Poem — From the February 2017 issue

Remainers

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When I read Graham Foust, I’m put in mind of both Wallace Stevens and Johnny Cash. (Foust, who was born in Tennessee, entitled one poem “Nuances of a Theme by Stevens; Or, Why I Love Country Music.”) Like Stevens, Foust writes intricate poems that explore a world from which meaning has departed; the poet seeks to restore it, however tentatively, through the powers of artifice. The challenge, as with Stevens, is to call up “afternoons / that in their moments had meaning” without suffering “a relapse into god-talk.” But Foust is at his best describing the moments he’s just missed. “A fed-up blue jay having fled it, / a branch perfects its shake” — the keenness of his attention to the wake, the instant after departure, transforms absence into presence. “In so many still lifes / the sense that someone was just there / is mostly what is felt.”

It is Foust’s wry, dark, plainspoken lyricism that makes me think of Cash. (Listen to recordings of Foust reading his poems and you’ll hear another reason why I evoke Cash’s baritone.) In “Remainers,” the combination of Foust’s unpredictable syntax and his short, angular lines (usually alternating between six and eight syllables) imparts a kind of musical drama to the phrasing: “songs rush darkly through my insides / as any disease might.” We hear the stagger, the twang, the occasional slurred rhyme.

In an insightful review of A Mouth in California, a collection Foust published in 2009, Ange Mlinko describes how his work partakes of the “collective American imaginary” and vernacular concision of country music, but cuts it with literary influences ranging from Stevens to Susan Howe. Foust’s echoes and borrowings feel less like modernist literary allusion and more like covers, or misremembered lyrics, tracking the daily, demotic ways that language passes through us, only very briefly ours. “Some of what I feel or see / sails out to where it’s heard.”

Even when Foust uses found language, it sounds unmistakably like him. (“Remainers” begins with a line lifted from James Wright’s “Saint Judas.”) In other words, he makes us hear how every voice is a composite of other voices. The most notable instance of this recycling of remainders in “Remainers” is the headline and subhead of a 1919 New York Times article about Einstein’s theory of relativity. The news-speak, now archaically lyrical, appears in its unaltered entirety (I checked). Yet it reads exactly as if Foust had written it, then broken it into lines: “lights all askew in the heavens / Stars Not Where They Seemed.” In the context of the poem, the newspaper clipping is discovered “shoved between / two pages of some tome / about Minnesota plant life.”

I get the sense that after the opening section, the speaker of “Remainers” is no longer Foust but an older person, a woman who addresses him, perhaps from the non-place of a nursing home: “I’ve coughed the halves of Monday’s pills / from the spoon of my hand.” As you’ll see, this person’s speech — or Foust’s imagination of it — blooms into a powerful meditation on how an approaching end “makes living waver.” Under unfixed stars, the poem perfects its shake. —Ben Lerner

REMAINERS

Don’t you remember being young, when language was magic without meaning?
— Toni Morrison

