Green Hills Literary Lantern


Rebecca Foust, Paradise Drive,

Press 53, Winston-Salem, NC, (95 pages)

The self-identified “Pilgrim,” whom Rebecca Foust chooses to be both character and persona throughout her sonnet series Paradise Drive reminds me, oddly enough, of a much younger character from a different time, gender and genre, Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye.  Both characters are masterfully drawn, stridently critical members of the affluent social classes within which they dwell. Foust’s Pilgrim alternately amazes me with her darkly comic insights into what is so fundamentally wrong about contemporary culture, while also exasperating me from her position of privilege, as my working class roots (which Foust shares) keep reminding me: nobody is forced to live in California’s Marin County.   Of course, this is an irony not lost on Foust, but whether Pilgrim’s journey ever progresses to a better place than anger and mockery is one of the most compelling reasons to read and reread this collection.

These Pilgrim poems present a bitter, snarky and frequently hilarious woman taking to task the self-satisfied shallowness of the privileged people of Marin County, and doing so within a sonnet form so fluid  and apt that critic James Cummins argues Foust “reinvents” the form, “making it a unit of expression again.”    These sonnets eschew iambic pentameter and usually only rhyme on the final couplet.  Sometimes there is even a variation there, as in the title poem whose last two lines are:  “a wound, the sky vivid and gashed; / each day bound to the last with dark thread,” in which there are three syllables after the “end” rhyme of gashed/last.   Foust lets the rhetoric within each narrative dictate her form, though she always finds her way to fourteen lines and some sort of clever nod to rhyme. Sometimes she goes with more than just the couplet rhyme  (as in “The One Pilgrim Likes Best”) sometimes she opts for near or half rhyme ( as in “The Prime Mover”)  or exact rhyme (“Don’t Talk About This,” “War”).”   Each time her choices feel like they are exactly right, as when she emphasizes  “guns” in the exact rhyming final couplet of “War.”   The poems mostly look like sonnets on the page, but, by the end of the book, even that normality is rejected, as “Contradance” is delivered in a 3,2,1,2,1,3,2 stanza line form and “Preparation for Pirouette” in 12, 1, 1.  Foust’s use of the sonnet both embraces   this most iconic of all poetry forms in English, while also critiquing and challenging its limitations.  


The work is also carefully, intentionally self-conscious. There is an early poem, “Why Pilgrim?” in which the poet explains her use and justification for that name, fully aware that Pilgrims these days are remembered for their mistreatment of Native Americans and their religious intolerance but “weren’t some of them/ -Anne Bradstreet for one- also idealists/ striving and brave?”  The speaker concludes “Pilgrim holds-good and bad-what I am,” though for most of the poems a reader recognizes she considers herself more Anne Bradstreet than William Bradford. This self-consciousness continues in the first poem of the section entitled “The Fire is Falling”-  “You-Know-Where Again”- with the you being the reader and the “where again” being the bathroom where the Pilgrim character has hidden during fancy parties in several earlier poems.  Rebecca Foust is walking in a liminal space somewhere within character and persona and poet, as Whitman did in “Song of Myself.”  She is also having a conversation with the reader, as Whitman always sought to do.  And just as it is a mistake to assume the “Whitman” of “Song of Myself” is a fully valid rendering of the man, Walt Whitman, readers should be careful not to consider Pilgrim a complete stand in for Foust, even if there are some clear biographical connections.  Foust doesn’t name her persona for herself, as Whitman did, so her character can all the more readily represent more than just her, even though she seems so present in the work.


For example, in the two sonnet long poem “Party Etiquette” we discover that Pilgrim was more or less fine with the lifestyles of the near rich and not so famous she encountered in Marin County “Everything was plu-perfect, gosh-darn it,” until her son was diagnosed with autism and she met little but rejection and misunderstanding from all around her, which began her epiphany of what was so wrong with the lifestyle she was immersed in.  In “real life” Foust was a Stanford law school graduate in private practice until her son was diagnosed with autism and she then switched to a specialty in advocacy for those with autism within her legal practice. Of course this one parallel does not guarantee by any means that the rest of Pilgrim’s actions and thoughts and beliefs stand well for Foust’s own, but the experiences within the poems are too fully lived not to have some basis in biography. 


Henry David Thoreau once told us “Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue,” and Pilgrim seems to agree heartily.  An early sequence of poems in the volume is “The Seven Deadly Sins Overheard at the Party,” These poems risk being over the top, as the speaker asks us to believe she overhears lines like: “Yes, our house is the size of the Queen Mary 2, / but that’s okay because we give so much/ money away. (“Greed: Exercising Noblesse Oblige”)  or Pilgrim smugly judges in “Pride, Bickering Over Vanity” that people who have tons of money to spend in order to eat “right,” never think: “isn’t it also elite-just-to eat? “  But this is a county where the dogs receive more attention and expenditure than the majority of humans in the world, “that pompadoured poodle francaise/ chauffeured in her very own chaise. Ball-hitched to a bike.  WTF?” so how can she overstate her case?    


