History of the Common Scale by Edward Foster
(Texture Press, 2008)
One of the first things to notice about Edward Foster’s History of the Common Scale, aside from the historically freighted, hauntingly bare photographs (including the cover) is the pervasive iambic norm. The first two quatrains of “J. in the Snow,” for example, consist of a hypometrical dimeter, two lines of trimester, hypermetrical dimeter, trimester, hypometrical trimester, monometer, and dimeter. Late in the poem, which includes stanzas of varying lengths, the poet throws in a pinch of tetrameter and pentameter.
Author of an important critical book on Black Mountain poetry and founder and editor of Talisman, a journal that supports innovative writing from various “camps,” Foster is no “new formalist.” Perhaps he practices what Charles Bernstein terms “nude formalism,” because his complex use of iambic measures makes the artifice anything but “natural” and unobtrusive, and the work’s narrative and lyric impulses are never transparent.
“Hanging On” is a lucid evocation of ecological doom couched in the tropes of a Greek epic. Here is the first strophe:
All around, the walls that line
our city start to break.
The deadly things pass through.
We have no children left.
There’s no concern for who comes first,
just us and all this poisoned air we drink
to hold us down as we hold it. (6)
The generalities in Foster’s discourse bespeak many Americans’ awareness that global warming, etc. is very menacing yet their ignorance of scientific particulars and what really needs to be done to avert catastrophe. While the absence of “children” could signify their voluntary departure from a city of elders, it could also mean that the kids have succumbed before the adults to “poisoned air.”
The poet goes on to speak of “the deadly things” breaking down the walls as “the forces at the gate,” and these “forces” defy the “struggle” to clean up the environment for nature’s, as well as our own, benefit: “The forces. . ./ have come to end our struggle/ in their name.” Pollution is now inseparable from nature, and it exceeds human technological power; thus, polluted nature as a personification rebukes those human beings who “hang on” to the seemingly noble goal of ecological reversal and to human survival. “The forces” mock any defiance of mortality as a collective gesture and thus create an implicit link between the fact of individual death and extinction of the species, the absolute “punishment” for “crimes against nature”:
They say we mustn’t say we disapprove
or want to stay. We’re not allowed to say
our time is not yet done.
Why should we care?
that everything must end.
Let poison reach us through these walls.
Be calm, let each of us be calm.
as if we’d really want
the forces at the gate
to be as honored
must say they were. (6)
According to the poem’s logic, honoring nature would consist of eliminating those (us!) whose conduct has undermined it; therefore, “we” do not really want nature “to be. . . honored,” no matter what “we” might say. So different from Al Gore’s pro-environment, pro-economic-growth pitch in An Inconvenient Truth, the insistence upon the world’s survival without human life includes a prohibition against our allegedly sealed, imminent collective fate. However, personification’s delivery of a set of commands is not enforceable, and lyric poetry (including much enviro poetry) almost always constitutes resistance to death. Only the thorough poisoning and death of the species can make the command real, and perhaps the implicit conflict between the commands and their defiance impels us to ponder the usefulness of the rhetorical of environmental uplift and of capitulation to inaction.
Amid the poems in A History of the Common Scale, “Acedia,” a remarkable short story, presents a character seeking a perfectly stable life through the practice of a seemingly rigid, transcendentalist philosophy derived from “Plato and Thoreau” (17). Foster’s narrative and descriptive economy and precision recall the style of Clarice Lispector, the great Brazilian short story artist. Living in “a quiet town,” Jonathan relies on “checks from his family trust” to spend most of his time at home in a quest to cultivate “stillness and calm.” His tries “to slow all of his feelings and actions,” to “focus on static ‘things’ and ‘thoughts’ and avoid society, where rules and behavior were continually evolving,” and this project stems from the connection of “change” and “death,” and a desire to “live forever” (18).
Though trying to shut the door on society as much as possible, Jonathan lets a woman named Brenda into his house, as he associates her with “essence, things as they are”; she seems “unfazed by feeling or thought,” able to remain “motionless as a mannequin,” even if he has left her alone “for an hour or more” (18). Brenda is very close to a female equivalent of Bartleby the Scrivener, but unlike the perplexed lawyer in Melville’s classic story, Jonathan is thoroughly in harmony with her, until he realizes that her company is extraneous: “. . . he could have all that Brenda offered him”—that is, nothing other than “being there”—“without having the person herself. Memory was all he needed” (18-19).
Foster’s third-person narrator presents Jonathan almost entirely as the character perceives himself, avoiding any temptation to criticize the man’s psychological makeup and philosophy: “He would not have called himself lazy. What he was doing was purposeful. It was a spiritual life. . . “ (19). The sympathy permitted for Jonathan’s position not only shows how useful it might be when applied in moderation but allows the seductiveness of its absolutism to work on the reader, and this inevitably alludes to the impact of elements of American transcendentalism on our mainstream culture. Also, I sense that Foster refuses to bring the plot of his story to the point where Jonathan’s illusions about his ability to avoid change (and thus to attain immortality) are severely tested, much less vanquished, because he is enabling the reader to fill in the blank of an ominous aftermath and thus arrive herself at a much more powerful critique of asocial transcendentalism than the writer’s obvious narrative posturing could supply.
The book’s penultimate poem, “Your Somewhat Symbolic Mind,” describes a character similar to Jonathan in his single-minded devotion to a way of living but different in other respects. This unnamed “man. . . / gardened, spent his life/ cultivating things his children/ might enjoy. Flowers/ blossomed everywhere” (30). At first, a “clear, transparent” “kindness in the children” seemed to result from his cultivation, but unfortunately, “he watched their anger grow.” With a style that is both elliptical (hence tautly suggestive) and simple, literal and “somewhat symbolic,” Foster conveys the father’s emotional vulnerability to this anger and the way neighbors have learned to stay away from him. He lucidly presents an understated entity in extremely understated language:
His walls were thin.
Car doors would slam.
People hurried by.
Now no one looks.
His secrecy is fragile after all.
He never banked on that. (30)
Although the gardener “banked on” solid growth of flowers and family alike, possibilities of sharing his bounty have evaporated, and the rude sound of children’s departure cannot be hidden from the neighbors. The concluding sentence, however, resists simple closure: “And now/ there’s nothing still/ within the branches/ in his garden/ but the air” (31). “Nothing still” could mean either “nothing remaining” or “everything in motion.” If we take the second, less obvious interpretation seriously, the movement could signify growth, since wind (”air”) does not move the flowers/fruit on the branches, but it could also suggest the motion of decay.
Have the gardener’s accomplishments succumbed to eventual neglect or blight or his own death, or do these achievements persist, even in his isolation, as the defiant fulfillment of a principle, despite the failure of its “somewhat symbolic” purpose? Is there still time for him to recognize that the development of a benevolent program for his family based on his own fixed assumptions of value was a misstep? Could he now perceive that ongoing dialogue with the children might establish a mutually acceptable framework of interaction, or must he be locked into a permanent stance? Linguistically based undecidability confronting us quietly at the end makes the poem more than an intriguing character study. Like various other poems in Foster’s collection, this one encourages us to think about the “history of the common scale” of relationships within families and communities.
Thomas Fink is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Clarity and Other Poems (Marsh Hawk Press, 2008) and two books of criticism. He is also co-editor of a 2007 collection of essays on David Shapiro. Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs published his chapbook, Generic Whistle-Stop, in 2009. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). Fink’s paintings hang in various collections.