The Garbage Eater: Poems

The Garbage Eater: Poems

by Brett Foster


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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,” “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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810127456
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 04/28/2011
Pages: 80
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Brett Foster is Associate Professor of English at Wheaton College. He is currently completing Elemental Rebel: The Rime of Cecco Angiolieri. A past Wallace Stegner and Elizabethan Club fellow, his poetry and criticism has appeared in Raritan, The Kenyon Review, Best New Poets 2007, and Books & Culture, among other publications.

Read an Excerpt



Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2011 Brett Foster
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2745-6

Chapter One

... such as I was then, though step by step, unwittingly, I was coming closer to it.

—Augustine, Confessions

    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.
      —Hart Crane

    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.

    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.m. (1953–1998)

    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
    Steve Garvey.

    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,
    only longer.

    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

    They're entrepreneurs,
    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:
    paddleboats, Alexander's
    Library, whose scrolls declared
    "the five machines of the age"—

    lever, wedge, pulley, screw,
    and cogwheel,

    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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Garbage Eater


Nights of Fireworks, Days of Drought
Field Trip: Two Colonies
Sponge Bath as Answer to the Problem of Knowledge
The Little Flowers of Dan Quisenberry
The Foreman at Rest
Geography Lesson, 1983
Lyke as a ship, that through the Ocean wyde
Via Negativa


An Appeal to the Ghost of Patrick Kavanagh
Ten Definitions Approximating Grief
Final Night, in Allston
Trash Elegy for the Queen of Shock Rock
Evening When the Secret Vanished
The First Request of Lazarus
Afternoon Pilgrims
Meditation in an Olive Garden
Part-Time Work at Coffee Bars
No Sol in California
Petition: California Avenue
At the City Church of San Francisco


Devotion: For Our Bodies
Papyric Fragments
Aubade, with Samara
Bridal Cave
Sestina for One Coast
New Territories
A Confession Kind of, a Kind of Prayer
Tea with Mr. Milton
Rondeau for Plotinus
To the Author of How to Be a Successful Artist
From the Tarmac
Intercession: For My Daughter
Contrition: Midnight Message
The Advent Calendar
Westward, in the Fading Moments of Any One Day
The Snow Day
Longing, Lenten


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