Graham Foust’s To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems is replete with the signature mishearings and misgivings characteristic of Foust’s aesthetic. What has always struck me in Foust’s work is his ability to defamiliarize common turns of phrase as a means to evoke the absurdity of language. “I keep my mouth to myself.// I put my brains where I can see them.// I’ve got my hands where I can make the poem worse.” Through his sentences, Foust creates a sort of anti-poetry that forces his readers to critically engage with everyday communication. His lines twists words and phrases into likenesses of themselves and leaves behind traces of their original meanings. In reading these poems, we become detectives of our own language, putting back together words we have heard so many times before from new configurations of the same. Doubt and failure hang in the balance of these poems, which are always conscious of what they are doing, and more importantly, what they fail to do. As Foust says in “Ten Notes to the Muse”: “A poem’s an empty lemon in the mouth of a crow on a phone line.” So much of Foust’s work in this volume obsesses over answering the impossible question of what the poem is and what it does. It is clear that there is no answer to this question, but one thing that Foust’s poems always seem to do is try.
There are no epiphanic moments to be found here. Instead, we find carefully crafted disjunction. In this paratactic mesh, often leaning towards pessimism and discontent, words reveal themselves to be both a frustrating and liberating vehicle for thought. “It’s not entirely correct to say that August is like having blood dumped on you, but let’s, until we conjure something else.” Words approximate meanings. Words approximate themselves. There is no exact relation here, between a thing and its metaphor, between a thing and its name, but language is liberating nevertheless in its attempt to convey a feeling. Often, this volume reduces things to their most basic elements–to language and to a body, to a faint and approximate meaning, as “[a] sheet of plywood is a picture of a tree,” or “[the] ocean’s over there; the eye’s a drain.” And though these are only approximations, they are complex and stunning. If the function of poetry is to turn language on its head, in the best moments of To Anacreon in Heaven, Foust does just that, as when in his single-line “Sonnet” Foust explains “I sing as if I’m eating what I’m singing from a knife.” The circularity and complexity of this sentence is something that we see throughout Foust’s book, and something he has cultivated throughout his corpus. Foust’s poetry is comprised of a resistance to the language that forms it. It is resistant to the lyric tradition it engages with. It is not a field guide or an anthem, as some would suggest. It is more like a picture that we are watching being erased.
Cosmo Spinosa is a poet and critic living in the Bay Area. He holds an MFA from Mills College.