on Disposable Camera, poems by Janet Foxman (University of Chicago Press)

In their new book Jews and Words, the Israeli novelist Amos Oz and his historian daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger suggest that the Bible’s Song of Songs may have been written by a woman. “Everyone knows the Bible and its language are deeply patriarchal,” they write, “but why does the same biblical Hebrew become almost feminist when it feels like it?” Nevertheless, when it comes to Ecclesiastes, they “wager this is a male text. The languor and world-weariness, the luxurious despair coupled with blasé entitlement, are masculine.”

FoxmanDemeter.jpegReally? The sorrowful female archetypes, biblical and classical, persist in despondency. Demeter says: “If that’s how it’s going to be, then may the earth be barren,” and it was. There’s an upside to the infertility, of course, but her desolation is permanent.

Although both fully vested in tradition and obstinately committed to the moment, a woman’s poetry of bleakness is often subjected to misreadings (that barely muffle their resentment, fear, narrow tastes, or envy). In our time, she and her work may be tagged as “depressive,” “repressed,” “airless” and “narcissistic.” But the poet isn’t an archetype. She is just someone eating leftovers for lunch who makes poems that heighten the effects of a primordial blighted response brought to common speech. An ancient art.

There is no mistaking the tone of Janet Foxman’s poetry in Disposable Camera, a first collection rich with griefs and gripes. It begins by taking a swipe at that mythological nemesis, Dad:

NEW HOUSE

Dad who thinks life is a paper bag
Gets heavier and heavier
You hold until the bottom drops out

Says make me a poem that starts sad
And ends happy
Nobody’s ever done that before

He’s never read the one about dead people
Shining in paradise and the light reaching them
Out of colanders almost

Today he says his new house is like being
On vacation every day
That he sleeps like a baby

That the boxwood under his window
Is so pretty you want to pee in your pants
That he is happy all the time

FoxmanCam1.jpgThus, Disposable Camera is designed to make dads happy in a slant way, if they will only listen. David Rosenberg, whose biblical translations appear in The Poet’s Bible: Rediscovering the Voices of the Original Text (Hyperion, 1991), says of Ecclesiastes, “In its ceaseless ebb and flow, its unmasking of clichés and conventional wisdom, the poem depicts the process of awareness itself … We are left with a feeling of elation, just as we would be after an effective blues.” The speaker of “New House” is prickly about Dad’s clichés (“sleeps like a baby … pee in your pants”) and the heft of his happiness. But the lithe and diverting ebb and flow of Disposable Camera is designed to give us a shot at wistfully comic elation.

The second poem, “The Orchestra,” establishes the book’s playfulness and begins its jestful brooding about performance and the making of art. “A lady in the orchestra had a cello / with a dark and thuddy sound,” and though the instrument was remade to produce “the tone of the Italian / golden period -- a miracle,” she preferred the original “crappy instrument.” That dark and thuddy sound is also Foxman’s unsweetened signature. As the book proceeds, her sardonic speaker gets punchy here and there about conventionality – but Disposable Camera doesn’t exploit the charms of a churlishly novelistic personality. Quite the opposite happens: the harshness seems to dissolve in its own dim effervescence. The speaker remains at arm’s length – her pique is personal, but her person is an untextured rhetorical surface, more or less like the output you get from a disposable camera.

DISPOSABLE CAMERA

To a disposable camera I have confined the paradise
where my sister lives –

palisades, sycamores. Sunbathers mistaken for statuary.
People with shears, shrubbery cut into sea creatures.

Lemon trees bloom in front of houses.
Trophy wives escort children through mazes of palm trees.

In the shadows of palms the children paw their toys delicately
while the youngest one rides his plastic motorcycle towards his mother

with a confidence so absolute, so heartbreakingly
beautiful, everybody at the pier

hopes nothing will ever humiliate it, that it will persist
after the camera runs out of film.

FoxmanCamBaby.jpg“Trophy wives” are easy targets. In fact, the wholesale selling out of the neighborhood is a sweeping cheap shot. The one who confines is also confined; with her shears she trims those females into caricatures. The severe art of cutting-down-to-size imposes a grim limit on the artist. The pleasures of insult amount to nothing, just like the vanity of everything else. Strange, isn’t it, that my pleasure in reading the poem is permanent. “Disposable Camera” is a sort of caustic paraphrase – and in a poem that follows, “Seven Ways of Paraphrase,” Foxman writes, “With the minutiae of paraphrase our mirrors / mock us.”

FoxmanPause.jpgIn a later ekphrastic poem, “The Pause,” Foxman meditates on the figure of an artist at work on a balcony in Tilo Baumgärtel’s charcoal of that title: “Do the images now seem irredeemably modest, / impotent like the dragon that goes down / Jinan Street at New Year?” While counter-balancing the poems’ accusative stabs, these implied self-deflations aren’t intended to resolve the book’s tensions. Until the final poem, even as she repeats certain gestures, her mode is to relax (or belittle) the desire for uplift while aerating the reader’s frustration with the lightness of humor and wordplay.

MOUTHS: IN THEIR OWN WORDS

Gum Chewer

Xyllilphl phflul phchlylhiul
hubba bubba.

My Dad’s Mouth

WHAT in the
HELL?

Joey Buttafuoco’s Wife’s Mouth

I got crooked
when she got shot

Phone Sex Operator’s Mouth

Pussy and cock
just roll off the tongue.

Sick Person’s Mouth

O my God, I say,
when the head I live in turns green.

FoxmanCamBar.jpgThe clinching feature of Disposable Camera is the alternating rhythm of its ordering. The finger-pointing (“I know your type”) gives way to multi-part poems of seemingly offhand observation or memory, followed by a poem on art, or a poem comprising a slender anecdote. There are even micro-bursts of unoriginal, sententious outrage that click anyway in Foxman’s droll context, such as “Trust,” a section of an abecedarian poem “Hermit’s Glossary”: “Shame on you to test, / after throwing crumbs, / the bird’s credulity / with stones.” All of this variety, shrewdly paced out, suggests how the poet (despite the poems’ protestations and doubts) is working diligently to find a use for disenchantment – namely, to enchant.

In the final poem, “Tableau,” “a woman is framing her lover / In the eye of a camera,” perhaps a disposable one. It concludes:

The fullness that picture will commemorate
Is so natural it looks otherworldly –

From the lover’s side a stranger enters
To spoil the frame and startle the image back into real time.

In ones and twos toward the metal benches
And willows by the river
The people looking on disband.

Foxman.jpgThere is fullness – but it takes ruination of the “natural” image to land startled in “real time.” Foxman’s terms are binary: either paradise (“Beauty nobody gets to have when they’re / not here, but that is theirs”) or reconciliation with real time. But it’s not easy, especially not for the speaker of these poems, otherwise why would she be bothering? David Rosenberg’s Ecclesiastes includes these lines: “Your vision will serve to remind them / you aren’t eating your heart away / in feasts of gratitude or envy / but opening it / to the face of loss / all must wear / and all will remember your presence.”

[Published January 14, 2012. 73 pages, $18.00 original paperback]

wonderful first book

this collection is what first books try to be but usually aren't
you know you're seeing something original
you want to know what she will do next time
funny in a weird way as if she's part of the thing she mocks but she's not self-mocking in the usual way
everything becomes an uneasy blur

Airless?

If I'm not mistaken, William Logan once called Louise Gluck's poetry "airless." That always bothered me. Dumb description, since poetry is all about breath.