‘To the Lost’ by Jack Foster
-Reviewed by Ian Chung–
Memory and loss are inextricably bound in most of the poems from To the Lost, Jack Foster’s chapbook from Finishing Line Press. From a literary perspective, this thematic pairing is hardly unexpected, and To the Lost might be thought of as an elegiac sequence. What is interesting about Foster’s poems, however, is the manner in which their recognition of loss is consistently inscribed within an act of remembering, which itself is situated within a wider awareness of the cyclical nature of life, the echoes that may be observed across lifetimes or generations. While the overall effect of these poems remains consolatory, they also display a tendency to resist conventional elegiac closure.
For instance, ‘Belated’ begins with a graveyard visit that becomes an auditory revivification:
‘I finally visit your grave on a Wednesday
and press my ear to the ground,
thinking the crinkling of the grass
is you telling me a story.’
The word ‘finally’ suggests this is the first step towards attaining a long-delayed closure, while ‘thinking’ conveys the self-consciously fanciful nature of imagining the voice of the dead person. Foster further envisions the person ‘knitting’ and ‘fashioning baby booties / for my children you’ll never meet’. Yet these flights of imagination are curtailed by the fourth stanza’s sobering bluntness: ‘You’ve been atomized and scattered – / reduced down to a slab of marble, / letting only strangers know you in death’. Nonetheless, the final stanza fervently insists, ‘I swear I hear you though’. Thus the earlier ‘crinkling of the grass’ is brought up again, except now there is the certainty of ‘know[ing] the crinkling / is only the insects that separate us’, as opposed to merely ‘thinking’. The final line’s ‘I start to remember your voice’ then reveals the emotional crux of the poem, i.e. the dead person’s voice has in fact already been forgotten until this graveside moment.
This technique of ending a poem with a line that gestures towards new beginnings or at least non-resolution also occurs in ‘Blackout in Nan Ning’ and ‘How Fast We Grow’. The latter literally breaks off in midsentence: ‘She stands by the window and cries, / Not for death, but, finally –’. As for ‘Blackout in Nan Ning’, given its title, it unsurprisingly ends with the image of a blackout, ‘a place beyond my own comprehension, // where the past and the present / reveals itself’. The cloaking of darkness is juxtaposed with the moment of clarifying epiphany: ‘I see as if for the first time’. The poem has rendered absence into a form of potentiality.
The last poem in To the Lost might well serve as an extended metaphor for the act of artistic creation. ‘On Letting Go’ is ostensibly about precisely that, how ‘Like from the hand of a carefree child, / we are let go’, and thus ‘When I am let go, do not cry’. This is not resignation so much as it is an acknowledgement that life and death form an inevitable cycle. (A similar sentiment regarding ageing is expressed in opening poem ‘Orioles on the Windowsill’, where the image of ‘my great-grandfather’ and his ‘boney finger’ becomes ‘the great-grandsons / Of the long-gone birds / … / Seek[ing] a boney perch’.) At the same time, the red balloon of ‘On Letting Go’ could be seen as representing the poet’s work, which attains a life of its own once it has been written, ‘hoping not to burst under the pressure / of an unfamiliar sense of freedom’. So just as there is comfort in ‘knowing that I won’t pop until I’m far from sight’, the poet may rest easy in relinquishing his poems to the reader. Foster’s chapbook indicates he is off to a good start in this regard.