All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song by Rebecca Foust

Many Mountains Moving Press, 2010
Poets are exhibitionists, lifting layer upon layer of experiences to reveal the true nature of things: the curve of candor, the heavy flesh of hope, the mole of happiness. The greater the intimacy created by the poet, the greater the readers—voyeurs at heart—relish in the gems unveiled. A truly confessional book in which the authors lays bare, Rebecca Foust’s All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song invites readers into her intimacy, leaving them yearning for more.

The first, and strongest, part of the book explores Foust’s roots in the railroad and coal mining town of Altoona. Focused and solid, part one scrutinizes the past she wants to leave, but can’t. From the very beginning, with “Altoona to Anywhere,” the collection’s introduction, Foust addresses the reader (“Go ahead, aspire to transcend/your hardscrabble roots, bootstrap/the life you dream on”), deflecting the uniqueness of her experience and making it general.

Both personal and universal, her poems gives readers hooks on which they can tether their own experience, particularly the poems regarding her parents who are a part of her despite, or because, they are small-town folk: “You’re my soul’s/phantom limb” she writes in “Mineshaft Memory.” The portrait of her mother (“Family Story Told to Fourth Child”) is especially poignant:

            She wept like she lived,
       and when the drops bloomed on the gray wool
       of her dress, she looked up at the changing room
       ceiling, expecting to find rain.

Though some confessional poetry can rely more on personal than literary qualities, Foust’s All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song—winner of the 5th MMM Press Poetry Book Competition—offers up wonderful images and solid lines whose rhythm and literary value are indisputable.

Winter’s white bowl piles drift upon drift,
the air a thin gruel the men sip, waiting
for Blue Law noon. Their coats exhale wet wool

and wood smoke, their feet beat a work boot tattoo:
laid off, laid off, laid off
(“Allegheny Mountain Bowl”)

Wild woodland flower found
pushing through humus
in moss and fern fen. Rare,
lucent and cave-dwelling fish.

Pale, cool glow, something
hothouse or orchid or mushroom
that melts at touch
or in too much sun—your skin
(“Indian Pipe”)

Her mastery of sound and rhythm smoothly pulls readers from one poem to the next. Distance in time and space alone could have allowed Foust to write such mature and sure-handed poems.

In the second and third part of the book, Foust opens up about her marriage and children: miscarriages, an autistic son, communication problems, then hope and renewal. But as her biography becomes more recent, her poems don’t feel as focused. Whereas the first part was as tight-knit as a family can be, the second part expands and includes poems about Elfriede Rinkel (“A Kilogram of Salt”) and Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog (“Herzog Out-takes”). Though these poems maintain Foust’s questioning on the difference between what is true and what is false (“what line divides false/from true, in what precise place do the mountains/efface into sky—indigo, violet, then blue?”), these poems stand out. They break the rhythm of the book as a whole, taking readers out of their precious intimacy with Foust.

The deep rapport Foust creates between readers and poems makes of All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song a book to discover and savor.

MÉLANIE GRONDIN is a writer, reviewer and translator whose work has appeared in Room, Nashwaak Review and other literary magazines. Mélanie is also Managing Editor at Rover Arts and Associate Editor at the Montreal Review of Books.