Lawrence Tjernell is an editor and publisher. He originated the independent small-press publishing company Longship Press and has recently released poetry collections and the literary journal Nostos, an author-forward print publication of poetry, short fiction, and art. He has retired his marking pen, used for thousands of student essays and literary analyses over the years, and he has stepped away from the lectern of his literature courses at California State University San Jose and College of Marin. Current publishing projects include a poetry chapbook, a collection of poetry and photography, and a memoir.
After the Detonation:
Poetry of The Unexploded Ordinance Bin
by Lawrence Tjernell
The undertoad — that dark, secreted, and silent force in John Irving’s The World According to Garp — has emerged anew in Rebecca Foust’s latest poetry collection, The Unexploded Ordinance Bin (Swan Scythe Press, 2019). For Irving, the undertoad is the misconstrued name for the undertow, the ever-threatening sea current, and by extension the ever-threatening malign force that feeds on and feeds our angst. For Foust, it is a steel bin containing the small bombs and spent rockets and mortars found in the sea sand by children, and by extension the potential energy of grief, of violent change. In this bin are bombs that can lead to a “spectacular dismemberment of the future.”
For Foust, that steel bin might be a repository “for the safe disposal of genes / that can ruin children ….” This is a bin of dark quiescent power ready to explode not when you least expect it but when you don’t expect it at all and go about life “as if it weren’t going to blow all to hell / any second all those bright dreams / lit up like tracer fire ….”
The Unexploded Ordinance Bin is poetry about children and about mothers, about sons and realized daughters, about the children alone navigating hostile paths toward new life across borders. It is about expectations unrealized, and the dismay, the hurt, and the guilt that results when that quiescent bin of assumptions explodes. And it’s about seeking redemption, the floundering, grasping, clueless desire to accept grace and to surrender.
This book is a collection of 30 poems divided unequally into three numbered sections. While each poem is a masterfully crafted piece that can be read out of sequence, the entire collection realizes the form of a single poem composed of 30 “verses” that should be heard first to last. The collection has a unifying sound, a kind of music like that of a three-movement sonata. The sound of the first movement is the voice of a mother whose child is autistic:
For a long time there was no breath or cry.
When finally he spoke,
He spoke the wide, whorled leaves of corn.
He spoke the crickets
In clusters beneath the sheaves, he sang
the soil in. He sang the wind …
This section ends with a poem entitled “First Gratitude,” a poem that exults in the comparatively greater ability of the son to speak: “Our son speaks. He talks, we talk.” This poem fully reveals the mother’s desperate grasp of anything that can mitigate the confusion and fear. This exploded bin has harmed this son less than it has others: “He has all of his fingers. On both of his hands.” This poem makes audible a mother’s unselfconscious gratitude that things aren’t as bad as they are for others.
Part Two (or the second movement) gives voice again to mothers and children, but now of mothers whose children alone face a hostile and lethal path from home to a new life. Here is the nine-year-old boy who, unaccompanied, crosses the border in the desert along the Devil’s Highway; here are the Yuma 14 who lost the way and died of unimaginable thirst. And a boy
made a neat stack of his clothes, and at dawn
he lay down. He burst like a ripe sunset, a plum.
This second part is an adagio of the brutality and indifference faced by mothers and children not only here working for our families but also those reaching our borders, those tortured in Syria, those martyred in Palestine. The poem “Iconostasis” forces the reader to look behind the screen and to see the tortured boy, the inspection of the body
by the latex-gloved hand, water poured past all thirst.
For the gloved hand,
the pale, powdery fingers of a terrible angel. For each
the petal of a dark rose. For his voice calling his mother,
the single note of a thrush.
In the third and final movement, we hear the voice of a mother grappling with the separation from her son due to his transition into her daughter.
he (who no longer is) said
the words like he meant them a new child born
when s/he severed family
(specifically me) at times like she’s
gnawed off her own (or was it my) arm to be free.
Here are the notes of sorrow and regret but also of surrender. This part ends with a poem entitled “Second Gratitude,” a poem in a voice of exquisite fear and love and acceptance. This poem contains one of the most successful and joyful similes for love that I’ve encountered for a very long while. The child is
loved the way the cabbage
in my garden near-inverts itself, splayed
to catch each last ray of sun. And how
the feeling furling-in only makes the heart
more dense and green.
Rebecca Foust has created a master collection that not only displays raw apprehension, discomforting but honest motivation, and flawed but earnest yearning for grace, but also displays her deft touch with the craft of poetics. Among the many poems of enjambed two-line stanzas are beautiful sonnets and villanelles, old forms that are brought to graceful and modern uses.
Grace is a word, an idea, that appears often in this writing, as does the act of foundering, as does the specter of Lady Lazarus. This is a serious collection, not for the faint of heart but for the reader who seeks and will recognize — through uncompromising and loving sound — a truth.