A rock bottom, a bottom line, a body in extremis all make the poems of Graham Foust quaver and reel.


Cars. Rain. Alcohol. Insomnia. Money. Wind. TV. Sky. Super Target. Bones. Birds. Honky-tonk. The night. A list like this evokes vast tracts of middle America, whose most abiding cultural expression may be the country song. Country is a pure product of both the recording industry and folk music traditions dating back centuries; it typically mines the quotidian and refines it into an elegy you’ve been hearing on the radio all your life. Things of unutterable dreariness–strip malls and interstates but also drinking problems, marital problems–turn mournfully sweet. Its roots in America’s dream life are chronicled in Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic (reissued as The Old, Weird America), which tells the story of how the earliest recordings of "race" and "hillbilly" music (which became blues and country, respectively), gathered and released by Harry Smith in 1952 on Anthology of American Folk Music, ignited the 1960s folk music revival and revolutionized rock music. The story has mythic dimensions, but Marcus also gives it a civic cast: this is music as "democratic speech."

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

the same–

in one of those houses

is you

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.

Necessary Stranger also dispensed with the endnotes that had, in Foust’s previous two books, acknowledged borrowings from the likes of Archilochus, Wilco, Cormac McCarthy, Joy Division and Heidegger. By now his readers know the Foust MO: short-short poems, mash-ups of two kinds of knowingness (literary and musical) set against a contemporary exurban landscape suffused with loneliness, violence and erotic need, and never enough money. The borrowings are almost beside the point; Foust doesn’t so much appropriate sources as embed his poems in the cultural subsoil that nourished him. ("Everything, Earth, compares to you," he quips in A Mouth in California, inverting the title of the hit song "Nothing Compares 2 U," penned by Prince and covered by Sinéad O’Connor.) And in one of my favorite passages, he writes:

To space’s constant swallow comes
a small unslaughter: a song
for once, a sliver. Be let go.

The poem is called "Outbox." In it, what is swallowed is emitted as song, and what sings is also a swallow: the bird. What goes in must come out a mouth in California.

Like many classic country songs, Foust’s lyrics pivot on a moment of reckoning: a rock bottom, a bottom line, a body in extremis. The body is the ground of the poetry, and the body is always pushing up through an extreme intellectual demeanor of the speaker, as in "God":

Keep talking while I tend to the lines on your face.
Keep talking while I touch your face
and keep talking through your face
and throw your face through your face.

Similarly, in "We Arrive As If at a Picture, Pinched,"

I push throat after throat
    through the bones of my ears.

There’s physical violence, of course, in the repetitions of "your face" and "throat after throat." Much of the violence of Foust’s work materializes in the sounds of the poem, in its tough brevity and sudden line breaks. But the violence is bodily too, and psychological, and even for someone like myself, repulsed by melodramatic violence in American movies and fiction, Foust’s work is irresistibly charged. "Poem With Rules and Laws," a poem about marriage, manages to be both ironic and raw:

You don’t lust
for what you
want. You lust
for what you
can get. I’ll
carve you your
oath. I’ll show
you the badge
in my mouth.

The badge in the mouth of the husband-policeman enforces the primitive vow–the kiss–that sealed the conjugal union. Its function is to take the couple out of long-term anhedonia back to that sacramental moment–and the threat of force backs it up, theatrical or not.

Marriage in A Mouth in California is not a bourgeois gilded cage that prevents circulation in a bountiful sexual market. As in many country-and-western songs, marriage succors against the privations of a world ruled by scarcity, not eros. Scarcity, of course, eventually prevails. The heat of the husband-policeman dissipates: "there’s a wet log moaning in the fire…the old thought jerking like a flame." Cycling back into indifference, the poet remarks, "Lying’s lonely–to lie/alone at least is good." If, in the poems, the speaker’s body is trying to claw out through the mind, "pushing," it also sinks back again into autoerotic solipsism. "I don’t love you/like I love you," he quips. In "Masturbatory," an epigraph from Jonathan Edwards ("And so ‘self-love’ may be taken two ways") announces a poem that ends as follows:

here goes–. What this is
is arousal’s residue, the hands
as hands and someone else.

