Wednesday, May 23, 2007



Necessary Stranger by Graham Foust
(Flood Editions, 2006)

I. Sneaky Goodness that Works When it Shouldn’t

Necessary Stranger is a book to judge by its cover. Meaning, before you even notice quite what it’s doing, what it’s doing will be bringing you a smile. It’s very fast like that. Its vision happens to you even before you notice that it’s agile and spry, but not right with the world.

It has a plan though and it’s stated right up front. The first poem begins, “Look at the sky, go/ back inside.” The plan is, look broad, but go back to the small. Or, make small from the large, reducing to microcosms.

This is that first poem in its entirety:


Look at the sky, go
back inside. Cocaine
makes its way to Wisconsin.

The TV’s thick with burial, hilarious
with seed. And while the moon,
my mind, and the real world stay home,

I will walk walk
walk unkilled around
a new year’s clumsy gallows.

Anything’s impossible. I’m not
you. Here’s to music
to be in the movies to.

Plain language is used plainly. Faux-innocence (“I will walk walk/ walk”) doesn’t deceive, but winks like a man pulling a quarter from behind a child’s ear. And playfulness is mirrored by odd negations (“Anything’s impossible.”) Contradiction is part of the fun and games, but also something to keep a leery eye on.

The poems here are often wry and occasionally, even vaguely collegiate. Take this stanza excerpted from the poem “Panama”:

If only I couldn’t
understand, I’d imagine
some sarcastic new Christ and say
something someone would say

The phrase, “sarcastic new Christ,” is on the verge of staking too easy of a rebellion and the idea of, “say[ing]/ something someone would say” is a tad on the familiar-cleaver side, but both phrases, even placed next to one another, work in this poems because they are redeemed by the desperate tone of surrounding negations:

Birdsongs now

In the trash-
thicketed blackout.
I want something to not
do with my hands.

In poetry, I’ll always cheer for things that work when it seems they ought not. That success alone makes this book well worth reading.

II. Oh, but there’s more!

I certainly can’t neglect to mention the force with which Necessary Stranger locates itself in the Right Now of Poetry and the Right Now of America, which are both places where, of course, “my neighbors cough and/ wave and wave and frown” and, “It’s a/ dream I’m not ashamed.” (Oh! Just look at those line breaks! Meaning doubles when it’s maimed.)

“Barest Gist” is one of the most successful poems in the book. Here it is in its entirety:

Barest Gist

The way the days gray
over is almost
a system

we believable slaves
blink back.

I move around
my many-cornered
heart some.

There are acres ever through me
flags refuse.

I can’t explicate this poem, or don’t want to. I love its nimbleness, other than that I just want to rest in its wow. This is how I like my poems; I want them to happen TO me when I read. This book delivers. And it’s fun. There are scads of choice lines like, “A brawl/ of water, the sea/ is not radiant,” in which I don’t receive new information, but I do get to think, yes, yes, radiant things are deigned their radiance in American spiritual frustration. And no, “It doesn’t seem/ to want to rain.” This book lives exactly where I live. I don’t mean that it’s trendy; I mean that it’s true.

In a poem entitled “Google,” “The sky goes/ every way.” Here I say, yes, google is some new perversion of the unbound sky. And in the poem, “Historyless”:

Leaking away,
I’ll drop
you, shape.

Go ahead and feed me that hole.

The only thing I know to say is that, yes, many people I know feel this way. Do “Go ahead and feed me that hole,” which must be some sort of homeopathic cure for the larger emptiness because I suddenly feel a temporary lifting of the weight of it all when those words arrive so exactly as they’re needed, each one stacked carefully and precariously on top of the other.

In, “Poem with Hands and Tools” Faust writes, “ The loud/ pain makes her/ my necessary stranger.” The loud angst of this book will make it yours.


Andrea Baker was the recipient of the 2004 Slope Editions Book Prize for her first book, like wind loves a window. She is also the author of the chapbooks gilda (Poetry Society of America, 2004) and gather (moneyshot editions, 2006). She maintains a blog at


At 10:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I can’t explicate this poem, or don’t want to." This sums up the whole so-called review. Dreck. Put in a little effort--think--when you write, or call it a "fawning" or something, but please don't call this a review. Thanks.

At 10:54 AM, Blogger EILEEN said...

Dear JMS,
I've written before about not considering these GR articles "reviews" so much as "engagements." As a result, I've thought before about heading each article as, say




Your comment encourages me to make the switch as of the next issue.

I've probably lapsed to using the word "review" for convenience, but it's clear that there's baggage to that word -- that a review needs to be a certain way to certain people. I hope the word "engages" opens up the possibilities of responding to and talking about poetry in the future.

Personally, I think this writer put in a lot more than "little effort" in this review.

When a writer reveals uncertainty or confusion or something less definitive than the conclusive in writing about poetry, I don't necessarily think that to mean less critical rigor.


At 12:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's really wierd to me to think of how the internet and email have changed book reviews. In the old days, people wrote reviews and the chips fell where they might. (I wrote reviews for long time, and finally quit because the lack of pay -- although Michael Palmer did use something I wrote for a blurb.) When I reviewed Kate Greenstreet's book, the publisher wrote into comment on my review over something small-- it wasn't even a critism! --I love Kate's book. I also love GR, but in my mind a book review should not be a collabortive effort. Someone takes a lot of time to write a review -- they and the magazine's editor -- like it or not -- have given the reviewer a certain amount of authority. It is innappropriate for others -- certainly the publisher or writer to respond. If you have your opinion, get off your lazy butt and write your own damn review! And I would encourage Eileen not to post comments -- well except this one!

At 12:37 PM, Blogger EILEEN said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 12:40 PM, Blogger EILEEN said...

So, this publisher is obviously commenting...

I hear ya on people getting off their own butts to write their own reviews.

I also think, this is the internet context/ blog context...and the blog "form" is part of how I -- as publisher-- had envisioned GR to work out. And the Comment function is part of the form.

But obviously, while I am very open to "reviews" including those written in the manner of the "old days," I'm also open to other types of engagement.

If there's a policy I have, it's a reluctance to post Anonymous comments -- but I break that guideline now and then if there's a reason (for me, the first Commenter touched on a larger issue, as this discussion evinces, than JMS' snark).


At 7:17 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Yeah. I tried to comment yesterday too but it didn't go through. I said something like-

After I write a review I like to semi set it aside and tweak it a bit. This one got less and less "professional" the more I played with it and I like how it ended up. The idea was to convey my sense of the book's tone and playfulness. Maybe I was successful and maybe not but... When I drive I follow the runs. When I do my taxes I follow the rules. When I write I am NOT about to start following anyone's rules.

Ugg. I'd much rather be talking about the book itself...


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