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A Foustian Bargain

Stephen Ross

foerGraham Foust
A Mouth in California
Flood Editions, 2009
96 Pages
ISBN 978-0981952017

There’s an interesting study waiting to be written on the abuse of catchphrases and commonplaces in contemporary poetry; so many poets have wrung great lines out of them. In the following passage from J.H. Prynne’s early masterpiece, “Sketch for a Financial Theory of the Self,” for instance, we find the spirit of self-help advice torqued into something cuttingly beautiful:

We give the name of
our selves to our needs.
We want what we are.

Here, we encounter a poetic logic not dissimilar from that which governs many of the best poems in Graham Foust’s (b. 1970) fourth collection, A Mouth in California. It is a logic that loves to resolve itself into canny, warped aphorisms about the tragicomedy of human desire. And in Foust’s hands, it’s also apt to resolve itself into something bleak, funny, curt, and self-effacing (the back cover of A Mouth in California refers to Foust’s “unique idiom of tragicomic pratfalls”, his “ballet of falling down”). In his “Poem with Rules and Laws”, one of a dozen poems titled “Poem with [Something],” he conducts some cliché-torquing of his own:

You don’t lust
for what you
want. You lust
for what you
can get.

“We want what we are.” “You lust for what you can get.” We want these to say “you can’t always get what you want”, but we can’t always get what we want, can we? In “Poem with Television”, Foust asks:

What part of
“What part of no
don’t you understand?”
don’t you understand…

Behind this kind of writing lies the understanding—so important for writers over the past century—that everyday speech, set slightly out of joint or context, can deliver both personal and collective revelation. Emily Dickinson called this telling the truth but telling it slant. Prynne knew it in the late 60s, and Graham Foust knows it today.

Yet Foust is no prophet or poet-philosopher, brilliant craftsman or bard. “Wordsmith” might be closer to the mark, though it’s a touch unfair. His poems hardly ever exceed two pages (not a judgment, just a fact) and have titles like “Poem with Premature Ejaculation” and “Perhaps I Have Not Mentioned That I Am Dismantling a House”. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, yet he’s a seriously good poet. Writers and former English majors will revel in their ability to tease out his references to the likes of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Pierre Reverdy, Jack Spicer, Johnny Knoxville, O.J. Simpson, and “Home on the Range”. And best of all, Foust is subtle:

What Woke Me

Not the minor
quake but

the dissonant

of a paint

Stephen Ross [1] is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. He is the executive editor at the Oxonian Review.