Brett Foster, The Garbage Eater (Evanston, IL: TriQuarterly Books, 2011).
It is said that we are what we eat, that our appetites and outputs are in sync. Often, that’s also the case in the relationship between reading and writing. In reading Brett Foster’s debut poetry collection, The Garbage Eater, it becomes readily apparent that—for better or worse—Foster does not eat much literary garbage.
Of course, one could gather that from a brief look at Foster’s CV, as his academic publications (and by extension, his reading) are steeped in the Renaissance masters, in particular John Donne, William Shakespeare, and Dante Alighieri. Not so coincidentally, I decided to start chipping away at Donne’s Collected Poems at the same time I started reading The Garbage Eater. Donne’s contemporaries probably would have suggested that the Renaissance master himself did eat garbage, given his reputation for sexually ripe and unmusical verse (or so Ben Jonson thought,) a style he would later disown in favor of more devotional verse. Donne and his protégé Foster have been a complementary pair, each illuminating the task at which the other works, the bodily mysteries they hope to express and understand in their poetry. In particular, by reading what Foster has been eating, it’s been easier to understand the manner in which he has digested it in his own work.
Foster’s scholarship frequently bears upon his poetic work in positive and negative ways. When he’s at his best, Foster avoids the temptation to overcrowd his poetry with mythology, untranslated Italian, and oblique references. In such non-academic moments, his expertise in the Renaissance classics actually works to his poetic benefit more convincingly, and he is spurred to tackle questions, qualms, and insecurities similar to those of his poetic ancestors. He breathes new life into old oppositions (soul and body, romantic and divine love, the sacred and the profane, death and time) without dropping academic markers to indicate he is working with the same questions as the Metaphysical Poets.
However, when Foster saturates the poems with mythological characters, the vitality of his work suffers. For example, in “Passage,” italicized asides to Bede, Prometheus, and Mesopotamia serve to cloud—rather than illuminate—the focal image, an overheard business conversation. Again, I found parallels in Donne’s own poems, some of which try too hard to look over their shoulders at Petrarch, his dark-eyed lover, and the accompanying conceits, and in the backward glance, no longer sound like John Donne: a late-Renaissance preacher caught in the physical struggle of prayer and love.
A point of clarity: Foster is not merely rehashing Renaissance concerns for a new ear. His meditations venture into more experimental methods. One particularly powerful piece, “Papyric Fragments,” consists of the poetic arrangement of fragments of papyrus (these being poems inspired by real pieces of papyrus). The fragments are mostly mundane forms of communication, and Foster uses these everyday scraps to skillfully hint at anxieties similar to his contemporary speakers. But even more than hint at commonalities across time, the poem brings to bear the groundwork of our physical relatedness, which is an ideal poetic space for Foster to occupy, as he often does in Garbage. In the material breakdown of letters, bills, and notices of death, Foster teases out a strange new immediacy from the decipherable yet splintered language. The distress of a wife in 168 BCE becomes all the more stark when we read it through the brackets of silence:
[ ] sent nothing during
such critical days? If nothing pressing
keeps you, please return to the city. (52)
Poems like “Papyric Fragments” highlight the parallels between Foster and his poetical ancestors: his fascination with the physical as well as his attempts to unite form and content. As did George Herbert with his poems whose stanza structures looked like wings and crosses, so too does “Papyric Fragments” evoke in its very form our inevitably physical mode of connection.
The Garbage Eater’s three sections meditate upon different aspects of Foster’s discourses in the bodily relationship between poetic form and function. Their epigraphs offer helpful clues to the collection’s organization, the first opening with a line from Augustine’s Confessions, describing his movement, “step by step,” closer to the Lord (5). It, as does the following section, meditates upon the infinite distance between ourselves and the things around us. “The Foreman at Rest,” one of the most memorable pieces in the collection, epitomizes this struggle toward immediate physical contact, one which Donne himself wrestled with constantly. The speaker of “The Foreman at Rest” is struggling to enliven the memory of an elder, but he finds it difficult to navigate the canned national anthem, the Johnny Carson Show, and the “newfangled cookbook” in favor of that pear (Augustine, anyone?) which composes the real stuff of the memory. In the end, “the memoir’s sentence” is unavoidable, and the “garish strokes” of life are inevitably “purified to monologue” (14–15).
Put another way, attempts on the part of Foster’s speakers to venture into the profane, the bodily, and the grotesque are often forced, though they often seem pure in their motives. And that’s part of what makes them so believable: their wrestlings with desire don’t slip into cliché, shame, or naive amnesia of the past. That doesn’t mean these desires are invented but that whenever the speaker in the eponymous poem “eat[s] the world’s crap,” though he is ascetic in his practice of dumpster diving, there is always an element of acting and play at work in the process. Before he eats garbage, he must play the whole part: he shaves his head and wears “a wreath to scar [his] forehead bloody” (3).
Like the Renaissance writers he adores, Foster aligns the method of his telling with the content by working within a classical form (from aubade to sestina,) but it is seen also in his experiments with rhyme and reference. In “Lyke as a ship, that through the Ocean wyde,” he draws upon Spencer’s thirty-fourth sonnet, which is similarly grounded in a metaphorical reference point: a ship rocking on the turbulent ocean. The poem’s layers of reference accumulate, and the speaker is a “stowaway” in a taxi, spiraling into a meditation on a visit to the DMV, a place whose machinations of fate have a similar quality to that of the sea, in which one “by conduct of some star doth make [one’s] way” (22). This is appropriately bound together by the tightest rhyme in the collection, making the claustrophobia and anxiety surrounding the DMV all the more tangible.