The "this" is masturbation–or is it poetry? The well-worn joke breaks open a fresh realization of the gesture linking them: the imagining of one’s self as other: the "necessary stranger" (as he put it in his previous book). Sexual abjection similarly becomes an act of self-portraiture in "Poem With Lifestyle":

I want to be beaten

within an inch of my likeness
and/or my liking it.

Foust collapses two senses of the word "like" in order to cleave the word "beaten" in two. Liking something is a quality, and qualities define a self. But this is like having an image of oneself beaten out of a blank material, as in metalwork, and so violence toward the self is once again a vehicle for mirroring, for self-knowledge. (If in "Poem With Rules and Laws" violence relieves the anhedonia of marriage, then more violence might be required to spice up the longest cohabitation: oneself with oneself. "I don’t love you/like I love you.") Since so much of Foust’s work is a declaration of what he likes, embraces and wants to incorporate into his corpus–that is, his body–these poems instruct the reader to become what you like so you can like what you are. And they mark Foust as one of the best erotic poets writing now–one who knows how to wring sex appeal from sly titles and rough enjambments.

The vision of primordial American malehood and its "democratic speech," which Foust’s poems and their country-and-western forebears help to fabricate, has a strain in American fiction too. The first note in Foust’s first book mentions Cormac McCarthy. The opening poem of A Mouth in California, "The Sun Also Fizzles," invokes Ernest Hemingway:

What’s this place, between
geography and evening? The sun
also bludgeons; a car has three wheels;
and what’s the wrong way to break
that brick of truth back into music?

But to say, contra The Sun Also Rises, that the sun fizzles and that it bludgeons is not just to invoke and then subvert old Papa. It’s to rewrite him in a particular way: a hint is the jarring word "geography" and its being coupled to "evening." The phrase evokes the poetic climate of one of Hemingway’s nemeses, Wallace Stevens.

Key West wasn’t big enough for the both of them. One evening in 1936, fed up with the rumors of the poet (then in his 50s; Hemingway was in his 30s) smearing his name amid their overlapping social circles, the novelist forced a confrontation. In his own telling, Hemingway dodged Stevens’s fist and administered a sound beating. Only when Hemingway paused to take off his glasses did Stevens land a punch, breaking his hand on his rival’s impervious jaw. Stevens spent days convalescing. Hemingway concluded his account of the fight in a letter to Sara Murphy, "Anyway last night Mr. Stevens comes over to make up and we are made up. But on mature reflection I don’t know anybody needed to be hit worse than Mr. S."

It’s a hard image to shake: the Marlboro Man of American letters, creator of a pared-down tensile diction welded to subjects like war and big-game hunting, jabbing at the insurance lawyer from Hartford who cultivated a hothouse vocabulary. Hemingway won the battle in Key West, but Stevens hasn’t lost the war. He is a deeply important influence on many contemporary American poets, including Foust, who argues fiercely with him in A Mouth in California. In "Los Angeles" he addresses the master whose famous poem "Sunday Morning" relinquishes the notion that paradise lies in the next life: it is always here and now. Foust’s riposte:

The only critique
of paradise is paradise.

Be there drinking

The argument continues in "Nuances of a Theme by Stevens; Or, Why I Love Country Music":

These sounds are long in the living of the ear.
The honky-tonk out of the somnolent grasses
Is a memorizing, a trying out, to keep.

What I wanted to say–the wind ripping up
and into everywhere–was "Don’t say nothing."
This was not allowed.

What I said was "Don’t say anything."
This, too, was not allowed–the wind, again,
ripping up and into everywhere.

The truth, I knew it: breath and heaven–one thing.
A thing for shrieky talk and fearless error.
A thing about to happen to anyone.

