(REVIEW) Embarrassments, by Graham Foust
In this review of Graham Foust's recent collection Embarrassments, Adam Heardman maps the daily incongruities and liberating post-digital anonymities of Foust's poetry, giving rise to moments ranging from 'rustic emotional spaces' to the crumbling and hopeful reconfigurations of the self under the world's comic weight.
You know the charade. It’s happened to you before. You’re walking down a pavement, a hallway, a passage, and you meet someone coming the other way. You try to step aside deferentially –– to the left, let’s say –– and continue down the corridor/street/country lane. To your absolute horror, the person opposite steps to their right, which is, for all purposes, the 'same' side. You’re once again in each other’s way. You each make eye contact, apologise, and, in tandem, step again to the opposite side. You apologise again, step again. This accidental dance repeats with its own warped, waltzing rhythm until one or both of you has the presence of mind to break step, find space, and allow both walkers to proceed. What’s taken place is somehow truly mortifying, but also, of course, has a pulse, a kind of form. It’s like a collaborative art of embarrassment.
Graham Foust’s poetics channel this pulse, this everyday, wacky crisis. Reading his poems feels exactly like meeting them in a corridor. Whether by accident or design, you and the poem get in each other’s way. The game is to find a means to continue together.
Throughout Foust’s new collection, Embarrassments (2021), as in his earlier books, the language of cliché regularly collides with some unexpected word, jarring in a way that is eventually productive, beautiful. In a seemingly throwaway moment in the poem ‘One Kind of Success’, the common phrase, ‘come to think of it’, becomes ‘go to think of it’. The jolt of finding the familiar defamiliarized reminds us, to our embarrassment, that our patterns of thought can easily settle into received phrases, proceeding unthinkingly like a streaming platform’s autoplay.
In the poem ‘Amazon Prime’, Foust fears that ‘Capital rats and rubs you out’. The collisions and missteps in his lines are a tool to resist this rubbing out. His language trips us up; we’re slightly embarrassed; we go on. The effect is an interruption of what might be called the production line of contemporary thought. Today’s image driven machine of Capital operates by sheer convenience. You are more profitable to certain interested parties if you think less consciously (again, as with Netflix’s autoplay, or the unreadably long Terms and Conditions we accept before downloading a face-swap app which then has access to most of our personal data). Foust’s language acts as anathema to this kind of nonthink, resisting the commodification of our internal processes.
Elsewhere Foust allows the rules of grammar or syntax to get in their own way, wobble about, then find a new equilibrium. From Embarrassments, perhaps the best illustration of this is ‘Three-way Street’, the opening stanza of which reads:
Tomorrow today will be more like today than today is, was.
In the narrow corridor of that first line, the nouns ‘tomorrow’ and ‘today’ collide. It’s not initially clear how they relate to one another, and we feel a sort of ‘this town ain’t big enough for the both of us’ awkwardness. For a moment, time warps, and seems to inhibit the poem’s progress – until we take a leap of faith over the line break and find the phrase resolving itself.
The phrase ‘is, was’ sees ‘today’ move into the past in a single beat. The futurity and possibility of the conditional ‘will be’ has become ‘was’ before we know it. There’s a sense that the poem is simultaneously resisting and illustrating the passage of time. But, once again, like the laugh, the shared words, and the eye-contact of our two strangers who have had to make way for one another in the corridor, the poem hopes that the time you’ve spent together is more meaningful and memorable than otherwise. Foust, like all artists, wants to generate meaningful encounters in (and with) time. Read the above lines back and realise that ‘today’ is allowed to actualise itself, to become ‘more like today’, by shifting into the past.
From this stanza, ‘Three-way Street’ gives way to a miniature redemption narrative. Once ‘today’ has become ‘the past’ it can blossom. The second stanza goes:
Like flowers in a time– lapse film, some loves come spasming back.
Though mediated through the artificial and doctored imagestream of ‘time– / lapse film’ (and, by analogy, the lines and metaphors of a poem), the organic matter of ‘love’ is allowed to ‘spasm’ awkwardly back into existence.
Foust has been here before, finding the poetic impulse in moments of shame. Nightingalelessness (2018), his most recent collection prior to Embarrassments, admits in its opening line that ‘What follows is probably at someone’s expense’. Then, in a poem called ‘Injuries’, the speaker recalls:
I heard someone who’d once hurt me had slipped, had fallen on the stairs down to Bergen Street station and broken terribly some vertebrae, and in my gasping at this fact, my breath came back, for just an instant, as happiness, and then I wanted to die from shame, a shame it seemed could really only be achieved by way of the end of some world.
