Paradise Drive by Rebecca Foust. Winston- Salem: Press 53, 2015. 114 pages.
Poet Rebecca Foust’s latest collection, Paradise Drive, places her squarely in a distinguished line of English writers who have used their work to interrogate the human condition, to answer the question that the Puritans asked: “How can we be in this world and not be of it?”
Foust creates a protagonist, Pilgrim, who is the direct descendant of illustrious ancestors—St. Augustine, John Bunyan’s Christian, John Milton’s unnamed narrator (likely himself), John Berryman’s Mr. Bones, even more recently Brendan Kennan’s Guff—all on spiritual quests, journeys of souls trying to understand their places in a hostile world. This Pilgrim differs from her predecessors in outward appearances— she is a woman, she lives in a very wealthy community where appearances are all—but her quest is an age-old one. Foust’s multiple references to other writers and their texts serve to deepen her project (the Bible, William Blake, Anne Bradstreet, Anne Carson, Emily Dickinson, Arthur Rimbaud, Shakespeare, etc.). These are the “dark threads” that she refers to her in her title poem. Situating her poems within this wide tradition lets readers see how important Pilgrim’s journey is.
When we enter Pilgrim’s world of the one percent in Marin County, we are transported to the beginning of Dante’s Divine Comedy: “In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood.” We follow Pilgrim from her childhood in a dismal Pennsylvania mining and mill town to her current upper-class milieu, where she struggles to make sense of what she sees. In the opening poems, she is reduced to reading Ezra Pound’s Cantos in the bathroom, while a party rages around her. At one point, she finds another woman she can talk to, only to realize that she is talking to herself in a mirror.
The book’s second poem ends with “Her Quest,” while the third to the last poem is titled “The Quest.” Foust keeps no secrets: Pilgrim is searching. She searches through the detritus of her past and through the affluence of her current milieu: the wealthy seeking any thrill, the suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge, even Marin’s pampered dogs who get herbal shampoos and Rolfing. In Foust’s version of Pilgrim’s Progress, Marin becomes the Slough of Despond, and its Bentleys, white-toqued chefs, houses the size of the Queen Mary and serial sex are all for sale in this contemporary Vanity Fair.
Foust’s use of the sonnet sequence to structure her book, a format that adds tension to her easy conversational tone, allows her to enter into a conversation with the venerable sonneteers who have preceded her. The book adheres to the structural conventions of the sonnet sequence: although each poem could stand alone, together they create a powerful narrative. Most poems are fourteen lines, but Foust plays with rhythm and rhyme in a way that helps reinvigorate the form. I particularly liked her occasional use of the caesura in her final couplets to bury one of a rhyming pair of words in the middle of a line: “a land that’s charted. Even as a war / somewhere ends, another war has started” (“Teleology”). Her inventive use of rhyme varies from sonnet to sonnet, a device that keeps readers alert. Sometimes she uses exact rhymes (brush/ thrush, pray/today) but keeps the poems fresh by alternating these with off and slant rhymes (fun/brimstone, screwed/world). And, occasionally, she uses no end rhymes at all in final couplets (friends/Prius, her/that), all devices that keep readers off guard—and keep them reading. Overall, using the traditional form serves Foust well, as her sonnets help contain powerful emotions that might otherwise seem almost sensational.
Although her topoi are profoundly serious ones, she sometimes uses humor to vary her tone and keep her sequence fresh. At a yoga retreat, she “Watches the clock like an ADD kid.” A third of the way into the book, in “Party On,” Pilgrim decides she may as well accompany her wealthy degenerate companions to hell: “a place hotter than even L.A. or Vegas.”
Like Elizabeth Bishop, Foust makes home another important theme. Early in the book, she defines Pilgrim as a “seeker, someone who leaves her home.” She toggles between her childhood home and the Marin where she finds herself today, both places flawed. In her final reconciliation poems, it is by turning to the natural world that she is able to affirm both. In “Vernal,” the coal-mining town where she grew up now has a clear flowing river, and panthers; “small ponds well from the ground while we sleep.” Similarly, Marin in “If not, Winter” (title from a fragment by Sappho), smells of frangipani and sports grey gulls and parchment egrets. This poem’s final line, referring to the sculls on the water, encapsulates what this narrative has done: “looking back while drawn into the future.”
As the sequence unfolds, Pilgrim finally decides to confront herself: she considers other suicides but concludes that suicide—or even divorce—are not options. She has been depressed, drinking too much, her home rat-ridden, and she asks herself “What is the meaning of any refrain?” She thinks of her parents’ sad ends and of the children who need her. Finally, she goes to an A.A. meeting. In a vivid image (one of many in Paradise Drive), she reveals herself, pulling “from her clutch the small, silver knife / she’ll wield to lay herself wholly open / from mouth to crotch: one thin red, honest line.” Following this act comes personal salvation, and she takes her quest to New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where she learns of miracles.
Pilgrim now knows “That’s all we get: today.” So, the way to live in the world is just that: to live fully in the world. Her quest becomes a dance of joy, the dance of life that will end as her mother ended, “braced to her clenched core against death.” She will do what good she can and appreciate whatever beauty she can find. Paradise Drive ends with a nod to William Blake’s “Introduction” to Songs of Experience: “The watry shore / is giv’n to thee till the break of day.” At the end of her narrative, Pilgrim will live for “each flawed dawn,” an acknowledgement that, difficult though the world is, it is all we have. As contemporary Puritans, we must live in this world and try to transcend it through courageous acts of free will.
There is little fault to be found with this sonnet sequence, though I found that a couple of the sonnets seem peripheral to Pilgrim’s quest, notably the two in “Meanwhile Elsewhere.” The sonnet “Courtesy Flush,” an account of a soldier’s suicide, does link to other mentions of suicide, however. “Food, Not Bombs” also fits less clearly into the sequence, aside from the mention of Pilgrim’s children, who have become important to her quest for wholeness. The narrative line becomes strongest in the final section, “O Earth Return.”
Paradise Drive is an impressive achievement. Foust’s sonnet sequence alters a traditional form of Western literature, as her heroine relentlessly probes for truth in places where some might not think to look.