Paradise Drive, by Rebecca Foust, presents a sometimes ironic, sometimes serious, and always evocative look at a life that should be paradisiacal—all material needs taken care of—but which the speaker of these poems feels is stifling, uncreative, and antiseptic. Foust builds her collection of sonnets in her latest book around a character named Pilgrim. Like other memorable characters in poetry collections (such as Berryman’s Henry), we get to see the character stepping forcefully into confronting her lot in life, perhaps stepping more forcefully than the poet herself might do. This Pilgrim, like many other pilgrims before her, is on a spiritual quest to bring meaning to a life that neither seems coherent nor seems worth continuing.
Just like Dante’s pilgrim who was lost in middle age, Foust’s Pilgrim comes to us middle-aged, “on-the-wane, children grown and gone.” Pilgrim, who had defined everything as being about the raising of those children, seems lost. “House of no children, guest room of no guest; / no god or guide, a broken song. Her quest.” By the time we meet Pilgrim, she is well-versed. She frequently refers to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Augustine, Sappho and other poets, and fashions herself a pilgrim in the grand traditions of Augustine, Bunyan and Dante.
Of what is her journey composed? Like most personal journeys, it’s complicated. The effect is cumulative: from early-life reflections interspersed in the book to her own life as a mother, and later reflections on an empty house, we see the long trajectory of a life and wondering what its purpose was. There’s lots of comparing, a very human aspect of Pilgrim, such as when she compares her autistic son to the friend’s son accepted into Harvard. We learn a lot about Pilgrim’s humble background in mining country: a place where dental floss was both deemed important and also re-used. Pilgrim now lives in Marin County, steeped in the 1%’s lifestyle. These are lives where people can purposefully ignore things. It is a world of trappings: marble bathrooms with tiles brought over from antiquities in Europe; Veuve Cliquot; Manolo Blahnik shoes; even the dogs are pampered; three-car garages with the Escalade, sedan, and Prius; bespoke Brioni suits. Perhaps most important to Pilgrim, her journey seems to be running away from the possibility that she could become seduced by the life she lives:
“It was Pilgrim’s secret obsession.
Her private pet bête-noire,
the fear of falling
in love with it all.”
We, the audience, become implicated, in Pilgrim’s eyes, by our act of watching Pilgrim and all the details of her life.
And Pilgrim also sees this life as being made up. She compares it to the Stepford Wives, in a poem where she and friends are having a “Stepford Wives” party, playing at what the plastic suburban lives must look like, only to discover it’s not that different. Other times, she reflects on the myth of trickle-down economics, which really just perpetuate this lifestyle for the 1%.
Pilgrim’s a fun guide to have. I think, normally, we’d find the guest who hides in the bathroom during cocktail parties to be a little trying. But when Pilgrim hides in the bathroom, we see both her trying side and her cantankerous side, and it usually leads to something interesting: reading Your Bird Dog Today and commenting next time she brings her own reading material, or reading Augustine’s Confessions, or removing tile with a dental tool she keeps in her purse, and remembering when she defaced Pompeii’s mosaics in a similar way. Pilgrim seems to accept that she’s odd. She’ll talk to us about how her life isn’t so different from that of the Stepford Wives and then quote sing-song lines from children’s nursery rhymes. She’ll compare her life to Scarlet’s in Gone With the Wind when she declares she’ll never be hungry again, and then Pilgrim will compare the food at parties to what is available to eat in Darfur. She possesses no idols—she reveres too much to take aim at.
And in Pilgrim’s life—a life with hefty price tags—Pilgrim notices that even spiritual enlightenment has a price tag, as she weighs not wanting to go on with a retreat, only to realise she’s paid $12 for the class, and that commodification carries her onwards. She is a partially-willing participant. But in doing so, she becomes “one, for once, with the blissed-out rest; / yes, this moment’s lifer, not its peeved guest.” Reaching in-the-moment-ness no longer seems so appealing, but it is now a sentence. Even the Beat poet, the poet who should be an instigator and critic in the midst of all this, becomes mere entertainment at one party she attends. There are few to disagree, to speak out, in Pilgrim’s world.
Pilgrim tries on many different voices as part of her journey—inwardly complaining, compliant, and speaking up. She knows her presence invites in talk about what shouldn’t be mentioned in her antiseptic society: “God forbid we see / that shit—we’d have to admit it exists.” Pilgrim tells us she falls short of the all-encompassing love she’s expected to dole out: “— couldn’t she just — love her family?” Elsewhere, we hear Pilgrim berating herself as someone who isn’t behaving as expected: “To have it all, and still be malign and vile, / a wart on the face of the esprit de corps?” At her lowest, Pilgrim says, “Kill yourself / in a way that leaves the least mess” whether that mess is emotional or physical. But Pilgrim’s idea of killing oneself might be through the house trading-up game, addictions, cults. In the middle of the book she spends time on a series of meditations on suicides. Even medicine doesn’t have a real solution, as she notes that “Prozac helped until she got numb / to being numb all the time … Same old plague. New superbug strain.”
We have to follow her to the edge of despair and back. There are no easy outs, there are no pre-made outs. And so one poem notes,
“All you can do, Pilgrim decides,
is keep asking the questions.
Admit when you’re wrong. Go on
for the kids, especially the kids
you have personally caused
to be brought into the world.”
If I were to lodge any frustration with Pilgrim, it would be that at the beginning of the series of poems, before I got to know the character Pilgrim in depth, she appeared to be holier-than-thou, looking down on the people she hobnobs with while despising them. She wears her humble roots as a talisman against taking solace in material goods, and though she doesn’t claim to know her pilgrimage route, is sure that her chosen path is much more worthwhile than their empty pursuits. Pilgrim did win me over, though I kept taking glances back, wondering why she kept associating with such people she disliked and felt better than.
And Pilgrim does spend a lot of her time disliking those who surround her. At times, she seems like she might be a pain to be around, as she lets us into her mind and what she’d really want to say. She is searching for something that feels—though she never uses the word—authentic. And when she’s not up to it, she self-medicates with alcohol, reaches for the psychopharmaceuticals, or cries in other people’s bathrooms. Yet in Pilgrim there’s a delicate balance between the weak and the functional here. Pilgrim isn’t a wife incapable of handling day to day life.
Overall, Foust’s sharp eye provides us with the rich details of a life that becomes oh-so complete on the page. She presents us with a series of sonnets—a form full of the implications of love, torment, conquest—and the form fits her journey well. Hers is a journey of passions, both negative and positive. Finding the balance of the two is part of the long arc of this sequence of poems. That she is also able to combine the lyrical focus on Pilgrim’s emotions while also providing a narrative arc to her poems makes these poems so much more than the mere sum of their parts.
Rebecca Foust’s books include Paradise Drive, All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song, God, Seed, and chapbooks Mom’s Canoe and Dark Card. Her poems have appeared in Hudson Review, Massachusetts Review, Narrative, North American Review, Sewanee Review, and elsewhere, and her prose is in American Book Review, Chautauqua, Rumpus, Poetry Flash, Tikkun Daily and other journals. Foust has received residency fellowships from The Frost Place and MacDowell. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and works in the Bay Area as a writer, freelance editor, teacher, and Marin Poetry Center Board member.