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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Rebecca Foust Pens Poetry of the Midwest

Mom’s Canoe
By Rebecca Foust
Poetry
Texas Review Press
ISBN-13 Number: 9781933896274
ISBN-10 Number: 1933896272

Rebecca Foust’s award-winning chapbook, Mom’s Canoe, is concerned largely with the rural landscape and the poet’s family’s place in that landscape and its history. Indeed, one of the book’s later poems, “Altoona to Anywhere,” seems to echo the sentiments of the titular poem in Cottle’s book: that one can never erase one’s history.

Go ahead, aspire to transcend
Your hardscrabble roots, bootstrap
The life you dream on,
Escape the small-minded tyranny
Of your small-minded Midwestern
Coalmining town.

But when you’ve left it behind you
May find it still there, in your dreams,
Your syntax, the smell of your hair,
Its real smell, under the shampoo.
Beware DNA; it will out or be outed
And you’ll find yourself back
Where you started…

The Midwest is in Foust’s DNA, and the long shadows of this large and varied region infuse all of the poems in her deceptively slim chapbook, whether they discuss the people of Altoona, Iowa (including members of Foust’s family) or the beautiful, often mysterious landscape. Mom’s Canoe is a celebration of this region as well as a history of Foust’s family and the region in which they dwell.

In many ways, Foust works like an archaeologist to excavate her region and her place within it. She does so somewhat literally in “Fossil Record,” in which she moves from discussing trilobites and ammonites resting in layers of prehistoric soil to the fetus waiting inside a womb and the bones inside a woman beneath an x-ray.

In “Archeological Record” (here reproduced in full), she considers another cross-section: one replete with imagery of the Midwest as well as classical mythology. Like any good archaeologist, Foust then attempts to weave these elements into a story—an impressionistic one to be sure, but a story nonetheless that speaks of loss and hidden grief.

Scotch straight-up, thy neighbor’s
wife and Sunday Church
—Nobody’s talking

but one white glove is lost.
What was said, and not. Gaps
outline the years laid down

in stone, but each wedged-in bit
is rocking. Dreams, cookbook
notes, the dress a mother wore

to a father’s wake, or would
have worn—had she gone?
The shards meet to make

a pot you haven’t seen before.
The walls are half-effaced,
but Zeus is raping some girl

somewhere, you know that
much. It’s all here—battle,
faun, flash of dawn, grapes

twined into leafy crowns,
each loved thing lost, sieved
with bitter salt and ash.

Foust is not always so indirect in her “digging” into Midwestern life, however. In poems such as “The Dream,” “Books for the Blind,” “Kinship of Family” and, of course, the collection’s titular piece she writes about her family’s place in this land—her mother’s tears (of joy and apprehension) upon discovering a pregnancy; her grandmother’s blindness; her parents’ deaths; the distance between two sisters who were once very close. These are poems, at times, of “bitter salt and ash,” as is the case with “Backwoods,” in which Foust describes her mother’s return to an abusive second husband.

“How could you,” she asks

After he blackened
your eye,
dumb-bitched you
and wrecked your canoe?

You escaped from that place once,
his cottage collapsed
on the banks of that dirty, dredged ditch
he calls a river; all you needed was a car
where you could sleep, keep your things.

But of course, no region is all bitterness and bleakness, even the most hardscrabble one. In other poems, such as “Mom’s Canoe,” family and landscape meld together elegiacly, and even a memory of a mother’s death is transformed into something as beautiful and breathtaking as it is sad.

I still see you rising from water to sky,
paddle held high,
river drops limning its edge.
Brown diamonds catch the light as you lift, then dip.
Parting the current, you slip
silently through the evening shadows.
You, birdsong, watersong, slanting light,
following river bend, swallowed from sight.

Foust’s language and imagery, as the reader has probably by now divined, are as challenging as they are startling, and the reader who wants to follow her through her narratives would be well advised to consider and reconsider each poem, each phrase as an archaeologist reconsiders sand, bone and fragment. But patience is well-rewarded. Mom’s Canoe is a subtle and sometimes painful evocation of the Midwest, an example of a regional voice that transcends its boundaries, achieving universal apppeal.


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