ISSUE 15 / SUMMER 2008
By Rebecca Foust
Texas Review Press, 2008
Reviewed by Bob Wake
The strongest poems in Rebecca Foust’s chapbook Dark Card are so very good that they carry the collection as a whole and lift the lesser poems by sheer force of brio. Working to powerful effect is the chapbook’s thematic unity. Foust’s now-grown son has Asperger’s Syndrome, a neurological disorder on the autism spectrum. The twenty-seven poems touch on the poet’s journey from rage to acceptance and wisdom, as well as charting her son’s developmental challenges and coping strategies as he moves into adulthood. Brilliant, but socially awkward and withdrawn, he suffers the inevitable bullying in elementary school (“they cornered him / behind the storage shed and stoned him / in a hail of green oranges”). Dark Card‘s poems are worry beads. Plaintive prayers. Foust’s love and concern for her son are never in doubt, but the emotions on display are wounded and rubbed raw. Sentimental or saccharine? Forget it. The author’s quietest observations are often barbed (“My son is gentler with moths / than people ever were with him”).
Foust is good at evoking for us both the outward behaviors and the inward mental processes that constitute her son’s experience of the world. In the poem “Asperger Ecstasy,” for example, she writes of the miscellany that snare his focus and cause him to “vibrate with joy”: “It can be cataloging washing / machine brands or the note variations in a symphony, / or committing to memory for joyous recounting / the entire year’s schedule for the El-train.” Her sense of wonder, even envy, is triggered in the midst of what we perceive as a deeply melancholic alienation from her son’s neurology: “Oh, never to grow bored or experience a numbing / sameness of things! To immerse consciousness / in the sensory present of a bottle cap flattened by traffic…”
A series of six extraordinary poems (“Too Soon,” “Palace Eunuch,” “That Space,” “Firstborn,” “Apologies to My OB-GYN,” and “No Longer Medusa”) early in the volume recount in harrowing, if at times oblique, detail what appears to have been a premature and difficult birth. Fueled by sulfurous sarcasm and remarkably controlled indignation, Foust unloads on incompetent medical staff and inattentive gods alike. Her poetic rants are among the highlights of Dark Card, typified by the opening two stanzas of “Apologies to My OB-GYN”:
Sorry that my boy birthed himself
too early, took up so much room
in your prenatal nursery
with his two pounds, two ounces
and did not oblige your nurses
with easy veins.
Sorry we were such pains in your ass
asking you to answer our night calls like that,
and that he did everything so backwards:
lost weight, gained fluid
blew up like a human balloon
Later poems in Dark Card shed their anger and evolve into a kind of beatific embrace of a gifted math-whiz son who “loves who he is.” In the poem “Like Dostoyevsky’s,” Foust writes: “My illiterate heart / is a mother’s heart that beats / and breaks by rote, but I’m learning / to let him alone and to see / that his pacing and humming / are how he keeps time / in a world made of chaos…”
The penultimate poem, “Empathy,” is a lovely encomium to Temple Grandin, famed autistic writer and researcher whose advocacy work on the ethical treatment of farm animals has led to industry-wide reforms in livestock handling. “Empathy” is a model of poetic precision, a complex, fully realized mini-biography of Grandin’s life as a veterinary scientist and as a person with autism. It’s also an example of how the collection’s poems, all of which stand alone as fine individual pieces, gain impact through their juxtaposition and sequencing. Dark Card is a masterful debut by an exceptional new poet.
Bob Wake is editor of Cambridge Book Review