by Athena Kildegaard
Knowing where Paradise Drive is (it’s a scenic coastal drive in northern California) is less important to understanding Rebecca Foust‘s new prize-winning collection of poetry than is contemplating the figurative power of a drive to paradise.
Foust calls the female protagonist of these 78 sonnets Pilgrim; but Foust’s is not John Bunyan‘s pilgrim of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Where Bunyan gives us a Christian self-help book in the form of a novel, Foust offers us a commentary on the first decade of the current century. Her dedication—“for pilgrims everywhere and in every time”—reminds us that any good story, even if it is grounded in a particular place and time, is universal. Nevertheless, in Paradise Drive, 9/11, the mortgage bundling disaster, the Iraq War, and extreme economic inequity appear against an exploration of the seven deadly sins, and thus the book questions the particular desires of our time.
Foust’s first book of poetry, Dark Card, about raising an autistic child, was published in 2008, when Foust was 51; Mom’s Canoe, which responds to her mother’s death from cancer, followed in 2009. Both won the Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Award. On the heels of those releases and successes, Foust began writing the first poems that eventually became Paradise Drive. In other words, once Foust finally set herself to writing seriously, there was no stopping her.
Though we might think of the sonnet as a singular expression of love lost or fulfilled, Foust amply demonstrates—like Rita Dove, Marilyn Nelson, and Ellen Bryant Voigt before her—that it can also be a nifty engine for narrative. As we’ll see, however, Foust is not a strict formalist.
The second poem of the collection introduces Pilgrim:
on-the-wane, children grown and gone.
Who, voice-trained from birth in desire,
wakes on morning wanting—nothing—
in the way of things. Wanting some not-thing
not quite not-seen. . .
A few lines later Pilgrim wonders “if wanting is, after all, all / there is.” This theme of wanting, of desire, drives Pilgrim’s journey. The itinerary of Pilgrim’s journey is guided by William Blake, whose lines label the three sections of Paradise Drive. The beginning of the journey is named “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” taken from the title of a poem in which Blake writes, “Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.” Pilgrim is weak, “on-the-wane,” and unsure of what she wants.
Though she grew up poor, she lives in a world of plenty. At parties, Pilgrim witnesses the seven deadly sins in action. In “Greed, Exercising Noblesse Oblige” she eavesdrops:
“Yes, our house is the size of the Queen Mary 2,
but that’s okay because we give so much
money away. We made ‘Grizzly Patch’
in last year’s Bear Hugs Campaign, and guess who
got named ‘Redwoods’ in the Spring Garden Tour,
and in 41-point font in the program.”
Foust has fun skewering the wealthy and their sins. At another party Pilgrim experiences smug rejection when her “kid got tagged autistic”
and the PTA moms froze her out
with their Tupperware optimistic
“Best for him, too” not to raise hope
re: invites to parties, and Jeez-O-Pete
but when their kids played crack-the-whip
with him the one cracked, into the wall,
it got tough to stay all nice and polite (from “Party Etiquette”)
These lines reveal Foust’s playfulness within the restraint of the sonnet form. Poor Pilgrim can’t be so playful however, surrounded by smug sinners.
Pilgrim hides out in the bathroom to read Ezra Pound and St. Augustine, and eventually she’s had enough and goes off to a retreat where she learns to “Be one, for once, with the blissed-out rest; / yes, this moment’s lifer, not its peeved guest.” These lines are from the first of two sonnets together entitled “Pilgrim Goes on Retreat.” In the second sonnet, the point of view switches to second person, to the pronoun “you,” as if to implicate us, the readers. Here are the last lines:
It’s been hard to renounce the Things,
let alone all earthly desire,
but you cope, hoping against hope to save
at least the shoes from the box for Goodwill.
The plan for today: chillax, have a bath.
Do corpse pose. Indulge in the one sin
that brain-dead retreat might condone.”
The retreat leads only to sloth, even to apathy, perhaps the chief sin of our over-stimulated times; thus Pilgrim has yet to find paradise.
Then at a charity ball Pilgrim gets “shitfaced / on the Veuve” and decides to “swallow that uncut diamond / shaken from its velveteen pouch.” And of course, “It just went south / from there.” Her response to this utterly sinful public behavior is to “Party On,” as the last poem in the first section is titled. The poem ends “She found herself determined to burn.”
Burning can mean many things – death, martyrdom, creation, rebirth. The second section of Paradise Drive is entitled “The Fire Is Falling,” (a line from the last part of Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”), and the titles of the poems in this section reveal just those meanings of “burning”: “Gone to the Dogs,” “Despair,” “Ennui,” “Bourbon Elegy,” “Religion.”
In this time of burning Pilgrim experiences the death of her dog and her parents. “California Dreaming” captures her response to these deaths. The poem begins “Corpse pose the yogi said, so I shaped the dead / I’d seen: Mom-and-Dad in the years before / they each died.” So Pilgrim “went west, lit, and loaded / with cord-stack: the family tree felled by blood, / smoke, and gin.” And there she finds despair, the eight of the sins, “the slough all sin spawns in.” Here Foust steps out of Pilgrim’s story to capture one desperate result of despair: suicide. “Anastrophe Elegy” captures the great confusion of survivors: an anastrophe is a poetic element involving turning inside out the order of words. The elegy begins:
Not the woman we all knew. No.
