Safety Book by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
I’ve never written about what Graham Foust’s work has meant to me, I don’t think, except in passing. My friend Julie Doxsee lent me a couple of his books—his first two—when Julie and I were living in Denver about eight or ten years ago. What can I say about them? Sometimes you find poetry that’s “good” but it doesn’t move you; sometimes you hold onto some shitty books because they moved you early on—and you feel tangled up with the feelings they brought out in you. Necessary Stranger is the opposite of all that: the power’s still there and it blasts me—back to when I first found them and forward to a future calmer somehow pleasing to want to live in.
I was always giving little books to my friend Solan to take to Antarctica. Over the years I think he took Jay Wright’s Music Mask & Measure, Danielle Dutton’s brilliant first book, Attempts at a Life, and others… you see, size was key. Little books. Nothing bulky, no hardcovers. Thin, short, slender was the rule, and it was fun to think of books under those considerations—books that would make it further south than where the vast majority of people who have ever lived will never even see.
Solan and I grew up in Seattle together, and he’s been going to Antarctica for the past ten years now, for about 5 months at a stretch—so reading material is crucial. He’s not a poetry reader, per se, but he digs some of the stuff I give him. I think he’s an Eric Baus fan. Anyways, he’d always humor me—and take something I told him he’d be better off with. What did I know about it? The closest I’ve been to Antarctica is probably the Panama Canal.
There’s something about Foust’s third book Necessary Stranger that crystallizes everything he was doing at the time. The poems are short, yeah, but they’re funny in this fucked up and sad way that develops a voice and a sensibility—a sort of verbal countenance, I guess—that hooks me. I re-read them. I read them aloud. I hear Foust’s low voice in them, too. I feel childish and sentimental about them. Nobody does what Foust does: it’s not really lyrical, it’s not cute or sarcastic. It’s not new sincere or old sincere. And it doesn’t mistake Google for a typewriter.
Here’s how the book’s first poem “1984” opens:
Look at the sky, go
back inside. Cocaine
makes its way to Wisconsin.
There’s something pre-internet about the poems in Necessary Stranger that makes me long for a false past, almost a longing for the longing itself. It fuses the high and low (morphing Wallace Stevens’s Necessary Angel with Van Halen’s 1984—my older brother had the cassette tape), but gives me a window onto what boredom used to be like when we were kids, without the gadgets we’ve surrounded ourselves with. It makes me think about what Adam Phillips says, when he calls boredom: “that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.”
I guess, for me, the poems in Necessary Stranger produce a kind of nostalgia for a recent inchoate present. The mass of just-passed and unattributed effects of the former now that we only later realize was a time—a year, a season, a decade, an era. These poems love boredom, blandness, and surfaces—not the usual fodder for poetry, right? But every tired, spent thing gets refracted back through the prism of Foust’s eerie grammatical contractions—sounding like they’re a stenographer’s shorthand for a cross between what was said in passing, what was thought but left unsaid, what was dreamt colorfully, and what was longed for but starkly missed out on.
There’s a Well, you’re never gonna arrive so get used to it, kid kind of feeling set against a sort of Did you even think you could mention that without getting laughed out of the room? feeling. I know that sounds silly, but that’s what these poems are asking me to say in order to try and describe their clunky blear, their sort of half-said overstatements and curtailed hyperboles. Can poems have a sort of passionate resignation? A lonely clamor? These do. Like realizing how hard you wanted something by how loudly you’re dismissing it, relegating it to pile of goods you never got your hands on. And the Brian Calvin portrait on the cover is the most fitting artwork on a book I know of: too awkward for plaintive, yet too stark and colorful to be banal—despite the very banality it traffics in.
I’m glad Foust’s on to longer poems, and I like his new To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems (just out from Flood Editions, too) very much. Maybe he’s tired of being known as the short poem guy, and I can understand that. Still, it makes me nostalgic for the nostalgia I had for having discovered these poems in Denver, in 2007 when they came out and first split my head in two: when I left school in Denver for a job in Chicago…when I ended one hard relationship only to start another that crushed me that much harder. Anyways…
I like that this book made its way to the ice. Here’s Solan reading Necessary Stranger in Antarctica shortly after the book came out.
JMW, Tucson, May 29, 2013