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The “Garbage Eater” of the title poem in Brett Foster’s provocative collection is a member of a religious sect (some would say cult) in the Bay Area who lives an ascetic life eating scraps from dumpsters. Just as this simple way of life exists within the most technologically advanced region in the world, Foster’s poems are likewise animated by the constant tension between material reality and an unabashed yearning for transcendence. The titles of Foster’s poems—“Like as a ship, that through the Ocean wyde,” ...
The “Garbage Eater” of the title poem in Brett Foster’s provocative collection is a member of a religious sect (some would say cult) in the Bay Area who lives an ascetic life eating scraps from dumpsters. Just as this simple way of life exists within the most technologically advanced region in the world, Foster’s poems are likewise animated by the constant tension between material reality and an unabashed yearning for transcendence. The titles of Foster’s poems—“Like as a ship, that through the Ocean wyde,” “Meditation in an Olive Garden,” “Little Flowers of Dan Quisenberry” —nod to the poems of the classical, medieval, and Renaissance masters he studies as a scholar.
In Foster’s vivid imagination, however, they point to the surprises hidden in the quotidian: a trip to the DMV, a visit to a chain restaurant, and the saintly reflections of the Kansas City Royals’ best closer. A lesser, more faddish writer would then tend toward ironic distance, but Foster fearlessly raises such unfashionable subjects as joy, doubt, gratitude, and grief without losing a sly sense of humor, even (as the sample poem shows) about poetry itself. Given its ambition, The Garbage Eater hardly seems a debut work. Foster’s universal subject matter and approachable style will win fans among both the most experienced poetry readers and those easily intimidated by contemporary verse.
Nights of Fireworks, Days of Drought
Moonlight made the sparks less splendid,
but I still did it—lit the wick,
held it till my courage went cold,
and whipped it forward as it burst.
Then a friend's turn. Victims took ones on cheek
or neck as they ducked for cover,
scampering by instinct on rail ties.
Cinders peppered the sandbar far below.
Smell of late summer disaster in the air:
smoke spread like those Confederate spirits,
said to have floated up from the water
when the engine derailed and fell and pulled the cars.
A faraway freight whistle signaled us.
As the train approached, we called Truce,
scurried from our ramparts and hid
at the embankment's crest, close as we dared,
to belt the iron armor with curses
and match its screeches with our bottle rockets.
We walked home too tired to assign close calls
or complain of burns, skinned elbows.
(What use was danger but to please us?)
Never once did we think to be thankful,
nor regret what was typical,
we immortals, sneaking back through bedroom windows.
Field Trip: Two Colonies
Refractions of the thousand theatres, faces—
Mysterious kitchens ... You shall search them all.
I grew out of small-minded clans
of dip-tossing, deer-hunter hillbillies.
Scandalous, we infested a backwater
cavity in the South, a rat-shit
state of peach-eating race haters,
debutante belles, and chain gangs
singing their exhausted souls
back to the stockade yard.
And so I sold my birthright for a song.
Because the holidays were canceled
year to year by bar fights,
street brawls, and dirt-necked
slanders, the town VFW shipped
our high school marching band
to Rowland Macy's Thanksgiving Day
Parade, New York City, where we
skunk-walked on national television,
trivial among the cartoon zeppelins.
BELTONVILLE BAND DOES GOOD
crowed the local weekly back home,
but what stuck was day-after vertigo,
us wandering rock-dumb to see
Manhattan with its pants down,
flopping its goods at the 42nd Street
Bazaar. The Amish hawked grapefruit
spoons and banana bread beside
a pack of gurus selling Persian
incense and waterworks. They gave
us free hits from the hookah
to strike a deal, the touch
of honey-apple tobacco
prancing like harem dancers
across our lips loyal to dips of Skoal.
Slightly high, we saw the Times
Square show-pimps and parroted
the Hash-hash stutter of drug pushers.
Later in freshman comp I'd urge
this with blood-cold conviction:
Hart Crane was a Reasonable Man,
another country boy who deified
the island, fair streets of New York,
New York, whose choiring strings gesture
everywhere, or to the eastern
boroughs at least. The threshold's here,
broadcast even on the sidewalk:
the words PORN STAR like a pair
of scars outside Rockefeller Center,
collecting all the cast-off
imprints of Westchester commuters.
