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“I’ve loved the dead too much,” Richard Foerster concedes in “Burning the Names,” one of many tough-minded, delicately crafted poems from Penetralia (Texas Review Press), the poet’s sixth full-length collection of verse. It’s a telling moment in a book filled with telling moments—all of them difficult, all of them earned—for Penetralia is more than anything else an elegiac suite of poems that examines how we persist in our longings once the ones we love “evaporate like flame.” And yet, despite their ostensibly grim subject matter, these poems are remarkably alive in their rigorous intelligence and sensual linguistic play. The best of these illuminate certain contours of feeling with as much curiosity and awe as the explorer who lifts his torch to examine a mural in a cave.
For years, astute critics have discerned that Foerster is one of his generation’s most gifted practitioners of verse. Lush, lyrical, and formally stunning, his poems embrace the immediate present while tethering themselves to certain longstanding poetic traditions. Their sensual surfaces, which belie a tough-as-nails core, recall Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s late-Victorian era sonnets from House of Life; and like Rossetti—who once exhumed his wife’s coffin to retrieve poems he’d buried with her years before—Foerster knows, as he says in “Soar,” there is “the scent of something at the edge of shadow.”
What adds urgency and texture to Penetralia is the poet’s reflective angst, a result of the separation and subsequent loss of a lover, a married man who returned to his wife and children to die. “Barred from his, yesterday I sobbed / at a stranger’s funeral” the poet mourns in “Onan.” Foerster tempers the pitch of his grief with stark clarity: “my shuddered // heaves and release seemed ejaculate / spilled into a void, a pure animal // need….” The erotic imagery, itself a stark parody of sexual consummation, takes on philosophic weight and becomes a consolation, a way in which awareness, as Foerster suggests in “The Blinding of Polyphemus,” turns into “radiance.”
Such radiance can be found not only in moments of “chance beauty”—as in “Exodus” with the early arrival of robins and waxwings—but when the self confronts the ineffable void: in “An Open Window” Foerster recalls “…how our bodies hovered between // substance and seeming nothing…”; in “Savasana,” he writes: “…the only present is presence, / a nothing that is everything stillness / yearns to inhabit…”; and in “Despite” he says: “Though memory mounts / its bricks and mortar, the edifice tumbles / into debris of selves it no longer knows / it knew.” Clearly the poems in Penetralia are more than confessional reconstructions of experience; they are pained yet unwavering attempts to move forward into an unknown future while the past, once known, cannot be fully preserved. As brave as Foerster’s attempts may be, he is aware that his quest is as old as civilization itself: “The ancients knew that language // is not nude, but veiled / in fluted haute couture…” (“Sexikon”).
Some veils reveal more than they conceal. The finest poems in Penetralia are near naked with their beautiful bones on display. In “Einstein’s Hair,” a man waking from a dream “sees in the bedside mirror // a night-wild version of himself” and tries to locate his former self in the reflection. Positioned next to that poem is “At the Birdfeeder,” a tense, powerful beast fable of a cat and bird. The bird, inside its feeder, wants to exit but is trapped by a cat waiting at the entrance with terrible patience. “What Adheres” is a magnificent allegory that recalls D. H. Lawrence’s “The Snake”: trying to rid his pool filter of snakes, the persona blocks the gate with packing tape; in the morning, he sees this preventative measure has actually maimed the snakes which, perhaps by way of atonement, he crushes with a stone.
Elsewhere, Foerster reminds us that he is a master of imagist verse: “August, Near Arles,” concludes: “Near spent, in every field, / tournesols were nodding, // bent and crackling in the wind. / Hadn’t I learned to surrender?” The book is also graced by two serial sections, the first a five-poem bestiary based upon the sculptures of Henry Clews, the second an oddly touching collection of plant poems called “Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium.”
Indeed, so much could and should be said of Penetralia. But more than anything it should be read, for every page shows a man with one foot in the world and the other frozen mid-step over the abyss. As Foerster says in “Escapology,” “A brinksman revels / in the unraveling / of himself before a gasping // world.” With fear and fascination, we wonder what comes next.
By Richard Foerster
Texas Review Press
Paperback, 9781933896557, 88 pp.