That case gets progressively uglier when there is a whole series of poems dealing with suicide, more than one of them suggesting that the women who killed themselves were driven to it by the awful men in their lives (“Anastrophe Elegy,” “Bane Laid on Behalf of the Latest Late Wife.”)  Still, Pilgrim occasionally reminds herself “there are other zip codes,” (“Couldn’t She Just”) which, at least some of the time, makes her have to confront her own culpability in living the Marin county lifestyle.   That willingness is sporadic; it hits us hard in the middle of the collection when in “Je Est un Autre” Pilgrim finds someone she likes at one of the lavish parties, finally a person she doesn’t want to flee to the bathroom from, but then she still wishes the person would wear less “bling,” an ironic critique when it hits her that, “Yes, it’s a mirror, and-shit-/ you talking into it.  A zero-sum game,/ and there you are, inside the gilt frame.”  That wonderful pun on gilt/guilt extends to her admission in the following poem, “Three Car Garage,” that while she drives a Prius when alone, it’s an Escalade when with “friends.”  One expects then that this beginning of epiphany will lead us and Pilgrim to a better place, both literally and figuratively, one where she can be more altruistic and less judgmental. Instead she retreats to the poems about pampered dogs, suicides, and other excesses of people not her, people she loudly denounces when she has had too much to drink (“She Learns to Control Her Mouth,” “Oops.”)  It takes Foust and Pilgrim to the final sub-section of the poem, “O Earth Return,” to make any further progress in her spiritual journey.


Even these poems are far from all aimed at forgiveness or redemption, though at least “Rat Diptych” does not try to make too clear parallels between those rodents and the human denizens of Marin County.  This section is marked with attempts at hope, whether via Pilgrim’s love for her daughter, “Prayer for My New Daughter,” or tender memories of her mother “Forgotten Image,” (though that poem is followed by a much sadder, sharper poem about her mother’s death and dying “Bright Juice.” ) Interwoven throughout this collection are poems about Pilgrim’s former life, and its  poverty (”The Prime Mover”), or her problems with her father (“The Truth.”)  Pilgrim’s early adulthood, then, seemed focused on escaping the past and believing that being able to “pay the bills,” (”The Prime Mover”) was the key to a more secure, perhaps happy life.  The Pilgrim at the end of this collection  recognizes how conventional religion, (“Religion”) excessive drink (“Bourbon Elegy”) and feeling isolated and thereby superior to others are all gambits bound to failure.  The last poems of Paradise Drive are certainly not warm and fuzzy, but within them Pilgrim tries to discover reasons to forestall “Despair, “one deadly sin not at the party tonight.”


Pilgrim is older, a mother rather than a teen, so she has more experience with people and with life than Holden Caulfield, but while Holden claims, at the end of his book that he begins to “miss” even the people who were least kind to him in his life thus far, Pilgrim seeks reconciliation with the world from other sources than the people she has been mocking. In “How to Live, Reprise” she no longer believes having enough (or more than enough) money is the key to happiness, in fact she may not even believe in happiness, but finally can include such advice to herself as “Admit when you’re wrong. Go on/ for the kids.”  In “I’ll Burn My Books” Pilgrim decides being married to bitterness and hopes of revenge are paths only to suicide: “Bitter began to hurt her again.”  In “Vernal” something as basic as the renewal found in nature is a cause for hope: “Some things we believe cannot be redeemed/ but the dawn, as yet, is diurnal.”   And the final two poems tell us “not to turn away from Love/ even if Love turned away from me,” (“Contradance”) and that Pilgrim has decided, like her mother before her, to be, even to the final minute, clenched to the core against death, rather than prematurely seeking it: “Let my throat ache then, be notched.  Each flawed dawn.”   Life hasn’t gotten any better by the end of Paradise Drive, and Pilgrim’s sympathy only seems readily to extend to the natural world, and to children, especially her own, but the end of her journey undeniably gets her to a better place, where her sensitivity and force can be channeled into something more useful than making fun of people whose very lives make that effort seem redundant.  And Foust’s poetry:  exact, vital, fully realized , makes us especially glad her Pilgrim now walks a better road.

Joe Benevento has published fiction, poetry and essays in over three hundred places. Poetry editor of GHLL since 1995, with numerous collections of verse and several novels to his credit, he teaches literature and creative writing at Truman State University. The second in the Cupelli Brothers mystery series, Saving St. Teresa, appeared this year. Expecting Songbirds: Selected Poems: 1983-2015 is just out from Purple Flag Press.