National Post gives Gabe Foreman stamp of approval
There is a photograph you should see of an archaeological dig from the summer of 2006; four men and two women recline together on the side of a dirt hill. It is a summer day and by the shadows it looks about noon. Something about their pose suggests Whitman, or Vishnu dreaming the universe. Everyone is smiling in that recognizably genuine way from which we may infer that either someone has succeeded in deploying a joke, or that everyone is just, in this moment, actually happy. A little placard lies beneath them and reads BAWK-13 Class of 2006. Whatever they've unearthed remains outside the frame. And on the top of the hill, above everybody else, in floppy hats and hugging, are three unpublished poets whom we may as well call The Archaeologists: Jeramy Dodds, Joshua Trotter and Gabe Foreman.
The first two names should be familiar to anyone with even a fair-weather interest in Canadian poetry. Dodds' wonderful first book, Crabwise to the Hounds, was something of a sensation when it was published two years after that photo was taken, in 2008, a spectacular black hole into which prizes and nominations were helplessly sucked. I made the case in these pages that Joshua Trotter's All This Could Be Yours was one of the best books published last year. Now Coach House books has released Gabe Foreman's debut, A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People, and incredibly, it's just as arresting a debut as those of his brothers-in-spades.
A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People is the private abecedary of a playful but serious imagination, a field guide to daydreams and frailties. It reads to me like the love child of Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology and Paul Muldoon's alphabetical survey of Irish literature, To Ireland, I. The collection is made up, as its title suggests, of verse and prose studies of the varieties of humans: "Adulterers," "Bookies," "Couch Potatoes," "Defectors from the Freudian Camp," "Eulogists," "The Lovesick," etc. But earnest, typecast, de rigueur efforts these are not. The poem "Missing Persons" is a mad lib. "One Night Stands" refers us to the entry "Wrong Numbers," a poem that doesn't appear in the book. "Queue Jumpers" butts in between "Bargain Hunters" and "Bookies." "Identical Twins" and the book's first poem, "Accidents" are, beautifully, exactly the same.
At the heart of A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People is a show-stopping prose poem called "House-Sitters." It documents one of those no-holds-barred cottage weekends where one suddenly finds oneself "too stoned to dance and sick of Twister, bored with the endless limbo on the lawn." The poem opens with a quotation from a Genesis song ("I'm in too deep") and it ends with the speaker deep in the middle of a lake (for the second time in the poem) doubling back on the last bit of the first line of The Book of Genesis ("the shore was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep").
Foreman writes: "I lifted the needle and walked to the very end of the dock, whipping the (Genesis) album like a Frisbee through the dark. It was shortly before dawn, and now calm. There was no moon and few clouds to keep the constellations from doubling themselves on the lake. Invisible ripples tinkered with the woodwork, and two dogs across the water suddenly stopped communicating. In the silence that bloomed, I saw with European clarity how a person is just a surface, and nothing is worth keeping except what others see reflected there."
There's something diluvian about not only this moment -- which, it should be noted, ends on a decidedly secular note with the jaw-dropping final sentence quoted above ("European clarity"?!) -- but about this book in general. A flood of one kind or another (alphabetical, psychological, literal) is always rearing, or threatening to. The form of the book itself casts Foreman as a kind of Noah, cataloguing and ordering the different "types" of human beings who can at times feel, side by side on Foreman's galleon, like they may as well be members of a different genus.
And yet take another look at the passage quoted above. Notice that at the brink of this new dawn, this moment of creation, everything has its pair. The same principle is at work on the macroscopic level in A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People. A strange personal language is often being spoken -- the book brings to mind John Stuart Mills' comment that poetry is not heard but overheard -- and the collection is populated with strange totemic characters and symbols that only ever half-resolve: kitchens, big cats, The Crystal Hunter, The Colonel, something called The Rosewater Prize, a mysterious woman named Ramona and -- most importantly -- boomerangs are less disorienting and less despair-inducing by the fact that they have a partner in their own recurrence. If "a person is just a surface," as Foreman suggests, that shouldn’t tempt our cliched anxiety about "depth" precisely because "nothing is worth keeping except what others see reflected there." And so there's something almost sacrosanct about the historical force in "House-Sitters," when "Ramona's new Genesis record began to skip, repeating the same line for two hours while people ran naked through the halls, drenching themselves in exotic brandy before pairing off and vanishing into bedrooms." We are neither before nor after the flood, but amid it.
In fact, the most spellbinding moment is the interaction between the poem "Organ Donors" and "Transplant Survivors." About half-way through the book we're introduced to the former; it is a poem about a grackle that has "tumbled/ through a rose bush after walloping the glass." "From his shoebox bed" he stages an ill-fated recovery. Before the little bird succumbs to "the glands on his neck/ ballooned into sick orange cysts," we're told: "That night from his shoebox bed/ he sang of flowing water and of a flightless/ aquatic child who craves the summer air." And then half a book away, in "Transplant Survivors," we learn that "the girl with a pair of pickled eyes/ gets new ones." "But napping after lunch (with mother/ dozing in a chair) the girl spots her/ donor's face. And tugging at the sockets/ of his tarnished, hollow gaze, two gulls." These two poems are the two dogs of "House-Sitters," and though they've "stopped communicating" -- at least directly -- they are still each other's pair on this strange boat.
The book ends with "Last Words," which is composed entirely of the last lines from all the poems arranged alphabetically. The last line of the book is also its epigraph. It’s hard not to think of Vico's cyclical theory of history, the recorso wending us endlessly through the ages of man. In fact, if we take a quick peek at the etymology of 'encyclopedia" we find that it means "a circular education." Make no mistake about it: We are in a golden age of Canadian poetry, and as always (with all respect to archaeologists) what is most baffling and beautiful is not what is below the earth, but what is -- for now -- still on it.