Edward Foster, in his new book of poems A Looking-Glass for Traytors, explores the nature of desire and memory, risking the articulation of what cannot be said, even to the very end, despite chaos, pain, or the oncoming night. So that ecstasy or understanding might be possible: “maintain a quiet surface, and sublimity within is freedom.” The speaker in the poem is going rounds with the ghosts of the past. But there is a stalemate. There’s no winner and no loser in this game, just the night and the silence of the snow-covered field, the cold of the winter nights, to greet the poet alone in his room with his memories. These are the thoughts of a man who has seen many things and experienced love and loss, the pain of being. He is at war with himself, but it is a war he cannot win. Time is against him. Memories flood his mind, as if he is unable to control the feelings of regret and of loss. The cyclical pattern of nature is not a source of comfort. Winters and springs come and go just like fashions. Perhaps something does remain, but it is not something we can see. It is not visible, not something we can partition out with our various knowledges. It cannot be analyzed, only felt.
Desire often leads to a sense of failure, loss. Can we ever get what we really want? What does it mean to have risked everything? We come back to ourselves, to our masks, and are grounded again, localized, put in our place. Often, it is true, though, that we get what we deserve—or do we? Did what we choose effect anything? At times it really seems like it did, or we tell ourselves this. Our memories are not reliable though we want them to be. Foster writes
The river rises.
Rains begin to fall.
The ones I used to want
Are nowhere near,
No longer near.
The domestic situation is exhausted to a point of contention: “Shouldn’t I have spoken / When we still had time?” This is from a poem called “Marriage.” Regret too will pass, as it gets darker, and you can hear the wind howling in the snow-covered branches, casting snow adrift on the open fields. There will only be silence in the end and the feeling that one is alone. As Foster writes, speaking of Thoreau, a “man thinking and working alone is by no means merely solipsistic or self-deluding; there are ‘common interests’ from which we all proceed. Thoreau’s ideal was the self-sufficient man, he who welcomes solitude and silence, not institutions and laws, as the origin of truth.” This silence is felt in the photos included in the book, which are often of snow-covered trees; or snow on the ground; or an isolated house snow-covered and a path in the woods, covered with snow. It is cold outside. Snow is the central fact of these poems. There is a bareness and emptiness here, an overwhelming silence at the heart of this book. They are winter poems.
Foster tries to express that which is intangible and mysterious. The poet refuses to found anything, neither systems, kingdoms, nor servitudes (in fact the title, A Looking-Glass for Traytors, refers to men who were willing to be executed for showing their resistance to the monarchy of Charles I). In his invisibility the poet has become his surroundings. In this way, a subjective experience leads to an objective awareness. The poet creates his art, fueled by the constant threat of danger, showing caution in expression since he approaches the limits of the sayable. He is approaching a oneness with the natural world. It speaks to him in its silence, everywhere. Welcoming him into the darkness, the silence, that is “the world of potentialities and meanings beyond the actual and the expressed.” So Foster’s poems always seems to be at the point of breaking apart, the words scattering into the void, the vast nothingness of the white of the page. There is no escape:
Oh, let me, God,
Before these folks have
Trapped me once
The words remain as if etched in shadow or written on water. What appears clearly said is in fact overwhelmed by ambiguity. The words hold back more than they bring to light in an attempt to illuminate something that remains hidden, if only briefly, and for the duration of the poem. Then nothing, and all the words return to the void from which they came. Then there is only silence, the silence will remain after everything is gone. Foster is often ironic when he speaks of the transformative possibility of the self through the acquisition of knowledge or faith, whether rational or mystical; he reminds us that the end is the same:
Thus youth is gone.
Failure and guilt
That cannot be.
What is important, for Foster, is that we don’t rely on absolutes. Nothing will remain, but the sound of the wind weaving through the trees. And the coming of the night which cannot be stopped. All must eventually face the final reckoning with a force beyond human comprehension. No hope no fear, a matter of learning too late what one should have known before. There will be nothing to remember as everything fades, as one ages, and relationships come to nothing, and marriage fails and even friendships become strained to the point of contention:
Consider yourself lucky
Nothing left behind ….
If only pain
Would go away
But how can we known in advance what would have prevented the oncoming storm, the sense of failure or regret. The script is a lie. And that goes for any script. But Foster writes: “I walk along the forest path / My choice determined by the wind.” It is in these moment when we are beyond ourselves, following the wind, where nothing is expected of us, where we are unbound by the dictates of even life itself, as if in the wind we enter a blissful darkness not unlike death.
Foster writes, “The wind’s will is Pan’s will; / Heel to toe, toe to heel. / This dance is dark and bleak.” Here another order exists, another reality. It is a vision of Pan, the spirit residing deeply in these poems, that James Hillman speaks of in Pan and the Nightmare, quoted in the book: “Pan’s vision of humanity is that we, too, are pure nature in whom the volcanic eruptions, the destructive seizures and typhoons also reside.” It is these eruptions, seizures, and typhoons of desire that lie at the surface of these poems, waiting to break through, creating a tension that gives the poems an intense aura. What I mean is that it is a dark aura, dark with the absorption of experience, and knowledge of self. Gnosis. Whose only law is that there is no law. Where one must confront the dark, in whose depths resides the Beast of the unconscious.
In Foster’s poems the Beast can be understood as Pan; the quote from Walter F. Otto’s Dionysus: Myth and Cult, in the beginning of Foster’s book, states: “Dionysus, himself, who raises into the heights of ecstasy, is the suffering god. The rapture which he brings rise from the inner most stirrings of that which lives. But wherever these depths are agitated, there, along with rapture and birth, rise up also horror and ruin.” Here I mean to suggest the dark resonances that operate, in secret, deep inside these poems, manifesting their energy in the language, and are beyond good and evil. Pan stands for the dark energy of sexual desire and nonconformity. Any form of authority must be resisted. And in the end, after all is lost, and seemingly only despair remains, something remains, there, in the wind, the changing breezes, in the drifts of snow that cover the fields, in the cold, in the silence. It is dark and you cannot see where you are going. You can’t go on, but you go on. That is the closest thing to freedom. Nothing is still, all is moving. That is the god speaking. Nothing will be remembered. Even the poem itself may not be remembered.
For Foster there are moments in life when we can escape the ego, and emerge, as if transformed, but this is not because of the mind, but the body. For Foster, at these moments, “Suffering and the past no longer invade the soul, and nothing is left, for the moment, but freedom ‘in the tearing wind.’” This is the liberation of not being bound by anything, where you remember nothing, regret nothing, move as if outside life itself, not bound by anything anyone has ever said, or one’s memories, or any acquired knowledge; one enters oblivion, willingly; one burns with the speed of the wind, tearing through space, until one is nothing at all, stripped of everything; one is perhaps then just a pure light entering the final darkness that will consume all. Edward Foster’s A Looking-Glass for Traytors is a kind of roadmap of this forbidden territory; it is a place where the god Pan rules.
A Looking-Glass for Traytors, by Edward Foster. East Rockway, New York: Marsh Hawk Press, November 2020. 88 pages. $16.00, paper.
Peter Valente is a writer, translator, and filmmaker. He is the author of eleven full length books. Forthcoming is a collection of essays, Essays on the Peripheries (Punctum, 2021), and his translation of Nicolas Pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2022). He’s presently working on editing a book on Harry Smith.