Even if ‘for just an instant’, the speaker is happy to hear of the demise of someone who has hurt them, and then becomes overwhelmed by shame at their own schadenfreude. Indeed, the shame is so great as to be apocalyptic, the religiosity of which hints at something archaic seeming, even folksy, in Foust’s moral code. Ange Mlinko and Ben Lerner, among others, have previously called attention to Foust’s affinity with country music –– a realm of bitter feeling and tersely economical expression –– but in this instance he’s playing with an even more antiquated mode. It’s almost novelistic. Ok, he’s a good enough poet to alert us to this –– the phrase ‘broken terribly some vertebrae’ seems self-aware in its Victorian old-fashionedness –– but the fact remains that the poem occupies rustic emotional spaces, its story a Jane Austen style identifying, and overcoming of, a fatal moral flaw.
‘Gasping...my breath / came back’, says the speaker, swooning under the embarrassment of having realised their own ethical deficiencies. By the time we reach the later book, this phrase morphs into ‘some loves / come spasming back’. How has the landscape of affect and emotion changed, for Foust, between 2018 and 2021? What new ‘embarrassments’ does the later book concern itself with? What new things are at stake, and how do we go from a solipsistic catching of one’s own mortified breath to a broader rediscovery of ‘some loves’? To parse this out, it’s illuminating to look briefly at how the earlier book ends.
The penultimate poem in Nightingalelessness is a sonnet called ‘Collected Poems’. This title signals a mood of summing up, suggesting a poet at the end of their career (which Foust, at the age of 51, is not). But Foust has often found this imagined position, in the aftermath of some as yet to take place event, to be productive. Lerner, in his intro to the poem ‘Remainers’, says that ‘Foust is at his best when describing the moments he’s just missed’. In ‘Collected Poems’ this may refer to his own entire career. The sonnet’s final line tries to cancel the poem, or every previous poem, looking for ‘a throat down which to cram back every word’. In order to speak, the poet imagines a state of having just spoken and wishing never to have spoken.
The collection concludes with the longish poem ‘Remainers’, the final lines of which see Foust:
About to become unfeasible, an acrobat of ash, I am become how I’m ending: slowly; it becomes me – the game that all these remnants are, this negligent triumph like a sleep.
Again, we’re in a zone of aftermath, all ‘remnants’ and ‘ash’. Lerner calls attention to the poem’s focus on missed moments, like one in which ‘A fed up blue-jay having fled it, / a branch perfects its shake’. Nightingalelessness, of course, puts us in mind of Keats’ nightingale, but only after it has just departed. But in these moments, Foust finds art: the branch ‘perfects’ its response to being abandoned. Confronted with ashes, the poet is an ‘acrobat’.
The image of ‘ashes’ allows us to perform our own acrobatic leap from Foust’s 2018 book – in which the language of poetry seems to be leaving him, and in which we appear to already be somehow after the end –– to the 2021 book, which, as we’ve seen, crackles and fizzes with energies of resistance and embarrassment, less in the wake of things past and more in their midst. In ‘Turning Fifty’, the process of ageing is described as a ‘lukewarm daily phoenix’, Foust signalling his own begrudged awakening from the ashes. In a poem called ‘Plethora’, we find the question, ‘At ashes, sure, but who stares / at fires to understand them?’ Here is a poet, once a self-styled ‘acrobat of ash’, discovering, reluctantly, that he’s looking directly into the flames, perhaps embarrassed that he’s been looking elsewhere all along, but still unsure how to find meaning in the middle of a blaze. If Foust’s speaker in the earlier poem, ‘Injuries’, feels a shame that is ‘achieved / by way of the end of some world’, Embarrassments finds him confronting something that looks very much like the actual end of the actual world.
And so, across the collection, the poems push at the limits of what can possibly be said in such a crisis. Let’s rattle through a gallery of crumbling phrases: ‘decay’s eddies in the days / to come’; ‘I keep a list of things that don’t have names’; ‘Whatever moves in the dark / might as well be the dark'; 'an asterisk to nowhere'; 'the last / breath’s a masterpiece'. This is writing at language’s melting point.
In the poem ‘Tough Crowd’, Foust directly addresses 'all you writers and artists out there' who 'play / the bad at science game', entreating them to 'think of our dear friends / the climatologists'. The collection as a whole addresses the embarrassment that we non-scientific people feel at our lack of knowledge in the middle of a climate emergency, the neurosis of an artist wondering what possible value their work can have in such a crisis. In moments of such immense collective loss, the fire we look at becomes us: 'flames complete whatever leaves our faces', Foust writes in ‘Chanty’.
