Rebecca Foust, The Unexploded Ordnance Bin, Swan Scythe Press, 2019, 49 pp.
Winner of the 2018 Swan Scythe Press Chapbook Award, Julie Suk Book Prize Finalist, Poetry by the Sea Book Prize Runner Up
A good poet opens a window into her own experience. A great poet like Rebecca Foust opens windows into the experiences of others. Foust’s 2019 collection of poetry, The Unexploded Ordnance Bin, is an altruistic pursuit, for her poems are less about being understood herself than striving to understand others. The Unexploded Ordnance Bin is as much a call to action as it is a work of art: it asks its readers to more deeply engage with those whose experiences are different from ours, to imagine the rich and precarious existences of bats, autistic people, immigrants, mothers, martyrs, and trans people.
As I read Foust’s collection, I was pleasantly surprised by its connections to cognitive science and consciousness, especially its recognition of the ineffability of personal experience. Though not all philosophers and cognitive scientists will agree, several assert that one’s personal experience is ineffable. The argument draws from Thomas Nagel’s 1974 paper, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” in which he poses this novel question to uncover greater revelations. Nagel argues that this thought experiment goes further than a human imagining herself as a bat—rather, she would have to occupy an entirely new existence governed by different thought patterns and different perceptual capabilities. Similarly, there is a unique “something” it is like to be you, and there is a unique “something” it is like to be me. However, there is, as science writer Susan Blackmore likes to say, a “fathomless abyss” between us. My experience boxes me in from ever fully occupying your experience, and vice versa.
Whether or not Foust is familiar with the field of cognitive science, she is profoundly cognizant of the “fathomless abyss” between herself and other people, and through her poetry, she comes remarkably close to bridging it. And, whether or not she intends it, the poem “Little Brown Bat” is a clever allusion to Nagel’s paper.
She continues this theme in “Perseids” and “the unexploded ordnance bin,” especially in regards to her autistic son. She relates the anxiety of being a mother, especially when painfully aware of the precariousness of a child’s existence. For Foust, her worries stem from her son’s heart problems and the “medicine taken to decrease the world’s discomfort with him.” The problem, Foust is sure to express, is not her son, but the world’s treatment of him. Some mothers worry about their children who “come home from Iraq without legs,” and elsewhere in the collection, Foust touches upon the fear of immigrant mothers in being separated from their children. There is a reckless hope Foust strives for, particularly expressed in the line, “So how can we go on believing each day won’t be the one that flames out?” She connects these disparate experiences with a familiar and weighty image: a falling star. She describes her son’s horseshoe-crab collection as “constellated in precise patterns in the sky of his bedroom floor.” She associates EKGs and MRIs with a broken “astral map… just as stars come unmoored and fall into flaming comets.” Her son’s eyes as he sleep walks are “dark night-terror pools.” She closes out the poem with a larger perspective, reeling away from the small and intense details of the rest of the poem: “Overhead, stars arc across the dark sky/ making small curved rips, and the light leaks out.” The overall effect of this specific overarching image is a feeling of inconsequence and a lack of control over existence. Perhaps, as Foust suggests, the best we can do is set those we love back to sleep and hold them close: “Shh, now/ he’s dropping off, worry lines etching his forehead…”
In “the unexploded ordnance bin,” Foust echoes her desire for a reckless hope, this time in regards to her genetics: “& I wonder what it would look like/ the bin for the safe disposal of genes… or maybe the bin/ is the world when to be human was all promise & radiance/ unwinding dawn mudflats/ into long wide shining ribbons/ pink as a new baby’s gums…” Surely these are some of the most gorgeous lines of the collection. They express a childlike need for a simpler, kinder time. Still, Foust recognizes that such a desire is ill-fated because everything could “blow all to hell/ any second all those bright dreams/ lit up like tracer fire/ over the dark dunes.” Of the hollow, snub-nosed shell and the gene for autism, she says their exploding is “like the Perseids/ only not at all like the Perseids.” Here, Foust once again recognizes the difficulty of understanding the experience of someone else—“what it is like” to be them—in expressing that her son’s experience is like the Perseids but also not at all like the Perseids. Any comparison, as carefully construed or selected it is, will fall short. This is further emphasized with the gaps between words. Perhaps they symbolize the “fathomless abyss” of experience between herself and her son. And yet, there is a wonderment that comes through in these final lines. Her son is like the Perseids, but he is also something more than the Perseids. There will always be a new depth to discover, a new miracle to find in him. The same goes for any individual. Thus, Foust comes out of the poem with a new kind of hope: a reserved, tentative kind.