And the 104 to Harlem: Midtown,
mid-afternoon. Madison Avenue
runs under us, Mad Ave signboards
run through us—Business School.
Call Now. Rembrandt at the Met.
Tapestries of the age unravel
above an old man—he's lived whole
avenues—who, seeing a hunched
and limping tortoise woman, seatless,
guides her to his. Bless your heart,
as she drops. No ma'am, bless your
heart, bless both our hearts, he says,
standing to lighten their shadows,
life-heavy, in the city of giants.
Sponge Bath as Answer to the Problem of Knowledge
Learn from these art students, armed with buckets
of soap water, sponges, a fine wire brush.
They climb the ladder to the pedestal,
touch his ponderous limbs, the first lesson.
I cannot live off the life of the mind.
Should I take hikes instead, cook special meals?
History sure, sure poetry, those thoughts
of God. But everyone exists in the world;
I must acknowledge this. Even Rodin's man,
Le Penseur, hunched in front of the research
library with his wide, inhuman knuckles
lodged on his mouth, bows to the physical.
Brain bewildered with equations, a child
prodigy remembers that tireless night,
trying column by column to disprove
how pi unwinds into the infinite,
one lead slope of long division binding
sheets and sheets of loose-leaf. The fact itself
mattered only when she came from her room,
blood-rushed, humbled by the abstract signature.
Kneeling, they begin their seizured scrubbing
and pull the world's dirt from his bronze shins.
The Little Flowers of Dan Quisenberry
I've had so many good things
happen to me.
So why not me?
And why not there, in that relic-worthy skull, where his goodwilled
thrust and parry with the local press existed in its jocular fullness?
I think Christ
would do it that way. Or
Hardly a laureled Hall of Famer, but saintly in the modern sense, still hero
enough, emblazoned on my place mat, his submarine curveball thrown.
No man is worth more
than another, and none is worth
more than $12.95.
He'd be clutch in the ninth, seal the game after afternoon bullpen slumber:
those summer doubleheaders in the grim bubble of the Metrodome:
I don't think there are any good uses
for nuclear weapons, but this
might be one.
I-70 World Series that year, whole state euphoric, that autumn of '85.
Was a Royals victory "God's will?" Of course! Their winning meant I'd be
God is concerned with hungry
people and justice,
not my saves.
New boy in Cardinal Country, I crowed and wagged my mouth and galloped
to class wearing a plastic batter's helmet. When last bell rang I got my ass whipped.
I'm here! It's Merry Christmas!
There are toys
in my locker. Gloves and bats and balls.
Friend of Dad's swore Quiz was a neighbor, single men in suburban apartments.
He gave me a signed ball (real? maybe? doubtful now) for a birthday present.
I have seen
the future, and it's much like the present,
No idea where that ball went. For ten years I've been reprobate, estranged
by boredom from the mediocre Royals. The game never changes, but people
The Foreman at rest
I awoke to quick movements
in the kitchen, his late-night ritual
shortly after second shift—
almond slivers and a fresh pear
cut with grave precision into fours.
Plate set, again he would descend
into the family room, just in time
to see the final guest. I trailed
awkwardly with my sleepy steps
but was never surprising, though
emboldened I stood by his chair,
wishing every time to scare him,
who'd treat me like a regular
sharing a night. He stared straight ahead:
That Johnny Carson's a good man.
Midwestern. Remember that.
Last movie plug and curtain call
led to a canned "O say can you see?"
as a faded flag waved in the sun.
The screen went black beneath the hum,
the station's dead air already fled.
Once in a while I would recast
the almonds on that metal plate
as massive fingernails cut
from some fierce, dung-stained primate.
Later I could build them only
as the inverse, little jewelers' wares
fit for a bracelet or earrings.
When I sprinkle a handful over
a baked chicken dish I've prepared
from a newfangled cookbook,
they land just right and are delicate,
caught by a mysterious grace.
It's still this way, his midnight snack
brittle like ancient currency
made from bits of boar bone, blanched
museum pieces, curiosities.
Now to hear again how he tapped
a pack of Winstons on his wrist,
I accept the memoir's sentence:
there coated thick with garish strokes,
here purified to monologue.
