Reviewed by Nicholas Manning
Edward Foster’s New and Selected is once more proof of his often astounding poetic capabilities: sureness of register, intelligence of arrangement, delicacy of emotional patterning, elegance of effect. Which only makes the flaws of What He Ought to Know all the more surprising. And disappointing. The question is perhaps not, finally: how well can Edward Foster write? We know that he can write very well indeed. What seems more pointed is rather: why has Foster chosen to include some of the poems in this volume? Are they simply weaker, or do they rather indicate a different--and for Foster, perhaps equally valuable--aesthetic orientation?
If one had to identify a dominant preoccupation here--and on the one hand, “why?” but on the other, “why not?”--one would no doubt point to the tension everywhere present between knowledge and desire. Desire as a form of knowledge, but also knowledge as a form of desire. Desire as a means of obtaining knowledge, but also knowledge as a modifier of all initial impulses. Thus, we find Thomas Mann quoted above the poem “Watch Hill”: “Desire is a result of not knowing enough.” (That this desire is homosexual desire has perhaps already been too dwelt upon by critics.)
There is a great tenderness to Edward Foster’s verse. Such is his intelligence, however, that he manages to express this tenderness while, if not parodying it, at least undermining it, enabling the reader to see, by means of a profoundly empathetic gaze, the absurdity of everyday intimacies: “What kind of man / rolls over saying (in effect), “‘Don’t wait on me / to wait on you.’” The elliptical conclusion here, as elsewhere, rings true of an emotion which somewhere, on its way to expression, has lost its way. We see what the speaker means, in a general sense: but the confusion makes us feel that this language is so charged with sentiment that it has become, in a positive way, obscured by it.
This is one example of the subtleties of Foster’s verse. In fact, this is the sort of word one often thinks of with regard to these poems: subtlety, nuance, gradation, tone, hue, variation, light. But there is another category of terms as well, equally important, and it is perhaps the complex combination of the two that is interesting: control, balance, order, restraint, arrangement, structure, elegance.
It is precisely this unlikely amalgam which confers upon Foster’s poetry its particular beauty: order and arrangement, but also the careful colouring of this order with emotional light:
The hills, we said, were made for tourists. The broken bits of columns, Adonis in his grave. The earth was closed, we’d say, or, then, the boy at least was ill. His face, we knew, would never heal, and women would be kind. He would depend on them. This night, what difference if the words were not the same. I move your hand, and now for all the world, we never change and live in this decision.
What is so refreshing about such pieces is the sheer linguistic, emotional, and imagogical control often absent from the contemporary “prose-prose.” The limitation this writing seems to impose upon itself, even during the act of its being set down, means that it remains focused upon its goal, and thus stable in its relentless forward movement.
Foster, then, is capable of writing well: what is surprising is that he his also capable of writing, if not poorly, at least poems strangely lacking in direction. One would be tempted to call these pieces “occasional.” Of course, occasional poetry can be very good: one need think only of the brilliant dedicatory vers of a Mallarmé or Apollinaire. But “occasional” here refers rather to a general laxity uncommon to Foster, as in “Careless Love”:
You want me to belong
The work is done
All acts are simply acts
The parlor’s bright
The guests have gone
All acts are simply acts
We once did things together
You make your choice alone
All acts are simply acts
You choose another carelessly
You make your choice alone
All acts are simply acts
Now, what is aimed at here, we may think, is no doubt the sort of song-like, refrain-based lyricism found in mid to late Yeats. (It is interesting to note, for instance, the almost identical form of Yeats’ “Crazy Jane on God,” which has as its constant post-stanza refrain “All things remain in God.”)
