Review by Martin Abramson
ALL THAT GORGEOUS PITILESS SONG
By Rebecca Foust
Many Mountains Moving Press, Philadelphia
$15.95, 80 pp, Paper
Ms. Foust’s book is written in a minor key to say the least. Poems about tragedies, abnormal births, drowned children and hard times abound. An early experience from “Origin” foretells the macabre side of her vision. Her fifth grade experiment almost blinds another girl and she is thrust into a dark closet where she weeps but also experiences freedom as an “icicle splinter of glee”. In “Backwoods” she describes a brutally abused wife who still wishes to go back to his…”tarpaper shack./ squatting in bottles and weeds.”
Foust’s descriptive powers are most impressive when picturing man-made disasters such as the “Strip Mine” where …”two halves of ancient bivalve/ face each other…” and
At the edge,
wild chicory adds blue
to the green and white tangle
of bindweed and Queen Anne’s lace.
A snowstorm…”dull shine of whipped/egg whites” in “Allegheny County Winter Day” reveals the emptiness of a landscape where farmettes are on sale and “Everyone’s going/ or gone”. “Things Burn Down” seems to be cast in the general form of a Villanelle but with considerable variation of rhyme. Still it makes its point sharply; that the miserable lives her family and the townspeople led was in stark opposition to the delicate damask they produced but never themselves used.
Many poems dwell on the dead or dying: such as: “Purple Heart” which describes the sordid suicide of a war hero whose body had been wrecked in combat by shrapnel and Agent Orange; “Mineshaft Memory” that sketches the crucial importance of someone in the poet’s childhood; “Water Burial” that reviews the spiral stripping of whale down to …”a jawbone a man/ could stand up/ and walk through”; “The Bees Are Inside “which relates the purity of a childhood friend that is the total opposite of his corrupt family, and the “purposeful, soaring fall” that frees him from his unhappy life.
In “Gray” the author mourns a girl who had been a fine athlete until the lung disease common to the factory workers extinguished her flame. The title of “Indian Pipe” refers to a filmy white plant also known as the Corpse Plant. The poem compares it with the frailty of the narrator’s mother (or foster mother) once strong enough to raise five children. In “What Was Sacred”, a woman sits in a hospital having watched all night as a man died and his body cooled; but the poem ends with the glory of sunrise. In “Father’s Day Race” a young girl who dives off a racing sailboat after a piece of rigging, without a life-preserver, is lost.
Parts II and III of ALL THAT GORGEOUS PITILESS SONG break new ground, going political in “The Innocence Project” in which a man is jailed for twenty years until DNA evidence frees him. “A Kilogram of Salt” covers much the same ground as the film, The Reader, as a former female Nazi camp guard is deported after three decades of joyful marriage to an American Jew. Two poems that depict the misery of women who get the wealth they crave only to find it has turned to ashes are “Pentimenti” and “Marrying Up.” Several poems treat the tragedies of abnormal childbirth. The ironic “Apologies to My OB/GYN” expresses regret that her premature child required so much expensive extra care. In “Too Soon” the speaker mourns the terrible effects of DES on her childbearing abilities. “His First Death” alludes to the terrifying period after birth before the infant began breathing. Other poems mourn the difficult life of an autistic son.
There is no debating Ms. Foust’s mastery of language or sure sense of prosody. Her poems instantly grip the reader too firmly for any worries about whether the poet will slip off that frighteningly high wire on which she’s dancing. These pieces are totally involving whether the subject is the Allegheny Mountains, a cormorant, a hooked fish, or an Amish quilt whose rows of even stitches echo the furrowed fields carved by a tractor traversing outside the window. To venture a pun; reading Rebecca Foust’s poems may themselves be a harrowing experience; but they are not without the emotional catharsis that results from the appreciation of great art