Graham Foust was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, raised in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and has lived as an adult in western New York, Iowa and Oakland. His poetry partakes of this collective American imaginary and its terse vernacular style:
Full of noise and lust, they fled
the city for the shore. It was four
in the upcoming morning. Everyone
slobbered; somebody drove.
Another thirst begun, they had their beer
in cans in bags; their hands, their feet
in frigid sand; their eardrums–make that
their headaches–sewn with ocean.
They’d never seen a moon so willful,
so scissory, never heard the dark water
rearrange so clumsily. Crowded future,
dingy beach. They scratched the air;
they burned and buried things.
They were the fruit they couldn’t reach.
This poem, "Their Early Twenties," is from Foust’s new book, A Mouth in California, and it bears some earmarks of country (and rock) lyrics: drinking, driving and longing. It’s also made of fourteen lines and rhymes faster than its loose tetrameter lawfully permits. (Even a loose meter, the poem shows us, functions exactly as the speed limit rhymes want to surpass.) Fourteen lines, a scumbled final couplet–a sonnet, really. And "sonnet" is just an old word for song.
As a form, the sonnet is pithy and strict, but compared with the poems in Foust’s previous three books, "Their Early Twenties" is positively wordy. Here’s "Night Train," from his debut book, As in Every Deafness (2003):
creased, the darkness seems
in one of those houses
A hundred classic songs–from "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry" to "Night Moves" to "Helpless" to "In the Early Morning Rain"–haunt this fragment. It’s an ode to American male vagabondage, a manifest destiny of freedom and nostalgia. Freedom to wander the tracks or the roads with a bottle (Night Train is a species of booze only winos and teenagers can stomach); nostalgia for the exile from a house and everything home represents. But the poem doesn’t ramble. It has a peculiarly American (if not Protestant) succinctness, its words like bits of scrap metal scrounged from spaces of intergalactic scarcity.
A Mouth in California is Foust’s fourth book in seven years. His first two books, As in Every Deafness and Leave the Room to Itself, featured poems (like "Night Train") that were formally so austere and so preoccupied with pain that they risked numbing the reader. (Or this reader, at least. For me, absence of a range of feeling in a book of poems seems more studied, not less.) Foust’s austerity made him hard to place aesthetically: he had studied at SUNY Buffalo, a haven in the 1980s and ’90s for poets enticed by the poststructural Language school, and his minimalism would have seemed at home there. But there was no radical indeterminacy in the work–his wrenched syntax was constrained by, and put in the service of, an afflicted soul that seemed apprenticed to the poems of Louise Glück more than those of Charles Bernstein. In his third book, Necessary Stranger (2007), Foust started winking at his own earnestness: for one thing, the volume opened with the trio of poems "1984," "Jump" and "Panama"–all titles of Van Halen hits from the band’s heyday. The wit was a relief from the pressure of his condensery.