Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Janet Holmes sent me a note scolding me (but very nicely) for failing to mention all of the other elements of the Boise Renaissance, including other writers thereabouts, herself among them, the presence of an active MFA program at Boise State University & the 30-year history of Ahsahta Press. Don’t get me started on the relationship of MFA programs to anything that might be likened to a renaissance – you don’t want to hear it any more than I want to hear another English professor telling me that he or she is “too busy” to write. But Ahsahta Press is definitely an interesting & worthwhile project, begun as a small press & then taken in by Boise State. The press’ original focus seems to have been to bring into print western poets, especially those who were neglected, most often by virtue of not living in the San Francisco Bay Area. More than a few of Ahsahta’s books can be described very literally as rescuing the disappeared & some pretty significant disappeared poets at that: Genevieve Taggard (her only published book of poems, done posthumously), Judson Crews (a poet who figures significantly in Robert Creeley’s early career), the only book of poems by Haniel Long, Norman MacLeod’s Selected Poems, two volumes by Thomas Hornsby Ferril, Cynthia Hogue’s first book, books by Bill Witherup & Donald Schenker. The Ahsahta catalog is literally a treasure trove. The bad news is that, until very recently, the press seems to have been a classic case of focusing on the publishing, neglecting the distribution. For a press that is 30 years old, I had never seen or even heard of it until fairly recently. And all of the above named poets are people in whom I have at least some interest.


Then, just two years or so ago, the press seems to have broadened its focus somewhat, publishing Lance Phillips’ Corpus Socius & Aaron McCollough’s Welkin. More recently, Ahsahta has published Graham Foust’s Leave the Room to Itself & it has just announced that the winner of the 2004 Sawtooth Prize, the same series that included the McCollough & Foust volumes, is Noah Eli Gordon, another name that will be readily recognizable to bloggers & readers of contemporary verse.* This is goodness in & of itself, but the publication of these poets who may have wider audiences may even lead readers into the Ahsahta backlist, a benefit that is not to be underestimated.


Foust is a poet whom I first became fully aware of when I reviewed 6, a Phylum Press chapbook, in May 2003. Since then, Foust has had a book from Flood Editions as well as Leave the Room to Itself, as good a year as any writer gets to have. As in the other books, Foust’s poems in Room are spare, incredibly tightly composed pieces that combine a unique worldview, one part Wittgenstein, the other part William Burroughs:


Expensive Meal



In my listening

a Cyrillic
sun hums.

a dare.

There is always
a fugitive meat.


Or, literally on the facing page:





The other night I was looking

at pictures of successful businessmen.


Near dawn, the pictures became

an increasingly distorted

and pornographic hedge.


Then something ate something.


Then something ate everything.


This is the end (hint hint) of the animals.


There is not (quote) my own (unquote)

in how I’m summoned.


Somewhere there’s a monkey

who grooms all and only

those monkeys who do not groom themselves.


There is more than a little suggestion of the sinister tucked among the truth tables here. Consider how in the following poem, “Skull,” the words scars & lack join with the title to set up a tone of dread that completely takes over what might otherwise be a very non-ominous final sentence:


Such a white planet.


And what scars

the eyes are,


what page the lack of face.


Compare this

to flowers


in a house.


Foust has the condensare part of dichtung = condensare as down as any poet since Creeley & Armantrout, the acknowledged masters of density in small packages. Where he differs from either of them, it seems to me, is in a vision that is far bleaker. It’s not that there’s no humor here – there is actually a lot – but that it’s located in concepts like “a fugitive meat,” hardly an innocent idea.


I was fortunate, I think, in coming into poetry at a time when Creeley had just published For Love & the appearance of each new work was greeted by readers as a major event, each new book an occasion for reassessing everything we thought we knew about poetry (& books like Words & Pieces required a lot of rethinking – I recall poets at SF State getting into huge shouting matches over the relative worth of those volumes). That is very close to how I feel about Foust’s books right now. His diamond-hard concision is something that never gets old. And it can’t be faked either – there are lots of writers of short poems (e.g. Cid Corman) who never can get to that. When it happens in poetry, it’s like lightning in a bottle & you can’t really explains how it comes & goes, why a Creeley should relax, if that is the right word, after Pieces, how an Armantrout can do this decade after decade. Foust may be in very good company here, but there’s no way to know where this might go ten, twenty years from now. What is evident is that right now nobody is writing better than Graham Foust. Nobody.





* Readers of this blog will remember the March 2003 hullabaloo over Gordon’s exclusion from an Amherst-area anti-war reading on the grounds of intelligibility as well as the discussion of Frequencies, his first book, in the infamous “anonymous” readings discussion here earlier this year.