Offcourse Literary Journal
ISSN 1556-4975 

MOM’S CANOE, by Rebecca Foust, Texas Review Press, Huntsville, Texas, 2008.

Reviewed by Ricardo Nirenberg



The place is the Alleghenies of Western Pennsylvania. In nearby Altoona, in better times, locomotives were built; about everywhere, bituminous coal was mined to feed the locomotives. Back then things must have seemed just as natural as they would always be.  When we open this chapbook, we are invited to “turn round and round and round and always see mountains.”  Three-thousand-footers—Blue Knob, Wopsononock, Brush, Davis and Lock—: they are still there, but not the jobs.  The men just hang around—

“Their coats
exhale wet wool and wood smoke,

“their feet beat a work boot tattoo; laid off,
laid off, laid off, the mines mined out
and the Railroad dead, engines rusted to tracks.”

It is the place of Foust’s childhood; from the cinders, the rust, and the snow turned black, old childish questions bubble up:

“—why the mountains come close
when it rains, what line divides false from true,
in what precise place do the mountains efface
into sky—indigo, violet, then blue?”

These poems by Rebecca Foust are very different from the ones in her previous chapbook, Dark Card, which I reviewed in this journal, and from her three poems in the same issue of Offcourse, #34.  In the earlier poems there is a charge of indignation at man and fate, reminiscent of the confessional poets; in the present ones I find a quieter passion, more observing or contemplating, something like a smile even though you are sad.  I imagine she is trying different voices; and (but it may be only my imagination, since I happen to be still resonating with the poems of Elizabeth Bishop) it seems to me I see in Mom’s Canoe Bishop’s influence.  This is particularly true in the poem “Things Burn Down,” roughly a villanelle that brings to mind Bishop’s “One Art”:

My parents wouldn't come back for damask
napkins or oysters in frilly white shells.
If you understand, you won't have to ask

how Gramma knew linen —soiled, in the wash
she took in each week, or why she had to sell
baked goods in the street off "white trash damask,"

yesterday's newspaper. Papap hauled ash
or laid brick; he was skilled with a trowel
but there was no work, understand? Don't ask

what keeps a man from filling his flask
with what he'd divined from the wells he'd drilled
with his own hands, or why Dad's damask

was a gray square he hacked on to clear ash
from his throat. Thick smoke from the papermill
all day and night, understand? No one asked

in those days if that shit could kill you. As track
spread in congeries from the repair yards, fields
disappeared. Cinder and soot, more soot—damask

was work in that town. Mom found a dog lashed
to a tree, starved to bone. Too many mouths to feed,
do you understand that? She didn't ask

for much more than Sears Roebuck placemats
and babies that lived. What Dad loved was bells
and sirens, to watch things burn down. Damask

is not what would bring my folks back. I'd guess
garage sales, four-alarm fire bells, red squalls
of new babies, maybe a Bratwurst and beer

served on an unfolded Altoona Mirror. Not damask,
not fingerbowls for Christ's sake. If you don't
get it by now, don't ask.


Yet there’s still a touch of fatalism in Foust’s voice.  One’s hardscrabble roots are impossible to escape,  You may try, but

“you’ll find yourself back
where you started, back home,
unable to refute the logic of blood and bone
you’ll slip, and pick up Velveeta
instead of brie.”

But isn’t that true of all of us, whether we come from Altoona, Pennsylvania, or from the land of Brie?  We all come from hardscrabble, if we scratch a bit.  The day Foust becomes convinced of this, her voice will become unforgettable.

Meanwhile, read Mom’s Canoe, by all means.


Rebecca Foust's poems appear in Issue 34. Her previous chapbook, "Dark Card", was reviewed by R. Nirenberg in the same issue.

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