I received a copy of Rebecca Foust’s 2015 volume Paradise Drive from Poetic Book Tours after agreeing to participate in the tour. This volume is a sonnet series dramatizing the spiritual journey of a “Pilgrim” whose paradise and slough of despair both appear to be located in Marin County, California.
On my first reading, I was a bit put off by what seemed an overused approach to criticism of the wealthy-and-therefore-facile by the protagonist who thinks she is special because she’s a reader:
“Cowed by all those straight white teeth,
Pilgrim ran for the bathroom, not for coke
as others supposed, but for something
more covert and rare: a book”
But as I re-read the poems and thought more about them as a series, Pilgrim’s sense of humor and occasional willingness to hoist herself on her own petard began to win me over. At one party, she comes out of the bathroom:
re-reading a page before flipping him off,
then returns to the party. It’s still there.
She wants someone to talk to. Enough
of the holier-than-thou crap, now where
was that Beat Poet they said was a guest?”
At another party (why does she accept all these invitations, we wonder), Pilgrim meets “someone you like, very much.” Someone who can “talk books,/politics, not just little Cromwell’s score/on the PSAT.” And then in the twelfth line of the sonnet, before a final rhyming couplet, Pilgrim realizes she’s looking into a mirror.
If that’s not enough to restore the reader’s good humor, the titles of the poems go a long way towards establishing perspective, with the fourth one about being in the bathroom during a party entitled “You-Know-Where Again.” Even in the allusively-titled “Nuns Fret Not,” Pilgrim has to note that “her cot has, after all, got this very nice mattress/ and custom duvet.”
After skewering the party guests by associating them with the seven deadly sins, Pilgrim admits that “her private, pet bête-noire” is “the fear of falling/in love with it all.” Thus paradise becomes despair.
Pilgrim doesn’t leave it at that; her two most explicit answers are in the poems “How Then Shall We Live?” and “How to Live, Reprise.” Her use of allusion, however, becomes a kind of answer in itself. In “I’ll Burn My Books,” Pilgrim’s repentance is ironic, as the phrases she needs rise unbidden to her brain: “bitter began to hurt her again,/scorn burned her tongue.”
The quest, Pilgrim admits:
“was a metaphor, of course
–it could mean abroad in a world
where May keeps blooming
right through one’s own fall—but also:
just asking the questions.”
The questions she raises along the way become the best parts of this volume. My favorite sonnets in the series are the “Real Housewives.” First comes “Stepford Wives Theme Party” which begins “in a parody of a parody inside a parody,/we played charades” and ends with:
“Funny at first,
the film featured full skirts topped in chiffon
sheer over bras built by an engineer
who also built rockets nearly as easy to wear.
Watching the wind lash the house on the screen,
we each thought the same thought: I’m not that girl.
But when the door blew open, we all felt the chill.”
Then comes “Hard to Entertain,” which ends with this matchless couplet:
“The pride masquerading as mean.
The hunger, always though-the-fuse green.”
Allusion, in Paradise Drive, is given power by its unexpectedness, its off-the-cuff-ness, and, most of all, its inevitability. Pilgrim’s life is permeated with books, and her contribution to the world, however much she would have liked it to be political, was always going to be the way she can give back what she has read, her own mix of bird-dog with rag-and-bone shop, of “shade-undrawn dawn” in a world “gray with children.”