But the gnomic beauty of Foust’s phrases, their way of making the everyday into a wackily beautiful game, continually affirms poetry’s value. Art makes things un-ordinary, and, as Foust rightly claims in the title of a gorgeous poem that’s playfully split into two columns of single syllables, 'It’s a Blind Alley, the Ordinary'.
It would also, however, be a blind and narrow alley to pursue only this one interpretation of Embarrassments, to insist that ‘how to write in a crisis’ were its only or even chief concern. Foust is running a more complex diagnostics, here, exploring what it means to feel, to communicate, and, bluntly, to exist, when the whole rushing clownery of Being itself is under immediate and intense scrutiny. More than ever before, Foust refracts through life’s multiple screens the concepts of knowledge and emotion.
If his previous books are folksy, Embarrassments deliberately shifts into a world of tech-inflected affect. The collection opens with a poem called ‘Dongle’, including lines like 'B’s for brought a gunfight to an Apple store', which means we read all that follows with a Silicon Valley sheen in mind. In ‘Same Coin’, the speaker watches as several passersby try to grab a 'heads-up quarter epoxied to the floor'. When finding that they can’t pick it up, each one makes the same embarrassed expression, 'a panicky grin that can’t not be made / when meaning comes dismantled at a touch'. The prankster feel of the episode gives way to a meditation on screens and simulacra, the dismantling of meaning through division or social posturing, that feels internet-savvy, almost memeish, in a way that’s funny and tragic at once. Public embarrassment of this kind, whether on the street or in the comments section, requires that ‘panicky grin’ to be acknowledged. Straightening up in their shame, these people are looking for solidarity. The poem compels us to give them assurance.
‘Poem for Bill Knott’ proclaims that 'Before you hear of death / you’re like a bird an eclipse / has tricked into evening'. Again we see the formulation in which two nouns, 'a bird an eclipse', get in one another’s way. This time, as the phrase resolves itself, there’s no redemption, no flowers. The poor bird has been tricked into thinking night has fallen. The simulacra and the natural world bleed into each other, blot each other out. Is there solace in the fact that an eclipse will shortly pass? Maybe only if someone forgives us for having been duped.
Explorations of tech, of language as a kind of algorithm, have existed in Foust’s work before. Perhaps the most memorable lines from his 2009 book, A Mouth in California, appear in ‘Poem with Television’, asking 'What part of / 'What part of no // don’t you understand?' / don’t you understand?' In this formulation language eclipses itself, one version of the same phrase sitting ‘in front of’ and sort of screening the other. Or, like the code of a Generative Adversarial Network driving an Artificial Intelligence, it generates itself iteratively. In that poem, this kind of writing is a philosophical or linguistic game, a Borgesian curiosity exploring the new uncanny world. By the time we get to Embarrassments, the collision of actual and virtual has become a very real and very sinister concern.
The imagined emotional space of Foust’s contemporary poems is no longer ‘the aftermath’. We’re no longer imagining ourselves looking back at things we’ve just missed. Instead, we’re in the middle of the end, looking forward to when we’re simply a memory (if even that). Foust names the new affective space quite explicitly in the title of another poem, ‘Anticipated Memory’, which muses on 'electronic poverty'. Through the new image-economy of algorithms and hyper-info, we’re looking forwards to a time when we’ll be looking backwards to see ourselves looking forwards to our own doom. It’s a three-way street, a superabundant thoroughfare of language and imagery which in fact brings us to a standstill. What, if anything, is salvageable?
In Nightingalelessness, the nightingale of Keats’ ode has abandoned us, and the material of the poems begins to eat itself into oblivion. In Embarrassments, Keats comes spasming back as a kind of avatar, 'this living hand' which he held towards the reader in his lines supposedly written to Fanny Brawne becoming ‘This Living Head’ in one of Foust’s poems. In it, we find 'meaning arranged / with what felt like punishing delay'. Though the hour is late, the stuff of poetry is being marshalled again to perform something like its final function, which is perhaps to bring us together, in this weird and narrowing corridor, so we can do our awkward, side-stepping dance with one another.
The 2009 ‘Poem with Television’ concludes with the poet asking, 'Is it just me, or am I alone?', jokingly but damningly confirming a solipsistic loneliness. Eleven years later, Foust instead discovers a place in which, if we must disappear (and it appears we must), we can at least disappear together. He’s still ironic and cool – still the only poet I know of who has a dust-jacket recommendation from Stephen Malkmus –– but maybe he’s beginning to feel the earnest heat of our climate doom. Soon you’ll be gone, Foust seems to be saying here, but I’ll be gone with you:
and you think you’re gone alone, but I’m not there too, my disappearance a reconnaissance of you
Text: Adam Heardman
Image: Adam Heardman