It is a sad fact that a writer’s death is often what gets us to read him or her in the first place. We put off reading a poet or a novelist, telling ourselves that we’ll get to the work eventually, that the next book will be the one we try. And then, only when we know that there won’t be a next book, we finally start reading.
Over the last few years, several readers who I trust praised the work of Brett Foster. I borrowed his first, wonderfully titled poetry collection, The Garbage Eater (2011), from the library last year, but life—classes to prepare, papers to grade, essays to write—intruded. The book sat unread on my bookshelf for several months before I brought it back to the library, promising myself that I’d return to it soon.
Two weeks ago, Foster died at the age of forty-two. An associate professor of English at Wheaton College, Foster was a poet-scholar. In addition to publishing poems in Raritan, Salamander, The New Criterion, and many other places, he translated the work of Cecco Angiolieri (a contemporary of Dante), taught courses on Donne and the Renaissance lyric, and produced scholarship on Shakespeare, Marlowe, and others. As with the best poet-scholars, Foster’s verse was sustained by his research, and his research was informed by his verse. Both circled around the same issues: literary tradition, Christian theology, the meaning of Scripture. He was beloved by his students and colleagues. You can read moving remembrances here and here and here.
Last week, after hearing of Foster’s death, I checked out The Garbage Eater once again. It is as remarkable as I had heard. Fitting for someone so versed in poetic tradition, Foster regularly shows the possibilities enabled by formal constraint, using some of the most simultaneously restrictive and liberating forms available to the poet—the sestina, the sonnet, the rondeau. Just as varied as the poems’ forms are their subjects. Foster writes of snow days and of Advent calendars (“You’re left / with only days, bare and perforated, / a liturgy of doors, perfect symbol”), of having tea with John Milton and, in a poem that delighted this baseball fan, of the former Kansas City Royals closer Dan Quisenberry: “He’d be clutch in the ninth, seal the game after afternoon bullpen slumber: / those summer doubleheaders in the grim bubble of the Metrodome.”
Foster is a superb poet of place, writing about spaces both sacred and profane. In one poem, “At the City Church of San Francisco,” Foster asks, “How to preach with so much that’s beautiful // around us?” describing the “Golden Gate in the distance, those orange altars, / the bay beyond with its long, silver wings, / and perfect bursts of plant life everywhere.” In another, he opens with the speaker’s mean upbringing in “a backwater / cavity in the South, a rat-shit / state of peach-eating race haters, / debutante belles, and chain gangs / singing their exhausted souls / back to the stockade yard.” There is even a poem that takes place inside an Olive Garden:
No Menicus-threaded grove restful with panpipes and shepherd life,
just the chain restaurant off Sherman Street. But the manager
intends to make me think so—pastas on the poster, carafes
of Mantuan wine lined up by shades of red and gold and white.
In Palo Alto, Sunday sunlight stimulates the atmosphere
as do the lively, prerecorded violins’ piazza overtures.
Cormac McCarthy has said that the only writers worth reading are those who “deal with issues of life and death”—that is, those who take seriously the fact that life is always shadowed by death.
Foster’s poems reside within the shadow of death. The Garbage Eater begins with these lines, precise and enjambed:
Fear of dying, fear of death:
those phobias came easy, shaped
nightly by a little boy’s breath
talking out a clockwork afterlife
with parents till I fell asleep.
And it ends with these lines from “Longing, Lenten,” similarly precise, similarly enjambed, similarly concerned with how we live our mortal condition:
… The rest
of the blessed ash has vanished to a gray
amorphousness, to symbolize … not much.
Except a wish for those hallowed moments
to be followed by sustaining confidence.
Except spirit, which means to shun its listless
weight for yearning, awkward if not more earnest
prayer and fasting in the clear face of dust.
But in between these death-haunted bookends, Foster fills his collection with that which sustains: work and love, the dance of the mind, senses, and soul as they encounter the world. Here, for instance, is a sonnet, “Devotion: For Our Bodies,” that describes the joy found in work and in language:
Yes love, I must confess I’m at it again,
struggling in vain with my Greek declensions.
I know it’s common, but I want to show
you what I found in Praxeis Apostolon,
chapter one, verse twenty-four: this exquisite
epithet, kardiognosta. Forget briefly its context, that the Eleven,
genuflecting, implore the Lord to give
wisdom. Between Justus and Matthias,
who replaces Judas? Let this word pass
to private sharpness toward love’s dominion.
Let me kiss it across your collarbones—
knower of hearts. Its sweetness fills my mouth
and our twin lots, as if they’d chosen both.
“The Foreman at Rest” ends with the desire to remember the world in all its particularity: “Thirsting for detail, / I want to notice the juice / on that pear, half-eaten and still / glistening in the lamplight.” “Passage” includes several litanies of human achievement—“water clocks, mercy seats, clay tablets / of Mesopotamia, lock and key, Jericho”—each a sign of “bright wonder transumed from modesty.”
As “Via Negativa” puts it, poetry is a form of celebration, even when what it celebrates is unassuming:
This could have been many things: the barren
field of elegy, a mass sung at Lourdes,
or some harmonious bed made of chords.
Instead, it celebrates its reticence.
The loss Foster’s family and friends feel right now is immense. So are the gifts that he offered—in his life, in his teaching, and in his poetry.