Graham Foust’s To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems (pt II)

downloadGraham’s Foust’s To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems was on nearly everyone’s “best of” list for last year. Two of our 365 participants wanted to review it, so we went ahead and reviewed it twice. 

To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems is Graham Foust’s fifth collection, and in it he whittles down and hones his terse, direct style and embraces a tone that is at once teasing and inclusive without losing its elements of pathos and meta-poetic awareness. With few exceptions, the poems in Anacreon follow a similar formal structure: the majority of lines are a single sentence. In instances where the poetic “section” exceeds a single line or includes multiple sentences, these lines are closely spaced together on the page. Because of this intersection and identification of line-with-sentence, Foust’s poems seem to place greater emphasis on the sentence than on the poetic line (or at least to value the two structures equally). The elevated sentences of Anacreon place the book’s emphasis upon these discursive units in intersection and conjunction with one another; while the importance of sound and rhythm is not diminished, these elements function within the sentence, in contrast to being prioritized in a more line-based poetics. In the poem “To The Reader,” Foust writes,

I mean to pry, to fail to gain and know it.

My days are mostly framed before they’re painted.

It’s never so too late as when the face of a state-murdered person

drops its shape, and then the sun comes swallowingly on behind

idealess clips of gray.

I breathe so quickly as to kill myself.

As always, anyone’s hands (47).

This focus on the sentence as primary unit, combined with the frequent and seemingly stable “I” present within Faust’s poems, elevates speech over voiceless text; although the book is a textual artifact, it retains qualities of speech. Sentences are often presented as a direct address to the reader or to a frequently present yet unnamed “you.” Like speech, the poems convey the inner thoughts of a specific subject—although the stability of Anacreon’s subject is occasionally questioned or shaken due to a vexation of the terms “you” and “I,” in which the two pronouns sometimes shift places and seem to resist consistent definition.

            Thought to be there looking through the picture frame into a space,

you, Graham Foust, grabbed up a chunk of soft despotism, slopped

it on into your mouth, and began to chew (41).

Positing language as speech rather than “mere” text makes certain claims about language that Anacreon largely embraces: an individual subject is the source of language, and this subject uses language to navigate through the phenomenal world. The language claims made by Foust in Anacreon also posit the sentence-based poems as enacting a self-construction; the subject can use language in a way that determines his interaction with the world and that allows him to shape his own sensory and mental perceptions. This means that the subject uses sentence-based poetic language to selectively compose his subjectivity by projecting speech-based language into the world and drawing language from the external world to inform his own vocabulary.

In another of Anacreon’s formal strategies, the left page is half full (either the upper or lower half), and the right page fills with text the half unoccupied by the left. The opposing half-pages create a formal inverse-mirroring effect; the facing pages of poems seek to map on to one another through their similar line structures and half-page size, but are kept from doing so; each set of lines is met only by a blank space, and the attempted mirroring is incomplete.

The idea of mapping one thing onto another (as a page of poems onto another page of poems) as a necessary process which must necessarily fail is a frequent thematic concern within Anacreon. Foust’s poems often concern themselves with the material world and the body—the work of the poems is at once documentation and subversion, as they highlight both language’s attempt to identify and pin down the world that exists outside of poetry, and its vexations in seeking to do so. Many of the poems are concerned with replicating the speaker’s feelings or with describing sensory experience, as in “To Graham Foust on the Morning of His Fortieth Birthday”:

Ache’s got a cinematography to it.

A time-lapsed lily unfurls as if in pain.

An irreversible process is one for which nature has such a prefer-

ence that the reverse process is meaningless (29).

However, for Foust, objects cannot be so easily pinned down and identified; a slippage tends to occur when the poem lingers on a sensation or object. In this instance, the book’s form and content reinforce one another’s affect; the flighty, briefly lingering sentences and constant shifts of focus mimic the slippage of the poems’ grasping for—and inability to encounter—objects that it can describe and contain with accuracy. Objects and emotional states transform into other objects as the poems perceive them; Anacreon identifies that a poem cannot grasp an object as it exists, but rather, changes a thing through the act of its perception. Whatever the poem aims to represent slips through language’s grasp and we are left with a residue, an alternative, as when Foust writes:

I’ve come straight into the room as if the poem was to be for me.

The poem is briars and bells of poison.

The torn half of a book is in the wine that’s crawling toward me on

the floor.

The revolution will probably be pantomimed (102-103).

This, then, is where Foust’s masterfully controlled and hermetic sentences and poems leave the reader at the end of Anacreon. Through their insistence on language-as-speech; use of terse, dry sentences; and concern for the intersection of real-world events and our perceptions of them, Foust’s poems comment on our inability to accurately know the obtuse phenomenal world. However, Anacreon is not a lament; it does not abandon the world of things as being unknowable, but draws out and praises our own hesitant, poignant, and self-aware attempts to catalogue the reality through which we and poetry both move.

Buy it from Flood Editions: $16

 Connor Fisher was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and currently lives in Denver, Colorado. He has a MA in English Literature from the University of Denver and is working towards an MFA in Creative Writing—Poetry from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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