NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song by Rebecca Foust
(Many Mountains Moving Press, Philadelphia, 2010)
Rebecca Foust grew up in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. After earning a BA in English, she moved to northern California in 1979 to attend Stanford Law School. After a decade of private practice she turned her attention to a decade of advocacy for children with autism. She took up writing when she reached 50 and gained an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson in 2010. The year also saw the release of All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song which won the Many Mountains Moving Book Prize. Besides teaching, Foust organises poetry events, reads for the Northern California Book Award, serves on the Board of the Marin Poetry Center and works as an Assistant Editor in fiction for Narrative magazine.
Some of the poems included in this collection have already appeared in previous chapbooks which were recipients of the Robert Phillips Chapbook Poetry Prize and released by Texas Review Press in 2008 and 2009. The re-appearance of these poems puts them into a more substantial narrative.
This latest collection is very much centred on the past, especially the first section, which concentrates on the area where she grew up; a small town surrounded by farmlands and forests and quarries and strip mines. The landscape is bleak, it is a terrible lunar beauty / like leaves past withering and life is harsh. Here we find descriptions of the strip mines (laying bare the past), archaeological digs (confronting the past) and the shaping of various memories (recalling the past). There are poems about work-related illness, unemployment, death and dying, poverty and infidelity; a blind grandmother who taps out the hours of her existence sitting on a rocker in the porch, an abusive relationship, a dead body that has lain face down in a bathroom for four days on end, a memory of an accident in a science lab and a family story of tears for the long years before / and the long years ahead. These poems are of a past country that refuses to go away. One longs for the sun to come out... but it never does.
The second part focuses primarily on her son‘s autism and makes for painful reading. The poems are heartfelt and powerful in their delivery and pack a punch on the page.
In Too Soon Foust tells us
My labor heaves up in waves
like the moon-crazed tide; it raves
like the tide-crazed moon,
rising and rising too soon, too soon.
I can’t get my breath – my gown’s
soaked with milk, all spilt.
The doctor looks young and afraid.
The nurse asks me, Have you ever prayed?
Safari – a poem about preparations for a family holiday in Africa – is written in a lighter vein and brings some welcome relief. There is a nod to Saul Bellow in Herzog Out-takes – a poem that does not seem to fit very easily with the rest of the collection.
The final part ranges further afield but even though the subject matter is more varied there is no let up. In Sometimes the Mole is Merely, Foust writes:
Sometimes they happen – bombs
blow up school buses, a son’s shyness
is autism, the mole is more than a mole...
In After the Hurricane she writes of how
Nature went crazy after Hurricane Bob.
Salt-shocked leaves flamed red in July
against sky preternaturally blue. Pogies flew
then rained silver onto the beach,
bees grew confused and swarmed in the sea.
In Raystown River Trout fishing is not exactly a relaxing sport:
I knew about the upstream mine,
uncapped and seeping mercury, so I
wore gloves to hold the fish no fool
would eat and waited for the mystery
The opening and closing poems – Altoona to Anywhere and Allegheny Mountain Bowl (Reprise) mirror each other intentionally. What Foust is saying here is that no matter how far we travel, both physically and mentally, no matter how much we improve our station in life, we cannot escape from our past. The past moulds us into what we are and our experience of life, with all the challenges that it brings, remains fundamentally the same everywhere irrespective of geography and climate.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014).