Do we possess Thursday?
 — Keston Sutherland

When I went out to kill myself
I thought only the world
could possibly be more thorough —
hear me out miracle,
my first first sentence in a year —
and soon thereafter felt
not loved exactly, but dreamt of,
and called up afternoons
that in their moments had meaning,
along with some others
that had only vague presence,
and then, having looked death
in the forehead and fetched the mail,
used a gently used book
(The Bereaved Parent, a volume
mistakenly sent me
by a bookstore in Omaha
instead of Short Letter,
Long Farewell, which I had wanted
to give to my brother)
to move some dog shit from my lawn
into a Safeway bag
that had snagged in a nearby tree,
the small cough of a broom
along concrete a few doors down,
one of the many sounds
my life gives off, and what’s useful
is real — or so I thought —
but having now flown many miles
to say my poetry
in a kind of corporate rec room,
I quarter-heartedly
reach for a pint glass in the dark
of an old friend’s guest room
and spill cold water on — among
other guest things — my phone,
my good shoes, my duffel . . .
fuck it: can I start this over
with someone else’s throat?
Was that vomit or a speech scroll,
a tractatus or scraps?
Less is the same; a fossil gives
good sample and is dead.
There at the hole in everything,
I won’t have what I’d known:
the filth of light a city seen
from air at midnight is,
the nouns you thought to use because
I’m very close to gone.
Another’s mind is like the bottom
of a boat half run aground,
and veiled so as to be seen, all dreams
are first last looks around.
New instincts (no doubt speech was one)
must feel at first like smears
along the length of any sense.
Bird noise, bird noise, backspace —
the laziest activist wraps
himself in caution tape
and walks into the evening-orange
disorders of the surf.
What is it with the end? It moves
from mouth to mouth, a word.
There’s not much else to do but fall
or fuss about subjects
and objects, as in what if when
I close these eyes, all light
has been extinguished or
just hasn’t yet been devised?
And people — our looks and feelings
and thoughts; the things our thoughts
produce, and the things that neither
we nor what we think
have anything to do with making
(e.g., the range of any morning);
and lastly, if not finally,
that drabbest of mysteries:
the block on offering content,
any content at all,
to being one person, on pain
of a relapse into god-talk —
all this the poem threatens
to put to music and/or worse.
To breathe’s not chosen, mostly,
though there’s another way
to look at it, which is to say
that it’s the only thing
we nearly always choose to do,
except when we’re swimming
underwater or feigning death
or, for awful or else,
when we decide to drop ourselves.
Back to from where I came,
my having been here is behind
my having headed that way,
so why not call me eternity
with a chance of Thursday
with a chance your scare paragraph
will adhere to the grid?
Eyes unaware of one another,
each with somewhere to be,
I’d like to think it wasn’t me
who went vertiginous,
but rather some six-year-old girl
who of her own accord
began spinning in a scorched-out yard
and never really stopped.
I might get to February,
the hard lake like a field,
the field like the last shred of Earth.
A shadow’s no object,
a shadow’s a situation,
just one weightless facet
of moving out into a day.
“Your skull is beautiful”
doesn’t mean “I feel peculiar,”
although it points to what
seem like passed catastrophes,
lenses cleaned back to grit.
But first I was and all that blood —
a whole orchard of blood
or something very much like it —
slow liquid ignoring
my reflections in its motions,
which passed and then collapsed
immediately into feeling
and then really away,
the way the whole way of us will.
Now’s an age I’m of two minds
not to praise, even and especially as
I’m praising it for real,
as real, all hell coalescing
just like it always has,
like a house I’d need keys to leave.
Night in, night in, night in,
songs rush darkly through my insides
as any disease might —
a point is that which has no part,
a line is breadthless length —
while some of what I feel or see
sails out to where it’s heard.
Nothing, poem or otherwise,
is of such quality
that there’s no one who could hate it
down to normal only dead.
Labor and happenstance, time’s glass,
and maybe thought hates me
as it moves about what makes it,
though I’m not a person
on whom the many occasions
that go by the name of
what it is I’ve turned away from
make little impression,
a far-off flock resembling smoke,
for one; the null feeling
“Happy New Year” is a question.
Explosively lonely —
as though my head were made simply
to weigh my tongue and teeth —
because a doctor in the hall
pushed past me in anger
(so maybe I got in her way),
I’m ninety-nine years old,
the only of my friends to not
have ceased and disappeared.
Kindness’s numerous sorrows
keep me almost honest,
and gray with life, adrift among
all evidence, I know
how to know I’m still here: a schedule
crumpled on a bus seat,
words hurled weatherward — these are news
from a collective place,
or at the very least they’re news
from a place we could share,
although no notarized paper says so,
nor does any chiseled stone.
A fed-up blue jay having fled it,
a branch perfects its shake,
and I’ve the right to look at light
that reflects off your teeth.
The fraught way a thinking body
eats into its clear need
to fail with thoughts of tomorrow’s
not proof of existence
(that said, the facts of failure are)
and this is where I claim
that I don’t fear disappearing,
but only my being here
dying, not really following
any of anything —
going once, going, and that’s it.
Empire fades like a taste
or many tastes — and brutally —
its spoken-for glamour
crossing over into quiet
that’s as spent as spent gets
this verdigris non-century,
not necessarily
to anyone’s ears, you hear me?
(I’ll never grasp so much
as I assume I’m saying now.)
Write something sometime
in my cremains with your finger,
a vague line you’d like, like
Made as if unremarked as air.
Today, though, sit with me,
I want to give you this bookmark,
print from years ago shoved between
two pages of some tome
about Minnesota plant life
(or placed there with much care —
who am I to say, as I’d’ve
been only a small child
at the time, and hardly compelled
by states or their flora):

lights all askew in the heavens
Stars Not Where They Seemed or
Were Calculated to be but
Nobody Need Worry.