Never would have done she, like this a thing.
How could someone, her, like that ever do?
Pilgrim rejects suicide, gets off the bottle, tries religion, stops taking Prozac so that she might “recall pain for a while.” And then Pilgrim’s husband is in Manhattan when 9/11 occurs, and she is stuck in Boston
—for a long time dialing—
the fire still falling when he picks up—
the plume somewhere behind him—the fire
falling—as it always has—this close—
it has to be this close before she sees
Pilgrim is shaken out of her despair and into seeing. William Blake ends his poem “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” “For every thing that lives is Holy,” and this is essentially Pilgrim’s realization at the end of the second section. Suddenly, faced with the death of a loved one, Pilgrim must see the world to find the holiness there.
Section 3 takes its title from the introductory poem in William Blake’s “Songs of Experience”: “O earth return.” Pilgrim has returned from the brink of destruction to face her world. She grieves her mother’s death, something she’d avoided earlier; she joins a twelve step program and learns “that having a powerful itch to scratch / meant she was alive.” So Pilgrim is alive and this brings her journey to an end. A poem toward the end of the collection warrants quoting entirely here. It is called, not surprisingly, “The Quest.”
The quest was a metaphor, of course
—it could mean abroad in a world
where May keeps blooming
right through one’s own fall—but also:
just asking the questions. No longer
not-seeing suffering, not for
the thank-God-it’s-not-me effect of, more
like bearing witness. Maybe the chance
to do an angstrom of good, make beauty
or protest or laughter. Any act
for those who (despite dire reports, still)
keep coming after. A gimbal stable
in drift, apparent wander. A dance
done with wonder—in every sense.
In the last line, Foust echoes Blake again. In “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” just before “The fire, the fire, is falling!” Blake writes “forth went the hand of jealousy . . . and hurl’d the new born wonder thro’ the starry night.” Pilgrim has rejected jealousy and the other sins and has arrived at wonder—wonder that she had to pass through fire to achieve. If the eighth sin is despair, then the eighth virtue is wonder, and in wonder is redemption in the form of self-knowledge and love for the world.
It is perhaps not as common as it was a century ago for poets to learn to write by way of forms. Foust got her taste for poetry from her mother, who read to Foust and also recited mostly formal poetry. In college Foust studied poetry as an English major but then went on to pursue a career as a lawyer. She returned to giving poetry more sustained attention in her forties and then completed an MFA. It was during her MFA work that she focused her attention on the sonnet—studying and then teaching the sonnet form, both in its early traditional expression and as contemporary poets have reshaped and re-interpreted the form.
Foust wrote the 30 core sonnets of Paradise Drive in a fevered sleepless few days. Although the book contains 78 sonnets, she originally wrote some 200. It’s a challenge to write an entire book of poems in the same form—it can be a sure path to dullness. But Foust’s sonnets are never dull. While all but two of the poems are fourteen lines, they rhyme intermittently and are irregular in their use of iambic pentameter. Foust also sustains energy each time by playing within the form. The sonnet of anastrophes, some of which is quoted above, is a good example. The surprising syntax keeps us on our toes as readers. In other poems Foust uses slant rhymes and enjambment to keep the rhymes from overwhelming; or she doesn’t rhyme, as in these few lines from the first poem of “Meanwhile, Elsewhere”: .
A boy whose name I cannot now recall
in the john with his MK48
did not come out. In e-mails Boy’s mom
sent on to the Pentagon: They made me stand
on a kid until he bled out. Boy got
his hot-and-cot foursquare meal, time off,
and a week’s worth of Paxil. . .
Here Foust plays with shifting diction (“cannot now recall” and then “john” and “hot-and-cot), with anastrophe in the first three lines, and with quoting the hyphenated lexicon of the army.
Some poems are sonnets only in as much as they are 14 lines long, and two poems are a line longer than a traditional sonnet. In short, there’s an exuberant and yet restrained variety to Foust’s sonnets. Anyone eager to see what’s possible with the form in the 21st century will find an excellent model in Paradise Drive.
Sonnets aren’t the only reason to keep an eye on Rebecca Foust. In 2010 she won the Many Mountains Moving Book Prize for All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song. In the same year she won the Foreword Review Book of the Year Award for God, Seed: Poetry & Art About the Natural World, a collaboration with artist Lorna Stevens. Foust is actively engaged in the California writing scene, bringing poetry to the public by organizing readings, teaching poetry classes, judging awards, and editing for the journal Narrative. Rebecca Foust may have come to poetry as a late-blooming pilgrim, but she’s making the most of it, and leading the way for others—a great gift.
Athena Kildegaard is the author of three books of poetry, Rare Momentum (2006), Bodies of Light (2011, a Minnesota Book Award finalist), and Cloves & Honey (2012). She teaches at the University of Minnesota, Morris.
Homepage photo credit: from the book cover by Suzanne Engelberg and Lorna Stevens