The Unexploded Ordnance Bin (Rebecca Foust)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

Note from the Editor: Issues arise in this review that may prove disconcerting to some of our readers. First, both author and reviewer reference the poetic protagonist’s two offspring. One of these now-adult children is referred to as a son, both past and present; one is described as a son in the past and a daughter in the present. We at Wordgathering do not know how the author’s adult children self-identify, what pronouns they use, what their narratives are of their own lives, or if they may have been labeled or misgendered in the past or present. Second, disability is used as a metaphor in some of the poetry. Some people in the Disability Rights and/or Autistic Rights Movements (neither is monolithic) may object to the “time bomb” metaphor referring to Autism—its allegedly genetic predisposition and potential “explosion.” In honoring Foust’s right to her own poetic style, experiences, opinions, and observations, we do not intend to minimize the power of language, its associations, and/or its history and currency for others. We are committed to creative expression while acknowledging that some works we publish, including this one, may contain content that some readers may find challenging or troubling.

With the appearance of Dark Card (reviewed for Wordgathering in 2008), Rebecca Foust set off in a direction almost uncharted in poetry. She spelled out the reality of raising an Autistic son, taking to task the attitudes of the medical establishment, the unwillingness of educators to provide for him, and her label as a “refrigerator mom.” She also established her credentials as a poet to be reckoned with. Now, a dozen years and several poetry books later, with the publication of The Unexploded Ordnance Bin, Foust has returned to the landscape that set her on her career path. In this latest offering, her growth as a poet is on full display.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, Foust immediately re-establishes the connection to Dark Card with the initial poem, “Autism,” reviving memories of herself as a new mother. In the next poem, “Perseid,” she announces the time jump: “He is grown now, with a beard. The astral map in pieces.” Against referencing the fears she had that her son might not survive to adulthood, she adds ironically, “Boys/ he knew in school come home from Iraq/ without legs.” With the third poem, the title poem, Foust sets up one of the book’s main images. “The Unexploded Ordnance” is the bomb ticking in the very structure of her son’s genes:

it’s too small to be seen
the gene causing autism      but I imagine it
anyway with snub nose & fins
& powder waiting to dry       first words
blown off & away like the fingers
of that Oregon boy

The reader also starts to realize the connections that Foust is making among the poems, the way the ordnance links to the boys in Iraq, and the astrological imagery that moves from her son’s fascination with astronomy as a child, to the torn map, to the bomb’s explosion that foreshadows the book’s third section:

all those bright dreams
lit up like tracer fire
over the dark dunes    like the Perseids
only not at all    like the Perseids

A further succession of eight poems in this first section continue to demonstrate Foust’s technique of linking one poem to the next through a reference or one-line image. The beginning poem in the sequence, “spec house foundation cut into ridge,” drops a brief mention of deer “shy as my fey boy” then continues on into the next poem describing deer hit in an automobile accident to a “lovely lithe” boy killed by a hit and run driver, and finally to her own son in surgery in “Head Injury Odyssey.” The first section ends, as the poems title “First Gratitude” suggests in thanks:

He speaks. He holds a pen. He understands.
He has all of his fingers. On both of his hands.

With the book’s second section Foust pivots from poems that relate principally to personal and family experience to those that explore current cultural and social issues. Among those issues are American immigration policy, destruction of the environment, and the war in Syria. As in the previous section there is a linkage of poems. In the first poem, “Miguel,” Foust’s thoughts jump from the nine year old son of the undocumented worker who cleans her house to the realization that in Nazi Germany her own son would have been rounded up as “mentally impaired” and euthanized. She’s seen photographs of Dachau from her father who was an army medic there:

with villagers milling around
dressed as I might dress to run errands:
comfortable, practical, warm. Their tidy homes
were about as close to the camp
as the ICE Deportation Center in the town
next to mine.

The poem grapples with her own complicity as a member of a society that tolerates the current administration’s treatment of other human beings.

The second section also gives Foust a chance to explore her ability with poetic form. In “Little Brown Bat,” a tri-part poem, she uses the repetition of the words “That you” at the beginning of each line of the first stanza to render it as a series of evidence in a court room defense with the bat as a victim. The second stanza switches to a much more lyric mood, one that describes events in a cave where the bats are being destroyed by a fungus that is carried into the cave and spread by researchers who have come to study it. Then again, in the third stanza, the poet returns to the use of the “that you” framework, this time bringing in analogies of the mother bat and her child to the author and her son and the migrant mother and her son. Interestingly, though, while the poem ends in accusations against us as a society for doing nothing–we are all found guilty–no solution is offered or even implied.

