By Rebecca Foust
Reviewed by M. B. McLatchey
Rebecca Foust's most recent and award-winning poetry collection, Paradise Drive, reminds us of Chaucer's suggestion in the Canterbury Tales that it is the pilgrim who walks with us who is the "better medic for our souls." In Paradise Drive, Foust's poetic persona—aptly named Pilgrim—not only walks with us through the daily modicum of our 21st-century lives, but she reports our lives with precisely the right measure of satire and seriousness that makes her the better medic for our souls.
Indeed, the questions that Foust takes up in Paradise Drive could not be more important. As in Dante's ascent from hell to heaven, Pilgrim escorts the reader through a sequence of sonnets on a pilgrimage that relentlessly circles back to this most fundamental of spiritual questions: How will we live our lives on earth? In "Ennui," as in other poems, answers to the question come forth, although the final line's directive seems to capture the book's most sincere recommendations:
To have it all, and still be malign and vile,
a wart on the face of esprit de corps?
Perhaps she needed to dial it back:
booze and Prozac. Recall pain for a while.
To recall pain for a while, as Foust seems to know, is to resume the role of pilgrim among pilgrims which, as a poet, means resuming her role as both participant and witness. As if in the name of assuming the most compassionate objectivity toward her subjects as possible, this is precisely where her Pilgrim casts herself.
Related to this question of how we should live is a theological concept that Foust's Pilgrim seems to bear like a medieval moniker—namely that, Eternity is now. For Pilgrim, as for Chaucer and Dante, eternity is not something that awaits us like some brand of salvation after death; eternity is not merely a resting place for our souls. Eternity is the path—or in Foust's case, the "drive"—that we are on right now. In practical terms, what this means in Foust's collection is that our lives remembered will be the lives that we lived. Thus, we must make this life matter. But how? In "How to Live, Reprise," Foust offers a how-to that is at once self-deprecating and characteristically epigrammatic:
All you can do, Pilgrim decides,
is keep asking the questions.
Admit when you're wrong. Go on
for the kids, especially the kids
you have personally caused
to be brought into the world.
As far as you can, regardless,
clean up your own mess.
Do not use bleach on every load.
If the necessity to make this life matter was the greatest of all lessons in the medieval church's catechism, then for Foust, a life that matters must be an authentic life. Surprisingly, for Foust, an authentic life need not be one that embraces the tenets of any faith or is even Botox-free. Instead, Foust campaigns for an authenticity that the medieval troubadours campaigned for: a life where one follows one's bliss, where one says yes to her career in life, and no to the norms and edicts of society.
For the troubadours, this meant celebrating the adulterous—yet authentic—love between Lancelot and Guinevere. For Foust, in a poem titled, "Hard to Entertain," this means fantasizing about the life that could have been lived—but wasn't—by two parents:
It's not easy being a good hostess
to all Seven Sins en masse.
It wasn't always like this. No. I mean yes,
[. . .]
Then the Sins began to reveal themselves:
her father's strict pact with ressentiment,
her mother's wrath, transubstantient
with Percocet. Percocet, chocolate, and gin.
Each morning's ambush, each slept-into noon.
To wish to be anywhere, with anyone
else. The pride masquerading as mean.
The hunger, always through-the-fuse-green.
In "Hard to Entertain," it is not a parent's crippling addiction or self-destruction that the Pilgrim grieves. Instead, what is grieved is the surrendering to a pain-numbing antidote rather than following one's true path in life. It is witnessing the loss of the authentic life that is the hardest to bear.
Foust so seamlessly adapts medieval philosophy to the landscape of Southern California, Botox, divorce, and soul-less careers that we are able to see its universality. See, for example, the vacuous sound-chambers that are social engagements and the hollow-man hunger for soul-substance that causes Foust's Pilgrim to retreat to the toilet with St. Augustine's Confessions in "Another Party, Another Bathroom":
Yes, Pilgrim's at it again, hiding out
with a book while the bright party sparkles
elsewhere. But, throwing the bolt, she sparkles
too, thinking, This, this is freedom. She's lit
from within by Augustine: "To Carthage I came
[. . .] Flips through her book
To her favorite phrase: "take up and read." More
God, she wants more. Someone bangs at the door.
And, in a sequence that personifies the Seven Deadly Sins, Foust examines in a poem not only human folly—any artist can examine that—but instead, she asks the harder question about what we in this world choose to call transgression or sin and what we call "sins-lite":
I don't begrudge your kid landing Harvard,
no. No, in fact, we are really quite pleased
with Gonzales U. And it isn't schadenfreude
that accounts for the slow wake of joy
that crosses my face right after you say
your dot.com's gone bust. It's just—
[ time delay ]—that last dose of Botox
was whale-size, and now I can't smile or frown
[. . .] What burns
me? The way some sins get to be—just—fun,
sins-lite, like a mere toe dipped in brimstone.
Like Dante's Divine Comedy, Paradise Drive is a morality play in verse that does not preach. In one of the book's closing sonnets, titled "Rebuke," Foust recasts the question of how to make a life matter onto a dust-to-dust suburbia that by now has become familiar with its characteristically equal measure of humanism and self-incrimination:
[. . .] We compost, we sort
our trash that then gets disappeared
to a plant where nothing alive is sown
or grows. Except for the black-dotted-line
of crows, pecking at human alluvium,
paper and plastic massing a mountain
we finally cannot not see. What does the loon
cry out to the lake, the lake repeat to the rain?
What is the meaning of any refrain?
The "dotted line" that Foust's Pilgrim follows is a journey that some of our most important poets have walked in their examination of the human condition. Pilgrim escorts us along this journey with a keen attachment to language and a fidelity to poetic form that reveals us as the "sinners" we are—and then, with a wit characteristic of the best of the traveling medieval morality plays, she reminds us that she is on the same pilgrimage and that she is also a "sinner." What made Chaucer relevant to his time is what makes Foust relevant and compelling for us today: keen attention to craft; courage to wrestle with serious themes; and a humor that both betrays us and saves us. Paradise Drive is the 21st-century's answer to Chaucer's Tales that only a "medic" like Faust's good Pilgrim could give us.