Brett Foster is an academic poet. By this I don’t simply mean his work is difficult—which sometimes it is—but that his poems are often concerned with academic interests. For example in his poem “Tea with Mr. Milton,” Foster imagines meeting John Milton and discussing such things as Milton’s pamphlet Aeropagitica—which opposed the censorship of printed material. I suppose I now should go back to the original source material.
The next poem, “Rondeau for Platinus” (which isn’t strictly a rondeau, although close), is about a third-century Greek philosopher (whom, I admit, I’ve never read) and his student Porphyry (whom I’ve also not read). As I read, and Google, and read again, I find Foster’s poetry begins to unfold.
The reality is, Brett Foster’s poems demand context. Whether he’s writing from the point of view of a member of a California cult, or about a relief pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, or inspiring us to further investigate Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh or Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, we get the feeling of being outsiders listening to an insider. Fortunately, The Garbage Eater does include some helpful endnotes. In these days of the Internet, of course, it’s easy to follow a path toward anything else you want to know—and become an insider too.
The language is tight and precise, and often musical. In “To the Author of How to Be a Successful Artist,” he says:
Ah, you must shine like a knife and be as keen
to puncture their hermetic questioning,
to best every great aesthete that’s ever been!
So then, please explain: what exactly does it mean?
This, his first poetry book, begins with reflections on Foster’s coming of age—including a school trip to Manhattan, and watching Johnny Carson with his father—then transitions to many of the fascinations of his adult life. By the end, he’s observing changes in his own children and reflecting on such things as the vanishing Ash Wednesday smudge on his forehead.
This is poetry for the digital age. Rather than transporting us to Wendell Berry’s pastoral scenes, Foster takes us to Stanford’s Computer Science Building. Foster lives in a world where you check e-mails on your laptop—yet he reflects: “Blessed / are the ones who can love the earth they inherit.” Hey, Brett, I’ll accept your blessing, for as I read, I find this beatitude applies to me—and I see it applies to you too.
The Garbage Eater by Brett Foster (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2011)
D.S. Martin is a Canadian whose poetry has appeared in Anglican Theological Review, Canadian Literature, Christianity & Literature, and Ruminate's Issue 18: Sound & Silence. His poetry collections include: So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon) and Poiema (Wipf & Stock). View his blog about Christian poetry at: www.kingdompoets.blogspot.com.
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