Foust’s versatility as a writer is on display again in “the dream act is revoked,” a poem framed as a rambling outpouring of frustration over U.S. policy that is, in fact, a carefully choreographed work. The lack of capitalization (even in the title), the absence of periods, the spatial pauses between clusters of words and the use of ampersands for “and” all rally to give the poem the façade of lack of control. This is particularly effective in the last two lines: “&people are people are people are people/ are
people all ready beginning to disappear” where the frustrated repetition of a platitude becomes transformed into a statement of fact signified by the omission of “people” among the last few words.

Also contributing to the mood of the poems are the flippant us of the expression “oh right” and the quotation marks reflecting the air quotes dismissively used around words in conversation. Even more than the previous poem, “the dream act revoked” is an acknowledgement of the feeling of helplessness the writer has to effect any change:

                           …what can I do
pick fruit for a pie             sweep the floor
feed the dog    call my reps   send emails
knit a hat   go to a march   write this dumb poem

It is in the volume’s third section that the full meaning of the book’s title becomes apparent and that many of the hints dropped along the way take on greater meaning. These begin quietly enough in the first section’s first poem, “Dolphin.” As in several of the previous poems, Foust compares her own experiences as a mother who cares for her child with those of a mothering animal. But these seemingly naturalistic analogies begin to break when the reader comes to the lines:

in time you and I

moved like that what matter that
you    my son    then

now    my daughter    on the beach

The import of this seeming confusion comes into much sharper focus in what could be a continuation of these lines in the poem “Free”:

were knitted up in (what I thought was)

love    he (who no longer is) said
the words like he meant them    a new child born
when s/he severed family

(specifically me)    at times like she’s
gnawed off her own (or was it my) arm    to be free

The remainder of poems in the book’s final section unpack the range of emotions that Foust, as a mother, experiences in the realization that her son is now a daughter. She incorporates the language of death and rebirth, of Lady Lazarus, and a phoenix rising from the ashes. Her sonnet “Prodigal” puts a new and ironic interpretation on the old parable about a son who leaves and returns transformed.

Foust does not spare herself in the poem or in the nature/nurture debate. In some poems, she returns to the unexploded ordnance bin hidden in her own DNA that she has somehow passed on to her child. In other poems, the poet looks back at the times she dressed her son in blue or thought about her expectations of him as a boy growing into a man. The irony is double here because, in the book’s first section, as she did in Dark Card, Foust makes a point of not holding him to the standards of a “normal” boy, both accepting and relishing her son for what he was. Nevertheless, loss of her own image of her son is one that she had to struggle to accept. Now, she is the one who has to be taught: “…come in sit with me, eyes meeting mine/while you teach me the pronouns.”

It is difficult to overstate the power of the poems as they build and double back on themselves in this final section. I can’t imagine any parent reading them without finding themselves confronted with their own biases, reservations, fears or limitations. I do wish that Foust had not included “Sufferance,” a didactic poem that seems to lecture the reader on the biases against transgender individuals. Not only is it unnecessary, it breaks the intimate mood that she has established with her readers and the nuanced approach that makes this entire third section of the book such a tour-de-force.

One of the many pleasures of The Unexploded Ordnance Bin is that while it avails itself of the themes the poet addresses in Dark Card, there is no rehashing the same themes, no poetic doppelgangers. She has merely set her previous work as base camp and moved on. The result is a familiarity that manifests itself in new discoveries. Even so, absolutely no knowledge of Foust’s previous work is necessary to approach this book. We are fortunate that disability poetry seems to be moving into something of golden age when there are so many new and exciting works to check out. When it comes to single author poetry books that I would recommend, The Unexploded Ordnance moves right to the top of the list.

Title: The Unexploded Ordnance Bin
Author: Rebecca Foust
Publisher: Swan Scythe Press
Date: 2019

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About the Reviewer

Michael Northen served as Wordgathering Editor-in-Chief from 2007 to 2019. He is an editor, with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black, of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. He is also an editor, with Sheila Black and Annabelle Hayes, of the recent anthology of disability short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (both from Cinco Puntos Press).