Poetry Friday: “Mixed Company” by Brett Foster

lastsupperEach Friday at Good Letters we feature a poem from the pages of Image, selected and introduced by one of our writers or readers.

The much-beloved poet and teacher Brett Foster passed away earlier this week and so I’d like to dedicate “Poetry Friday” to his memory. Image published quite a few of Brett’s poems and the one I’ve chosen to talk about is “Mixed Company.” I chose it because while many of Brett’s poems exemplify an elegant formalism (in part deriving from his deep knowledge of Renaissance literature), this one shows him to be in a more informal, colloquial mood. With its short lines and dramatic soliloquy form, “Mixed Company” offers a vivid glimpse into the second chapter of the gospel of Mark. Like those medieval or Renaissance paintings that placed biblical stories in contemporary settings, this poem begins by talking about a coffee shop. There’s some fun as Brett plays with the meaning of the poem’s title (and don’t you just love “the ‘meh’ of our behaviors / or consistent confusions”?). Having disoriented us with the coffee shop reference, Brett suckers us in to the perspective of one of the disciples, who is grateful for the way Jesus accepts him (and his fellow “sinners”). The speaker realizes that something Jesus has told them might be considered insulting, but instead he finds it liberating. In Brett’s deft handling, simple language gains unexpected resonance and power: “I found / myself happy to be allowed /
to stay there.” I believe Brett did find a place to “stay” on this earth and I trust that he’s found it even more truly now.


—Gregory Wolfe

“Mixed Company” by Brett Foster

Mark 2

Meaning, not the fey name
of a coffee shop cheekily named,
but me and the sinners
(not “mixed” as in unlike things
commingling, but rather
the “meh” of our behaviors
or consistent confusions,
contradictions like breaking
news ongoing, over and over
with little new to report…)
as I was saying, me and sinners
and tax collectors, resorting
to the healer’s home most nights
since Levi from the tollbooth
introduced us all. That one night
he delicately explained how lately
the holier-than-thous
who police our community
were increasingly complaining
of our all hanging out.
We half expected to be gently
asked to leave at that point.
I mean, I think we would
have mainly understood it.
You’ll appreciate with me, then,
how surprised and pleased
we felt that this wasn’t
the case or the result
of his telling us this, not
at all. “It’s sick people who need
a doctor, not healthy ones,”
he said, smiling. Thinking
of it now, it’s sort of insulting,
but that’s not how we heard it.
They were comforting
words instead, and I found
myself happy to be allowed
to stay there, just nodding,
nodding vigorously,
at the sound of those words.


Brett Foster is the author of two poetry collections, The Garbage Eater (Triquarterly /Northwestern) andFall Run Road, which was awarded Finishing Line Press’s 2012 Open Chapbook Prize. A third collection,Extravagant Rescues, is forthcoming. His writing has appeared in Books & Culture, Boston Review, Hudson Review, Kenyon Review, Poetry Daily, Raritan, Southwest Review, and Yale Review. He teaches creative writing and Renaissance literature at Wheaton College.

Lucia Berlin: A Master of Catholic Fiction, Part 1

By Jenny Shank


In September, Lucia Berlin’s posthumous collection of selected short stories A Manual for Cleaning Women hit the New York Times Best Seller list for hardcover fiction.

Vice called Lucia Berlin “the greatest American writer you’ve never heard of.”

Marie Claire predicted that this “highly semiautobiographical collection will catapult [Berlin] into a household name.”

And John Williams wrote in the New York Times, “She put much of her roving, rowdy life onto the page in vivid stories that garnered the respect of a modest audience and now could be on the verge of making her posthumously famous.”

I count myself as part of that “modest audience” who was lucky to know Berlin and her work before her death in 2004. I met Berlin when she was my teacher in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Colorado, and I was immediately taken by her as a writer and as a person. [Read more...]

Life-Saving Moments of Art

Drawing of a nesting hen In August, the musical duo Alright Alright, composed of husband and wife Seth and China Kent, performed in our living room for their last house concert in a series of a dozen across the country.

As the musicians (described as “piano-based folk Americana with a healthy measure of art-song/cabaret”) set up their lighting and cigar-box guitars, a number of children played outside in a tree house garlanded with flowers. Cicadas electrified the maples. Adults drank cheap pinot and dipped pretzels in hummus. For many, the next day would be the first day of attending or teaching school. Already, it was a bittersweet, beauty-haunted evening.

And then the couple sang.

With her rich, soulful voice and his tender harmonies, China and Seth filled our small space with songs about quirky lovers, a dying father, child soldiers, and Mary, mother of Jesus. Our usually empty living room couch and chairs radiated with an unlikely assortment of friends and neighbors who just minutes before had been strangers. The immediate, shared intimacy of participating in this music together was palpable: communion, healing, and worship.

[Read more...]

I Found Him at Subway

By John Bryant

subwayI found him at Subway, an old man in a brown jacket, boots, jogging pants, standing in the small space between the table and deli counter.

He shut his eyes so he could hide himself under them, in a place where the cold and his age couldn’t find him. Eyes closed tight so he wouldn’t fall out of his eyes and land in the Subway, in his body, like a fish flopping in a bucket. There was no one else there. I stood in the silence he’d made in the room.

His face relaxed as he fell all the way into himself, the only place inside him that was bigger and quieter than the restaurant and his entire life. It was his peace.

He stood under a jet of warm air when the Subway heater came on. He lifted his face toward the ceiling as the warm air pulled the damp out of his coat and asked him gently to return to who he was when he was eighty and dirty and in a Subway. His lips searched the heat until they became a smile. He opened his eyes and found me looking at him. [Read more...]

Seeking Refuge

KK_Boat_Drop-OffI’d just put my two young sons to bed when I opened the computer to see the picture of Aylan. My sons are two and five, and the youngest has round soft legs, like Aylan, and little shoes, like Aylan. I saw the picture of Aylan and felt my blood go cold.

That day I had been humming through hymns in some music planning for our small startup Episcopal community in rural Washington. “We are one in the spirit, we are one in the Lord,” came to mind, an old camp song. Good energy for coming back together at the end of a summer. Now the music stopped.

One in the spirit and one in the Lord? I couldn’t get the picture out of my mind. How blind I was to God’s people struggling each day just to live? Aylan must have tussled and played with his older brother just like my little one, but his brother drowned too. Aylan’s mother must have tucked them both in the same way I tuck in my sons, until she drowned that same day. I started to feel desperate. “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” the hymn goes. How was I showing Christ’s love?

My feeling of discomfort grew. I emailed a friend who does overseas mission work, but she didn’t know a way to plug in directly. What if my family flew somewhere, worked in a camp? There were places to give, but that didn’t seem enough. We could take a family into our home, but the US has only permitted immigration to 1,500 Syrian refugees. [Read more...]