Foust extends her knowing, compassionate eye to victims of recent events. In “Requiem Mass for the Yuma Fourteen,” she memorializes the fourteen men and teenagers who perished on “The Devil’s Path” in Yuma due to sun exposure and lack of water as they attempted to cross the border into the US. She utilizes the villanelle to suggest a mantra of sorts, an almost there, almost there that ultimately ends in tragedy. The final lines of this poem hit the hardest: “He made a neat stack of his clothes, and at dawn/ he lay down. He burst like a ripe sunset, a plum./ Beyond the border, you can smell the rain./ The desert composes its requiem.” In a similar vein, she mourns the body of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, a thirteen-year-old tortured by the Syrian government, in “Iconostasis”: “For the gloved hand,/ the pale, powdery fingers of a terrible angel. For each/ thumbprint bruise,/ the petal of a dark rose.” And for Fatima Omar Mahmud al-Najir, whom Foust regards as martyr despite Western news outlets describing her as otherwise, she writes in “Flame”: “Not the change but another kind of pause: the body/ in paraphrase, working loose/ like a tooth” and “human rage finally refined/ into the clarity/ of pure air, its precise blessing/ folded and wrapped/ about her slim waist.” She aptly finds vivid, visceral imagery to describe these losses: a plum burst in the sun, bruises the color of dark roses, and the spontaneous combustion of the body. What is most striking about these poems is the room Foust leaves for other voices. She does not take over these stories nor regard her subjects as if they were characters. She writes respectfully, even angrily at such losses, but never uses her voice to stifle out others. Understanding, Foust shows us, can only be achieved through listening.
Foust closes her collection with a series of poems about her relationship with her trans daughter. There is an urgency to these poems that mirrors the urgency in her previous poems about the Yuma Fourteen, Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, and Fatima Omar Mahmud al-Najir, though it now takes on a more personal tone. Foust conveys a desperate urgency to understand her trans daughter and regain her trust. In “free,” she laments the daughter she lost: “a new child born/ when she/he severed family/ (specifically me) at times like she’s/ gnawed off her own (or was it my) arm to be free.” Foust endeavors to reconcile her understanding of her daughter in childhood to her understanding of her daughter as she is now. There is a vein of hurt here between mother and daughter, particularly in the ways they failed to understand each other. In “Failed Aubade,” Foust asks for forgiveness: “It is true/ I rejoiced more in your gentleness/ than in your beard, but still, I did rejoice in your beard… Forgive me for that, daughter,/ and for my grief at your loss even though you never left, even though/ you always have been and are still here.” Building on the concept of understanding, Foust’s poems in this section intimate a new sentiment: we can love and protect someone without perfectly understanding them. In “Sufferance,” she wishes to “come between” her daughter and those that wish to hurt her: “Interceded, yes,—my body—/ between yours—and—theirs.”
The Unexploded Ordnance Bin is a fiery, flickering glimpse into what it is like to be Foust—and what it is like to be Foust is to compassionately and intensely imagine what it is like to be other people. She comes remarkably close to crossing the “fathomless abyss,” her hand extended to reach the other side. She implores us, her readers, to do the same. She asks us to regularly engage with experiences outside of our own and to love “recklessly,/ and with abandon”—to love as if “it weren’t going to blow all to hell,” but also to love as if it were.
Kimberly Ramos is preparing to graduate with a BA in Philosophy and Religion and a BFA in Creative Writing from Truman State University. Their poetry and fiction have appeared in Whale Road Review, Jet Fuel Review, Road Runner Review, West Trade Review, Inkwell Journal and Southern Humanities Review.