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» Levee 67


What He Ought to Know by Edward Foster

David Need

  What He Ought to Know: New and Selected Poems.
Edward Foster.
Marsh Hawk Press, 2006.
124 pages, $10 (paperback).
ISBN: 0975919776 (Library of Congress).
Buy at Amazon.

I'll start by being honest and say I haven't read enough of Ed Foster's seven or eight books of poetry to be able to put this collection into the context of a larger work. I know Ed's work as a publisher (of Talisman Books) and critic a bit better, and my sense of what I'd want a person to know about Ed is that his sense of where poetry and poets fit into this world is something I wish were the general rule instead of a rare example.

What Ed gets—and it's as clear in this collection as anywhere—is that poetry belongs to reading, to the loves we make through reading and where reading takes us, loves we can't shake off and shouldn't. Ed is as honest to that instinct as anyone I know—what you get here and in his larger cultural work are the traces of his search for the beautiful or good, the relationships he's been able to realize (or lose) that in, the places (Russia and Turkey) he's been drawn to care for—and never for the sake of commerce, or making it, or being a star. It is as New England as the blood seeped in the Deerfield plain, the best angle against the ruin commodity culture seems to visit, relentlessly, on the arts.

Ed is from Western Massachusetts, and if you know these people, you will recognize the direct, spare taciturn affect—if you read the poems you'll know that it's the most honest front he can put on what is really a passion that is both carnal and deeply invested and interested in sharing. This is a person who wants to go where love takes him, who knows it means difficulty. That we fit at angles with each other.

To some extent, the biographical matters—a rued, broken marriage, a child, men he has loved, a refusal to pass off blame through any shift of identity—in the end the weight of these across the selection of poems is not decisive. What's said is said to own up, not to answer. He'll carry what's done to the grave. There is a good thing in what's done, even if it's a difficult light that brights off what he didn't know about what he was up to at the time.

This admission to a love of several kinds of things shows up in the mixed diction of the poems—a thing I've seen in each of the collections I do know. Ed can, at times, leave beautiful unfinished spaces between statements—for instance, this from "Acteon as a False God"

Old men are gracious, and they watch. Their purposes are foreign, and they do not know. How do we get that way? Who taught us satisfaction?

or the distance between stanzas in "Former Care" (spoken to his dying father):

Vienna is
another place you'll never see.

This stage is bare,
and, sensibly, abstractions mark
the guilt we found in fairy tales.

We always knew where you had been.

But Ed can also fall into an almost iambic lyric that admits a loyalty to poesy he chooses not to smooth out into any more American grain.

This second surface jars, and some might dismiss it, but I've learned that poetry tends to belong precisely to the dimensions that open up (and across which a dance begins to gyre) across such differences. That's another thing I wish more young poets knew—no matter what the academy says, the point isn't to smooth it all out as if desire belonged to a single surface. A poem rises out of the tension between at least two things, two ways of saying, and you have to be loyal to these if you are going to do the work that's to be done.

He ought to have known this, but none of us do, the first time.

. . .