieves more than could its execution, and what I mean by “loose” isn’t just the preponderance of contractions usually found in hasty conversation, though the word “moon’ll” alone gladdened my heart. Looseness here refers to a spirit in which almost anything might do, and often does; it’s the exact tonal opposite of the poem that insists these words, in this order, are hard-won and therefore explicitly suited for appreciation that brooks no interruption.
Thus, it intrigues me that some of Foust’s poems are exceptionally tight: for instance, see how in a poem like “Their Early Twenties” the moon recurs quite differently.
Another thirst begun, they had their beer
in cans, in bags; their hands, their feet
in frigid sand; their eardrums—make that
their headaches—sewn with ocean.
They’d never seen a moon so willful,
so scissory, never heard the dark water
rearrange so clumsily.
Despite nods to a more cavalier composition—”they’d” and “scissory”—the maker of this poem is far more resolutely the commander of the act than is the reckless engineer of “Poem with Fear.” That “sewn with ocean” doesn’t abide interference, even from itself.
While I appreciate both poems, the correspondent risk is that once I grow accustomed to the self-limiting scatter of poems like “Poem with Fear,” I grow proportionately suspicious of those poems that strike me as less artful in their disguised artfulness, so that paradoxically the more authoritative Foust becomes, the less I trust him. These from the latter category include good poems, but they don’t operate the way they would in a book less concerned with futility. A poem like “Morality and Temporal Sequence,” which after its one-word sentence of an introductory gambit (“Funny.”) follows swiftly and cleanly to its logical conclusion, creates greater unease than what occurs a few pages later. “Poem for Jack Spicer” begins with a set of pleas for reassurance that are both funny and impossible to gratify:
The more I pull it all to pixels
the more to sleep the radio goes,
right? And to be dead would be to be
This functions much the way “Funny.” does, by securing a resolutely insecure position at the start, but whereas “Morality” never again reminds us of its logical contingency, very nearly every floating balloon of a “poetical” claim in “Poem for Jack Spicer” comes with its own needle to assist requisite puncturing. Thus, the lines “Its poem’s shape’s itself, / and its waves come off as contagious” are preceded by the sublimely goofy observation that “This ocean, I just assumed it would / look bigger.” Likewise, tucked between “It’s not a thicket if I can’t get / me and whoever else into it—” and “We’re al limited by the plumb line, / that imperative that collapses / in the direction of egg and ash” occurs the salvific “let’s call what I’m on a moon of hurt.” Absent moments like these, the persona Foust has created actually does seem to lapse into perfect recall of the poem in question, and while the results are sometimes impressive in their own right, they leave me wondering where went the dude whose trustworthiness depended upon evidence of his instability. His presence is always an interruption, but familiar with the staccato rhythm of interruption, his absence is even more unnerving.
I don’t know how Foust could avoid this kind of tension, and there’s a way of reading the book that reconciles it to the effect the emblematic poems generate (even if it doesn’t, and can’t, resolve that tension). If I read the book entire as macrocosmic of the technique employed in the poems that best balance “success” and “failure” then I can see how those poems more discrete, more possessed of seamless ease, act as do the lines in individual poems that Foust often strives to undermine as soon as he erects them. But this way of reading works less well for the book than it does for single poems, because Foust seems preoccupied (rightly, smartly, I think) with our ambiguous desire for the pleasures once assumed the province of the lone poem. As many others have noted, the pendulum has begun to swing away from poetry operative wholly at the level of the book, a move that itself marked a certain generational disenchantment with poems as bite-sized universes resplendent with guaranteed but perhaps cheap and certainly suspect pleasures and meanings. Foust knows we can’t go back, even if we wanted to—but many of “us” (a term I invoke with the necessary shudder, as if I were summoning a Lovecraftian anti-god, a divinity plural, singular and unquestionably grotesque) do, and many “us” never left. For those who did, however, Foust offers a way forward, half-stride and half-stumble. I don’t think he knows where he’s going, but I wouldn’t want to follow him if he did.

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