The sky the sky in theory, jest,
I struggle to be glad,
and in the other other hand,
your poem for no good
reason, in itself confounded —
skip past the end: you’ll find
I’ve died and do many dead things —
it makes living waver.
Ahead of day’s informations,
you speak your every sentence
both warily and carelessly,
as one might grip a fish
that one has planned to gut and eat.
Their first designs feel right,
but somehow there isn’t enough
hard crying in their sounds,
so you mouth on as if talking
were not its own drawback,
which it is when done the wrong way
or when done very well.
(I’ve coughed the halves of Monday’s pills
from the spoon of my hand.)
Red sky on bad TV tonight
on furniture, on skin —
I’ll memorize it like it was
yesterday somewhere else,
like I was a different woman
who’d done time in a park
where pink repeating petals were
birthed at the crowd and were
transferable from mind to mind
as patched contrivances.
(She liked Old Fitzgerald bourbon
and was legally blind.
I remember she tried to read.)
The single return on
becoming adult, the one
justice in forgoing
a sphere of possibility,
is the reception of
reality — at once the pain
and balm in the only fact
of the onliest realm:
that it exists, and I in it
this Thursday afternoon.
Everything’s coming down ruptures,
awry, very much like
when I pretend money can’t buy
sordid excellence as,
say, Sarasota or Vegas
or Ashland, Oregon.
Life, like shock, is temporary,
and even near its close,
this life had best pass for itself,
although I’ve nothing much
with which to menace it today,
June rain going the way
of handwritten letters, low clouds.
Heavy now, I barely feel it,
and there are rumors that
I’ll hold this posture, the loose sense,
in other words, that thought —
rid of texture, as what I said
was mirrored on water —
begins and ends as needed.
Put yet another way,
consciousness’s heel on thought’s wing —
one doesn’t learn it’s there
until it’s made its way elsewhere,
forever not knowledge
and certainly never a thing.
All the world’s a warning —
it just goes away to show you
there’s no paltrier year
than the year you think you get good.
(Go ahead, compare death
to rest one last time — it can’t hurt.)
In a place devoid of
or made wholly of novelty
(watch me brighten over
to a garden now and void this)
the heart’s ramparts chorus,
all sociology explodes,
as if I’d known thousands
of dialects, but not the sounds
of water over ice,
and whatever I have to say
for myself, I’ll soon hand over,
at prolonged last, to you.
Credible thrones are few,
I get that, and architecture’s
gift for fiction’s as true
as a day’s being paraphrased,
necessarily so,
so I know I’ve had done with it.
Waking threatens the dream
with material — that champagne
I sipped from a Ziploc
never was, though it could have been
and could yet be the case.
Face facing down, sun on the ground,
some otherworldly wind —
here I can infiltrate, for now,
the ready emptiness
through which all vision has to swim.
I used to think my eyes
would feel like something close to new
when I could see for myself
the pictured floors of distant rooms,
but so does everyone
(rows of dots in dust on those floors —
they were all there before,
and yet only in a story;
and in that story was
an orchid, and in that orchid
dust, and in that dust
still one more story with an orchid
et goddamn cetera)
and in the first known photograph
in which humans appear,
one person shines another’s shoes.
In so many still lifes
the sense that someone was just there
is mostly what is felt,
yet one piece of fruit seems to have
come open of itself
for some reason, many, or none.
When there cease to be
or there are only pleasant weathers,
love poetry, so called,
will be the only poetry,
and it will have to be
enough for us, while also not
being nearly enough
so as to still be poetry.
I hear it for — and from —
my memory, that heavy limb
that promises its way
around history, the problem,
disappearing the halls
where it sets up its lamps, its beams,
its impromptu mirrors
(crosses opposite one another
for one weird example)
some difficult to see as such,
and why not dwell on that,
or better yet rehash belief?
I may have days still to live,
but there’s a trouble under mind,
some combination of
irrational variety,
interest, and faint alarm.
About to be unfeasible,
an acrobat of ash,
I am become how I’m ending:
slowly; it becomes me —
the game that all these remnants are,
this negligent triumph
like a sleep.

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