Monday, September 17, 2007

Necessary Stranger by Graham Foust

Flood Editions, 2006

Reviewed by Kaethe Schwehn

      just say there—signify something”

Thus commands the speaker in Graham Foust’s book, Necessary Stranger. In many ways, this intellectual imperative is the guiding tension of the work itself. Foust’s book is a reminder of the three-dimensional quality of our world, not simply in terms of dimensions of space, but in terms of qualities of knowing. Foust’s objects go beyond “saying” and “signifying” in a one-dimensional way: they metamorphosize and suggest and remind and synthesize as well. The book, however, is not simply a “Note on Ontology,” as the title of one poem suggests; rather, it is the experience of a world in which the static forms of things have been broken and dismembered in which, as Emily Dickinson notes in the epigraph, “Things are not what they are—”

Poetry should only meddle/canoodle/schmooze with philosophy insofar as it provides an experience or enactment of the philosophical concepts themselves—otherwise “philosophical” poems simply begin to sound like Kantian greeting cards. (This book, I might add, is definitely not one that shouts “read me with Hegel”). Necessary Stranger succeeds because of the craft that accompanies the ideas; after all, many of the ideas are not really new (we’ve been trying to describe our broken and fractured world a la “The Wasteland” for quite some time).

The poems are short. Only a handful of them run over a page in length and many are composed of lines consisting of five words or less. Foust relies mainly on syntax, line breaks, rhyme and repetition to keep us reading carefully. The repetition is perhaps what fascinated me the most. Some of the repetition is simple: repeated phrases such as

      you care for me
      You care for me

Simple enough. These two lines exist in a stanza by themselves. But look at the lines that frame them:

      You be careful if

      you care for me.
      You care for me

      you carry me to you.

The simple declaration repeated in the central stanza becomes both warning and moment of intimacy, a pushing away and a pulling toward. Sometimes the repeated phrase varies slightly so that we are forced to ponder the shift in meaning caused by the addition of a single word or syllable or letter:

      Pretended you don’t bleed. Pretended
      to not bleed. Pretended
      not to bleed. Ran cold water on it.

      Meanwhile, winter
      busied, winter
      buried, winter


      The poem is
      the poem’s is

      a snag.

The repetition serves a variety of purposes in both of these examples (taken from the poems “Formal” and “Day Job,” respectively). We could debate for quite awhile the difference between “Pretended/ to not bleed” and “Pretended/ not to bleed” or discuss the conflation of busied/buried/bruised. For me the specifics are not as interesting as the experience itself. Dickinson claims “things are not what they are—.” This may be true, but I think for Foust the greater problem is that things ARE what they are…and myriad other things as well. A tree IS a tree and “a gust/ of blood;” the sky IS sky, but also the “sky is tar is grass is trees.” But this is not simply a case of metaphoric overdose, it is the poetic dilemma of trying to describe an object, an event, or a person in a way that gives it humanity and multi-dimensionality.

This struggle is perhaps most aptly presented in the poem “Two Versions of the Same Watery, Domestic Poem” in which Foust offers us two versions of a loved one leaving. The first version happens in past tense: “A lake unfroze and/ broke—its water looked for us.// Dim spring storms clicked/ our windows until June.” The speaker remembers a specific forgotten object: “You left and you left/ an earring in/ the bed.// I took it/ for a little rearview mirror.” The second version is told in present tense and the earring is again described, this time as “Glint, be it tin/ or diamond/ or idea.” What is perceived by the speaker is not the thing itself but the qualities of the thing, its possibilities of being. Ultimately within the poem, the earring is many things: physical object, nostalgic reminder, metaphor, suggestion, and idea.

Well, great. A multidimensional earring. Who cares? Why does this matter?

It matters because, as Foust reminds us, we live in a world where “Our words keep ramming/ into nothing into masks.” To settle for a single dimension, a single representation results in only bad things: bad first dates, limited reading lists, and pesky wars in places such as...umm...Iraq. Foust’s book is a reminder that even daily objects should be strange to us, that in order for us to be honest observers of who and what surrounds us, it is necessary—at times—for us to act as strangers among them.


Born in Knoxville, Tennessee and raised in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Graham Foust currently lives in Oakland, California with his wife and son. He is the author of As in Every Deafness, Leave the Room to Itself, and Necessary Stranger, and he teaches in the graduate and undergraduate programs at Saint Mary's College of California.


Kaethe Schwehn's poems have been published in or are forthcoming from jubilat, Flim Forum, Crazyhorse, Forklift, Ohio, Faultline, and The Literary Review. Kaethe studied creative writing at the University of Montana and is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She currently teaches at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Her dog, Luxy, is named after the city in Egypt, not the casino is Las Vegas.