Sunday, October 4, 2009

Review of "Mom's Canoe" by Rebecca Foust

I haven't been as diligent about posting my chapbook comments as I planned to be, but I'm right now procrastinating on doing other work, so I'm posting the most recent one. This book resonated profoundly with me; it's set in rural Pennsylvania and both the geography of the land and the issues raised are all so familiar to me from my own life.

Rebecca Foust’s chapbook Mom’s Canoe opens with the lines “You can turn round and round and round/ and always see mountains.” The Alleghenies hover over this collection, they “calve memory from twilight”, they come closer then recede, divide the false from the true, and eventually disappear and “efface into sky” (all quotes from the first poem, “Allegheny Mountain Bowl”). The natural beauty of the land mingles in these poems with post-industrial grit, economic depression, and social ills like alcoholism and domestic abuse. The title poem “Mom’s Canoe” addresses itself to the speaker’s mother and spins a string of achingly lovely images of the canoe itself, the mother’s hard work on land, her easy movement on the water, before ending elegiacally:

I still see you rising from water to sky,
paddle held high, river drops limning its edge.
Brown diamonds catch the light as you lift, then dip.
Parting the current, you slip
silently through the evening shadows.
You, birdsong, watersong, slanting light,
following the river bend, swallowed from sight.”

This blend of the beautiful and the sad, heightened in “Mom’s Canoe” by the fact that the canoe was mentioned in an earlier poem (“Backwoods”) which places the mother in an abusive relationship, typifies the tone of the collection. Foust utilizes rhyme in this and many of her poems, but never in an overbearing way. “Things Burn Down”, a rough-cut villanelle, repeating words rather than full lines, also epitomizes the style of the chapbook. Foust invokes specific family stories, broad socioeconomic commentary, and the physical atmosphere of her upbringing in this poem which questions what might bring her parents back. In this poem and throughout the collection, subject matter, form, and tone all seem to flow from the poet’s “hardscrabble” background and articulate a wry acceptance of both past and present. In “Altoona to Anywhere”, the speaker addresses herself: “Go ahead, aspire to transcend/ your hardscrabble roots…//But when you’ve left it behind you/ may find it still there” and ends the poem with a list of things she can not transcend, concluding beautifully with “the same siren nights pierced/ with stars seeping light, all that/ gorgeous, pitiless song.” The recognition of both beauty and ugliness, love and pain, lift the collection above either simple angst or romantic naturalism; the image left is one of reality with all its contradictions.

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