Book Reviews

Struck by Lightning

by Richard Logsdon | Contributing Writer

The Unexploded Ordnance Bin
Rebecca Foust
Swan Scythe Press, 2019

In Rebecca Foust’s latest book, The Unexploded Ordnance Bin, explosions occur anywhere: in the destruction of a cardboard box that had sheltered a homeless man (“Compound. Distressed. Fracture.”); in the death of a boy who “sang backup gospel like a bruised angel” and who was killed by a drunk driver who felt a perverse joy “for the lovely lithe boy now fused with the car” (“Blame”); and in the brutal punishment of transgender females, one of whom “was knifed last week, another set aflame” (“Sufferance”). The book’s epigraph, “The ticking is the bomb” (the title of a book by Nick Flynn) and the word “unexploded” in Foust’s title give this collection a prescient quality, suggesting the existence of a much larger bomb, one whose explosion could usher in a world too terrible to contemplate.

The book’s title poem provides a striking example of Foust’s use of bomb imagery as metaphor throughout the book. The poem tells of a day when the speaker, her husband, and her son go clamming on a California beach, where the boy finds an artillery shell. At the time, the parents revel in the moment, taking photos of their son holding the explosive. Only later do they confiscate it, after learning the horrifying story of a boy in Oregon who discovered the same kind of shell and kept it for three weeks before it went off, blowing away his fingers. Ironically, the parents’ decision to confiscate the shell brings no lasting protection for the son, who is, unbeknownst to them, carrying another kind of bombshell, this one invisible and embedded within his body—“snub-nosed & fins / & powder waiting to dry”—the genetic coding for autism. The impact of this discovery shatters the parents’ belief in a world in which “to be human / was all promise & radiance // unwinding down mudflats into long wide shining ribbons.” In the poem’s final lines, using a simile that brilliantly “lights up” the poem, the speaker invites the reader to visualize the effects of her son’s condition as fire coming from an anti-aircraft machine-gun: “all those bright dreams / lit up like tracer fire / over the dark dunes . . . like the Perseids / only not at all—like the Perseids.” 

One of the most powerful poems in Foust’s collection is titled “Flame,” which takes as its subject the brutal execution of Fatima Omar al-Najar, a Palestinian girl whose captors first starve her to death, then set her corpse on fire:

But they forgot that what fire
eats it also ignites,

and so great a heat will anneal 
sand and salt into glass

seamed and re-seamed
with healed fractures,

compressed into a dense lump
of quartz percussion-flaked

again and again to hone
the ritual blade,

human rage finally refined
into the clarity

of pure air, its precise blessing 
folded and wrapped 

about her slim waist, released 
finally as black smoke . . . 

The poem’s imagery suggests a meltdown caused by an explosion: “so great a heat will anneal / sand and salt into glass . . . healed fractures . . . compressed into a dense lump / of quartz percussion-flaked.” A silent scream of horror seems to emerge from Foust’s alliterative use of the long ee sounds in “heat,” “anneal” and “seamed and re-seamed.” Fatima Omar al-Najar’s execution inevitably results in a violent retaliation, an actual bombing, “black smoke . . . rising [from] . . . one thin flame.” 

The book’s many explosions from bombs both actual and metaphorical push the speaker close to a despair that at times feels tangible. This despair is achingly expressed in “Prodigal,” a poem in which Faust establishes a tension that runs through most of this collection, and that, in this poem, takes the form of a seemingly irreconcilable opposition between a world view predicated on a fading hope for actual miracles and one based upon a growing conviction that, in this broken and maddening world, there will be no miracles, no divine intervention, and, therefore, no redemption:

Let us believe again in waxen wings, 

titanium-ribbed, that can fly near the sun

and never fail. In apostolic things—

Lazarus lifting her matted head

to call the blossoms in, loaves and fishes,

rain in seasons of drought, species of life

that do not wink out, one by one, like stars.

In this poem, Foust combines sound-play with imagery to emphasize her longing for the type of biblical miracles (like Jesus’ feeding of the five-thousand or his raising of Lazarus from the dead) that, to her, are as fictional as the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Perhaps ironically, perhaps prayerfully, she asks to “believe again in waxen wings, / titanium-ribbed, that can fly near the sun / . . . [and in] Lazarus lifting her matted head / to call the blossoms in, loaves and fishes, / rain in seasons of drought.”  

Occasionally in these poems, despair approaches madness. In “The Prodigal,” for instance, the speaker alludes to Jesus bringing his friend Lazarus, here feminized, back from the dead when she refers to “Lazarus lifting her matted head.” The allusion here is also to Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus,” in which Plath, following a session of electroshock therapy, compares herself to Lazarus. As Foust compares her own mental state to Plath’s, we see that she realizes that she will experience no resurrection from the deadly impact of explosions in her own life—lightning strikes that have left her emotionally and spiritually devastated.

But the speaker is not totally consumed by despair. For instance, in “Everything Golden Is Spilled,” she expresses the exhilaration that she feels following the birth of her first son:

You were born and your hour was silver,
new moonlight strewn

on dark ground. Pearls, seeds, wide banks 
of clouds, your bright hair,

your damp, sleeping lap-weight, scalp’s 
yolky chuff, tug at the nipple,

the universe contracted to suck and glow; 
grain, drops of rain,

dreams for a time ripening and bending
wheat weighted with seed.

To my mind, this remarkable poem is reminiscent of the work of William Blake in the way in which the poem describes an entire universe “contracted” in the absolute beauty of childbirth. 

Ultimately what allows the speaker of The Unexploded Ordnance Bin to rise above the impact of the bombs both buried and going off throughout the book is what she makes of them—that is, superbly crafted poems fashioned with brilliant passages that manage to (almost) mitigate the speaker’s despair. The poems in this book describe with skill an exploding world that offers little hope of redemption; they also manage to lift the poet and the reader beyond the impact of its dangers.

A retired professor of English at College of Southern Nevada, Richard Logsdon received his Ph. D. in English from the University of Oregon in 1976. He is the author of several college textbooks and the former editor-in-chief of the literary journal Red Rock Review. Additionally, he has written and published essays in several popular culture journals. Richard and his wife Julie have lived in Las Vegas, Nevada, since 1975.

Rebecca Foust is the author of the books Paradise Drive, All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song, and, in collaboration with artist Lorna Stevens, God, Seed: Poetry & Art about the Natural World. She has also published three chapbooks: The Unexploded Ordinance Bin, Dark Card, and Mom’s Canoe. A new book, ONLY, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2022.