What we get from Foster, however, is a veritable jumble-sale of ideas. Firstly, one need merely point to the bizarrely anachronistic, fin de siècle, listless Eliot moment in: “The parlor’s bright / The guests have gone / All acts are simply acts.” Thankfully, the guests here are not talking of Michelangelo, but we feel they could be. This moment of emotional anaemia is then followed by a series of love-truisms, which culminate in the moral of the story: “You choose another carelessly / You make your choice alone.” The sentiment is trite: we care little for a speaker who expresses in this way a situation so possibly rich in sentimental meaning. Of course, one may argue that this is precisely the lyrical tone Foster was aiming at here. But what does this tone achieve? We may think, for example, that in regurgitating clichés about love (“We once did things together”), Foster is again employing the delicate, faceted irony underplayed so effectively in his other poems. Unfortunately, however, it seems that in this case he is not: this poem is pure surface. There is nothing to indicate a deeper awareness that these expressions are in fact clichés, nothing to indicate the underlying mechanics of the speaker’s emotional state. The tone is singular and immutable. Like another failed “song” in the collection, “Wheat From the Chaff,” there is little energy here; any initial music is quickly stifled by an absence of tension.
On the page facing “Careless Love,” we are treated to a photo of pigeons congregating on ten (or so) urban marble steps. Their black shapes speckle the white locale. This is useless illustration in the worst sense, a moment when Foster’s unabashed, often delightful “aestheticism”--by this term we simply mean an explicit valuing of the poem as visual and aural object--takes a turn for the worse, reducing the poem and its (supporting?) image to the status of product, as thin as the paper upon which it is reproduced.
This brings us to the unfortunate issue of Foster’s own photos throughout the collection. These photos are not necessarily bad: they are attractive in a picture-postcard sort of way. (Here a tree in a snowy field, there a crepuscular sun over a dark wood.) But their relation to the poems, and to the book as a whole, is at best uncomfortable. To take the example of the first image in the book: we have a poem, “Former Care,” which spirals into a beautifully controlled meditation on decay and disappearance: “This stage is bare, / and, sensibly, abstractions mark / the guilt we found in fairy tales.” However, beside “Former Care” is a photo of crumbling ruins. This rapprochement is vaguely insulting, for if we are indeed meant to find parallels between the image and its facing text--and this is everywhere implied--then do we not demand a more satisfying parallel than this? Individual dying, thus monument in decay: the image forces us to read “Former Care” in a way which the poem itself does not want to be read: that is, simplistically, isolating one element of its nature to the detriment of other conflicting subtleties. This is all the more unfortunate because “Former Care” is a fine poem: it has no need whatsoever of this type of metaphoric reinforcement.
This is fortunately the case for very few pieces in What He Ought To Know. In the main, these are poems of stunning tension and beauty. Take the first poem of the book, “In Your Words,” quoted here in its entirety:
In time, we will not kiss, and your face given into fire will tantalize my dreams, and I will sear my hair as I lean close, looking at your shadow in the smoke. That much will rise, and singing for me then, as you cannot sing now, it will emerge with other songs, in tight unyielding chords.
This is strong passion so strictly controlled, so forced into the regular shapes demanded by expression, that we feel the poem itself has become the song of which the speaker dreams, made of “tight, unyielding chords.” The sentiment here, though perhaps initially in conflict with this imposed restraint, is finally strengthened by it, and thus brought to its full fruition.
The variation in forms throughout the volume is effective: Foster’s prose is as well-handled as his verse, but it provides us with moments of an entirely different pace and atmosphere. As we follow Foster through Venice, Moscow, and St Petersburg, the prose form reveals itself as being entirely appropriate to these almost journalistic portraits. Mood governs these pieces, the “baroque and Prussian palaces” of St Petersburg and the “islands” of Venice providing the central motor of these veritable hymns to Nostalgia. (Like these “travel pieces,” Foster does Ut pictura poesis refreshingly well, as proved by his “Ophelia, And the Reeds, At the Tate”).
Sadly, however, the contrasts continue. There are some embarrassing moments of self-reflexivity:
can’t be made
the way a garden can.
But then, to make up for it, we have poems of such extraordinary force as “The Litany”:
And there is nothing to be longer seen.
and darken his sight:
desire is the imagined
aspiration he has never seen but always known.
The sheer beauty of these calm and affectionate poems, which are never didactic nor overbearing, and which seem to constantly assert their proud if unassuming presence, is impressive. It is simply regrettable that several times the reader is irritated by errors of judgement which, I would suggest, are of a critical, rather than poetical, nature. Without the weaker pieces, along with the postcards which accompany them, we would be left with a collection of a rare beauty, and of a rare humanity as well.