Paradise Drive by Rebecca Foust triumphed over 235 other entrants to take the first Annual 2015 Press 53 Prize for Poetry. It fell to Thomas Lombardo, the Press 53 Series Editor, to write an introduction for the book and the piece he wrote made the job of any reviewer of Ms. Foust’s work all the more difficult.
He nearly said it all when he wrote:
Too few contemporary poets take up the challenge of the sonnet. Foust succeeds where others may tremble. Her precise rhythms and seemingly casual rhymes captivated me. Her strong voice laced with irony and subversive humor enlightened me. Her precise diction nailed her stories to my chest, and then her luscious figurations transported me far from her pages. I could taste, smell and hear the presence of a highly skilled poet.
So what else can be said about what this highly skilled poet has managed with this elegant and commanding collection?
For starters, in her fifth collection, Rebecca Foust has managed rhythm and rhyme in ways that speak of someone who knows the rules so fully that she has permission to depart from them. Budding poets are held to strict standards of meter and are mostly advised to stay away from rhyme, that sinkhole of doggerel and banality. Only a poet of Rebecca Foust’s muscle can manage to sound like a somnambulist with a Ph.D. through rhythms that glide like footsteps barely heard and rhymes so sly (hors d’ oeuvres and poured, for instance) you might miss them. That she doesn’t mind more conventional use of both these tools shows that she can dance to whatever tune a poem requests. In “The News du Jour” we get a sample of her prowess with nearly typical meter and rhyme:
she scans the room. There he is, refulgent
among fans, deploring the news du jour:
genetics, Real Housewives, the market, and war.
Only a confident, supremely capable, courageous poet could manage those lines with that strong back beat and proximous rhyme — deplor(ing) and jour. Well beyond that, Foust uses everyday vernacular to portray common media fodder and reserves one word “refulgent” for the use of Pilgrim who strides along Paradise Drive. Pilgrim, the observant servant of truth, carries a pack of words and has always lived outside the pack, you see.
We meet Pilgrim, the reliable narrator of these poems, early on. Persona, alter ego, doppelganger, Pilgrim has done more than survive hardship. She has survived the triumph over hardship into privilege and prestige. Pilgrim is intact and like a surgeon performing an operation on herself, Foust allows us to witness where she was broken, how she cracked and how she put herself back together.
Impossible most would say, but anyone who reads Paradise Drive will witness it being done. One example:
It was Pilgrim’s secret obsession.
Her private, pet bete-noire
the fear of falling
in love with it all.
As if all that competency and currency weren’t enough, let us not forget Paradise Drive is a collection of sonnets. Ms. Foust has produced a volume of 14-line poems, not strictly Petrarchan nor Shakespearean, but strikingly modern and compact — each of them a paving stone for Pilgrim’s journey.
Understand though that we are not in the hands of someone who is a slave to consistency. There are dazzling exceptions in this book where, sticking to 14-lines, Foust respects the stanza scheme that a poem demands. How brilliantly and sparingly she describes an unconventional pas de deux in couplets in “Bourbon Elegy.”
I miss your tongue
on my spine
the crack of your fist
on my jaw
This is a departure from most of the work in Paradise Drive, but worth singling out because Rebecca Foust is about departure. Departure from her birthplace, departure from glitzy gatherings, departure from habitual behavior and even from the pain so prominent in her journey as a human being and a poet. How beautifully she embraces humor when it serves the topic at hand, witness this:
Menopause is a bitch and, trust me
not one in heat. . .
Reviewers are given to praising technical skill when examining a book of poems, but what is so wonderful about Paradise Drive is that Rebecca Foust can so obviously manage any technical tightrope that one must look for a metaphor to explain to the casual reader of poems why this book will matter to them.
Think about when you’ve seen one of those limbo contests where there are tourists and obvious pros entered. The degree of difficulty is not in how high the bar is, but how well the contestant dances when the bar is lowered.
Sonnets are a high bar. Rhythm is a high bar. Rhyme can be one, too. But in writing poetry to be read, in writing stories to reach readers and show them how their own stories are valid too, one lowers the limbo bar. One dances improbably beautifully when the standards of form and meter are not lowered, but brought to a place of your own confidence. And then, if you are Rebecca Foust, you set the bar on fire with the notion of Pilgrim, the tales of Pilgrim’s grim and graced life, and a demanding fidelity to the truth.
In Paradise Drive, Rebecca Foust waltzes beneath the bar in flames as no one else can. This is that rare chance to watch a shape shifter who knows her true self and will own up to all the selves she never gave into becoming.
Editor’s Note: Rebecca Foust is the Poetry Editor at Women’s Voices for Change. Read her column and brilliant commentary on the art of poetry in our weekly Poetry Sunday feature.