The first three lines are lifted from Stevens’s "Things of August." The rest of the short poem responds to it and to Stevens’s most durable theme: the fine line between signal and noise, human and inhuman sound, meaning and nonsense–or mere prosody. ("The Idea of Order at Key West" is Stevens’s most perfect expression of this: "It may be that in all her phrases stirred/The grinding water and the gasping wind;/But it was she and not the sea we heard.") Foust zeroes in on Stevens’s use of the word "honky-tonk," with all its connotations as a bastardized music from juke joints in the Deep South.

Of all the charges against Mr. S.–he who deserved "to be hit worse than" anybody–none sticks so much as Robert Frost’s barb that he wrote bric-a-brac; the word "honky-tonk" rattles the august "Things of August" and thus seems at first listen to be bric-a-brac: a word he used just because he liked it, and to add to his menagerie of sounds. Foust, on the other hand, writes as a real aficionado of honky-tonk: the improper double negative "Don’t say nothing," he suggests, is just another way of saying "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is" (the last line of Stevens’s well-known "The Snow Man"). The wind is the surfeit of sound that drowns out the speaker’s signal, or in more democratic parlance "shrieky talk." "A thing about to happen to anyone" is death or cosmic accident, which cares not for social class or diction. So Foust redeems a meaning out of Stevens’s "honky-tonk," and welcomes him into the company of those who "don’t say nothing."

"Nuances of a Theme by Stevens" might be a companion piece to a short essay Foust published in 2005, "Like a Hurricane" (a shout-out to Neil Young), in which he offers an explanation for Stevens’s coinage of the word "gramaphoon" in the poem "The Search for Sound Free From Motion." "Gramaphoon" warps the word "gramophone" to rhyme with "typhoon" (their circular motion rhymes, after all):

Indeed, a record player both repeats endlessly and balances masterfully; by contrast, a poet, constrained by the fixed and rigid world of the written word, needs to wobble a bit, must falter strangely, in order to more truly convey the world in which he or she walks. It seems that poets must also–again, like a hurricane–wreak a little havoc: warping "gramophones" into "gramaphoons," they destroy words and rebuild them in order to get their new and playful worlds to work.

Meanwhile, in A Mouth in California, "Poem Beside Itself" instructs us to "queer every relevant dream." That queering, like the wobble in the gramaphoon, or the honky-tonk in "Things of August," is Stevensian. Kin to Emily Dickinson’s "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant–," it is the necessary complement to the myth of the Hemingwayesque straight talker of democratic speech. There is no truth in straight talk that doesn’t slant, queer or wobble–you can read that wobble as metaphysical or emotional, the voice quavering from heartbreak or the reel of the inebriate.

Dickinson, who called herself an "inebriate of air," has a cameo in A Mouth in California‘s tour de force, a poem called "My Graham Foust." The title alludes to Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, a groundbreaking study of Dickinson’s devastating poem "My Life had stood–a Loaded Gun–." (Howe, Foust’s teacher at SUNY Buffalo, is a dedicatee of this book.) The poem is a riff on Dickinson’s trope of imagining herself after death, but it is also a version of the Grateful Dead song "He’s Gone":

Gone’s his imposter, and gone’s
his gawky cross. Gone’s
his tweaked legacy’s hit list–hooray!–
and gone’s his waste of song.

If Foust can write Wallace Stevens into the country music tradition, who’s to say he can’t write the Grateful Dead into American poetry? Their loping repetitions ("He’s gone, gone, and nothing’s gonna bring him back") are echoed by his loose ballad meter, but the final stanza is a pentimento of literary references:

Gone’s his sister. Gone’s his doctor.
Gone’s his transom. Gone’s his view.
He’s nobody’s autobiography.
Whose are you.

Besides the Grateful Dead and Dickinson, there’s Gertrude Stein (the author of Everybody’s Autobiography) and Alexander Pope ("I am his Highness’ dog at Kew;/Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?"). The echo of Pope glancing off the echo of Stein evokes another Stein line: "I am I because my little dog knows me." Reprising the theme that what one swallows reverses and comes back out of the mouth again, the poem rings with influences high and low, poetic and folk, I and I, nobody, nothing, anybody and everyone. A hit list without fisticuffs.



Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy