We pass into this world at birth. We pass out of it at death. And in between: holiness and horrors. This is probably the largest of themes that a poet could take on, and in “Intercession: For My Daughter” Brett Foster wraps his mind and language around it with consummate craft. First, to keep us grounded, there’s the reassuring pentameter beat. Then the three-line stanzas hold the expansive topic in a visual shape. And throughout: wordplay and stunning line-breaks elaborate the theme of our many “passings.” In stanza 1, the play with “helpful / and perfect, perfectly helpless.” In stanza 2, the play with “just being, / in being known.” “Still” in stanza 5 plays a double role: at line’s end it’s an adjective meaning quiet (“long and still”); but swept down into the next line it’s an adverbial “still / not length enough.” There’s more of this reverberating richness, but I want to point finally to the way the poem’s end (“The only place, this passing. There are so many”) circles back to its beginning (“There pass so very many”). Look at what Foster manages to do with the simple word “many”: there are so many passings, so many ways we pass into and through and beyond this life; and “so very many” of us enact these passings. All of us, in fact.
There pass so very many. Ones who come
through original darkness to join us here, helpful
and perfect, perfectly helpless like yourself.
These No People made holy just being,
in being known at all, as your recent heart
whose blue knee will genuflect for x many years.
If only to end the bending took one shape only.
No stillborn or tornado victim sleeping, to-do list
found the next week stuffed in a squirrel hole.
Nor steady drip that forms the most primitive
of timepieces. Fluid ceasing, then the alarm: No
more cotton-gowned invalid’s middle way.
Unsuspecting little girl, may this world be always
too small for you, your last days long and still
not length enough. Differ from me, so often paralyzed
by how to fill another thousand hours. Never valiant,
but not the worst reply to living, either. Improve
my stewarding. Love the boredom and the grace you’re given.
Bless those born today, pray the infant congregations.
Bless those this day who will die, chant the dying.
The only place, this passing. There are so many.
Poet and Renaissance scholar Brett Foster earned his BA at the University of Missouri, MA at Boston University, and PhD from Yale University. His first collection of poetry, The Garbage Eater (2011), was a finalist for a Drake University Emerging Writer Award and was selected for the Debut Poets feature in Poets & Writers magazine.He also published the chapbook Fall Run Road (2011). In an interview, Foster noted the role of the spiritual or religious in his work: “poetry is for me…a place to work out ideas, sure, but more centrally the heart’s matters, the cries of the heart—those things that the mind would deign to ponder, or might be confounded by. That’s poetry’s forge, and when it’s most exciting and satisfying (on poetry’s own terms, I mean), it’s a place that is free, open, safe, and surprising. Poems aren’t catechisms. They are, in their insights and vulnerabilities, better than that.” Foster’s creative work frequently includes references to his scholarly pursuits; he has written on Donne, Shakespeare, and Renaissance-period Rome. His editing projects and works of scholarship included Shakespeare’s Life (2012), Shakespeare Through the Ages: The Sonnets (2009), Shakespeare Through the Ages: Hamlet (2008), and Rome(2005). Foster was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and taught at Wheaton College in Illinois. He died in 2015 at the age of 42.
The above image is by waferboard, used with permission under a Creative Commons license.