How does one realize the portrait
when the living man was missed
the first time? Thirsting for detail,
I want to notice the juice
on that pear, half-eaten and still
glistening in the lamplight.
Geography Lesson, 1983
Immigrant kids in a Midwest classroom,
we were the plural in the word passersby.
Our heartland marked the X of the nation,
from La Mesa to Maine, Seattle to St. Augustine,
and us—obedient children of interstates
cradled by a continent's cross-stitch, groomed
parochially. Each coastal city
buzzed in distant zones, like flies against a screen.
... he dreamed that a certaine man stoode by him, and bade him, God spede, and calling him by name, sayd to him, "Caedmon, I pray thee singe me a songe." Whereto he made awnswere and sayd, "I can not singe. For that is the matter why I came owt from the table to this place here, because I cowld not singe." "But yet," quoth he againe that spake with him, "thou hast somewhat to syng to me." "What shall I syng?" quoth he. "Sing," quoth the other, "the begynning of all creatures." ...
—The History of the Churche of Englande. Compiled by Venerable Bede, Englishman. Translated out of Latin into English by Thomas Stapleton Student in Divinitie (1565)
Word said, Promethean fire,
Altamira's cave walls lit
for an hour, the Ark, the Argo, Ur,
iron, papyrus, maps and arrow,
Code of Hammurabi, rope, ships,
Sumerian numerals, potter's wheel
And in the end it's instinct,
it's in the species. These two
brothers for instance. Tonight,
Greek diner: I overhear
them two booths over. They speak
quick, in businessmen's fashion.
Maybe nature's after us,
I think, imagine their act,
their display before family.
Premature gray says, This time,
This time ...
China's triangle theories, Theban
obelisks, Etruscan chariots, fabric
dyes from purple snails, acacia wood,
olive oil, ram skins, lampstands,
Solomon's cedared Temple, Hanging
Gardens, the Sphinx, cranks, aqueducts
embryonic, and intend to open
a baseball store. Just a shop
full of vats of baseballs, no
bats, cleats, or jackets. It'll change
the face of each mall, one says.
But they're still stuck on the name
for dream: Big Balls is "too much."
Lotsa Balls, one guy foresees,
numen swept up in vision,
"has the right spin." Balls du Jour
is the pleased counter, offered
with serifs for the culture,
sad hint suggesting the men
they meant to become, the ones
they have not.
water clocks, mercy seats, clay tablets
of Mesopotamia, lock and key, Jericho,
carpenter's square, the pontoon
bridge of Darius, gears, cataracts,
basin irrigation, the Archimedean
screw, geometric roots, roads, soap
But I've heard other stories
of bright wonder transumed from modesty—
fitful progress, gradual rise,
obsessed humanist, the bard
who wins the last line and dies.
These pins and monuments go back so far:
Library, whose scrolls declared
"the five machines of the age"—
lever, wedge, pulley, screw,
Armada, medina, cathedral:
We build the kingdoms. The proof?
One friend, fronting an acid-jazz ensemble,
says, "We riff, I sing these tunes,
songs about love and destruction and stuff."
Isn't that measurable?
Chamber piece in Brueghel's tower?
Some belabored thing risen
obliquely from black waters,
bearing burdens sweetly felt?
Then a deeper meaning comes,
the heaviest, settling here
to forgive all urgency,
spare the harvest, bless this pair
in pilgrimage—woman mild
at heart who falls ill, or discredited
man, helpless, weeping in side
streets of a spendthrift city.
test test test the spirits test
the spirits test
So how was I to know
these brothers were explorers
(were us once, in other words)
born against another life
to learn insistence must ebb,
as the tideline lapping sand
beyond the levees where we used to toil?
Old enough to seize real tools,
too young to recognize the bitter seed
of an uncle's mockery
grating the screen of the porch,
that flood summer they described
a marvel, Bridge of Ages,
then began the channeling
after Sunday's homily,
grown dumbly timid, faded
into June humidity.
By twilight they had emptied
six feet of mineral-rich river soil
from the portal. White shirts stained,
these boys sweated out ambition,
with desperate equations
strayed beyond the physical
(world we're always told about,
deprived of proclivities).
We find the kingdoms.
Excerpted from THE GARBAGE EATER by BRETT FOSTER Copyright © 2011 by Brett Foster. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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