The second section opens with a quote that flips the paradox of the first on its head—namely the infinite distance between our bodies and ourselves. The quote comes from Leonis Baptistae de Albertis vita, the subject of which “took extraordinary and peculiar pleasure in looking at things in which there were any marks of beauty or adornment, ” which evokes the immediacy of these very things (25). In “Afternoon Pilgrims,” as in “The Foreman at Rest,” the poem resolves on the image of tender fruit—a peach in this case. Here, rather than being trampled by the tide of memory’s monologue, the tangible taste overwhelms the speaker’s memory, as the peach, “each bite a downbeat,” frames the musical refrain of memory: “History-bloodied roots / resume their music. Meters ring like distant bells” (37). The story is at best a backdrop behind the unaccountably tangible experience of the peach. Much like the garbage eater in the prologue, the speaker yearns for the tactile, “unmoored grace” of the desert fathers who were so intimately in touch with their bodies. Nonetheless, even the garbage eater can’t help but fear “the mindless evils of a worldly brain” (3). He faces the opposite temptation of Augustine, who wanted to be chaste, “but not yet”; Foster’s speakers yearn to break free of their chastity but are run down by their own mundane routines and fears, which trip them on the garbage eater’s road to “Rapture” (3). For better or worse, many of these speakers aren’t ready to break with their chastity and submit to the world. The peach is a perfectly immediate thing, and yet it is as intangible as memory is to the narrator of “Foreman.”
The speakers in Foster’s poems often seem jealous of the freer, more virile libertines, as does the speaker of “A Confession Kind of, a Kind of Prayer,” a poem from the third section. This speaker dubs himself “Brag,” by way of contrast to his childhood friend “Action.” The speaker can’t help but feel inadequate, the “clean-bean ‘Sandy’ from Grease” relative to Action’s “wholehearted pleasure-seeking.” But by the poem’s end, Action’s peep-show strippers and drunken revelries leave Brag feeling satisfied with his own set of desires, for “a different kind of glory, / tireless and potent in its quiet life.” Of course, Foster does not simplistically paint Action as in the wrong. Brag is no less pathological than Action. The latter smugly lords his “higher” calling over his friend, and the reader is left once again with a monologue, seemingly “purified” but in fact sullied by a limited perspective. Here, as contrasted with other models of confessional poetry, which too easily fall into simplistic guilt or equally simplistic abandon at one’s physical devices, Foster’s characters confess to their fear in the face of their own bodies beautifully subtle
The third section’s epigraph is a quote from the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus suggests that “no man’s life standeth in the abundance of things which he possesseth.” Here is Foster’s most interesting suggestion: abundance of all varieties escapes the sight of its possessor. In another poet’s hands, to open a group of poems with this verse might be worrisome: it might lead readers to expect a flat and uncritical condemnation of physical desires and their ultimately insatiable quality. But given Foster’s diverse expressions of our desire for abundance before this epigraph (and his having done so in ways that do not simplistically appeal to promiscuity, abstinence, or regret), we see instead in this desire a rare uniting factor of humanity.
The first two sections established a paradox that the very nature of our desires are both infinitely distant from and inseparably accessible to us. With the third section, Foster unveils that the act of finding our own desires in another enlivens this paradox, despite leaving it unresolved; for once one attains what one sought, yet it is no longer what one sought in the beginning. The first poem in this final section, “Devotion: For Our Bodies,” features some of Foster’s best use of the aforementioned techniques: reference, form, and translation between epochs. It concerns the translation of a Greek declension from the Book of Acts, kardiogonosta, into the phrase “knower of hearts.” A fascination with the term is born out of a mundane grammar practice, but leads to a lusty moment between the speaker and his lover in which he translates this ancestral moment into a kiss “across your collarbones” (51). This imperfect process of translation is echoed in the rhymes of the poem, which are slant (exquisite/forget, mouth/both,) and therefore resolve yet with a residue of imperfection.
Here at last, after many dissatisfied characters, is the unforced awareness of the speaker’s physical body—indeed, his body is forced upon him, at once from inside and from the body of his lover. Here Foster’s brilliance as a reader and craftsman shines through in the face of more contrived imagery. We cannot fully grasp the tangible quality of our physical lives, but rather the movement towards a union that triangulates our relationship to our own desires . Augustine’s steps that open the collection echo the lover’s passage between desire’s inscrutability and its immediacy, between “private sharpness” and “love’s dominion, ” (51).
Most importantly, the stumbling nature of the “Devotion: To Our Bodies” calls attention to the nature of this movement. Poetry, love, and prayer are born of attention, an attention we should pay to our desires, but they must also be born of accidents, accidents that force upon us that body which seems to be at once the thing best understood and yet also the thing most difficult to understand. Despite his best efforts, the collection’s eponymous speaker is no more in touch with his body than the others, similarly susceptible to “the small fear of dying, which fears / only unworthiness more than death.” But that fear of unworthiness is the same fear that the struggling translator experiences—it is a fear of translation between one’s body and another’s. When this fear is neither crippled by itself nor crushed by hubris, the object of desire emerges of its own accord at contact. One sees this in Donne’s poetry, in which incidental fleas bring to bear his deepest desires and his greatest verse, and sees it as well in the final poem of The Garbage Eater, “Longing, Lenten.” Its final lines tell of a spirit “yearning, awkward if not more earnest / prayer and fasting in the clear face of dust” (72). All three activities bring to bear the strangeness and familiarity of the world, but are only made sincere in the face of accidents and bizarre coincidences, those tiny fleas and grains of dust that have unwittingly spurred our most meaningful desires since time began.