Richard Foerster, The Burning of Troy
Publisher: BOA Editions, Ltd.
2006, 96 pages, paperback, $15.50

the Burning of Troy by poet Richard Foerster is a collection of innovative forms, powerful moments, and earnest insights about grieving, sentiment, and the power we have to hurt each other, only to linger in inflicted pain. The collection reads like a road map, if road maps were subtle, leading its reader to astute realizations by way of harrowing and familiar images.

The images in this collection are nothing if not efficient. In the poem “spoons,” Foerster’s speaker comes to an understanding of the consuming nature of loss and grief while doing something as mundane as unloading a dishwasher:

In the momentary convex
Gleam of one stainless
Steel spoon held hot
From washing, the stippled damp
Wiped all at once clear
With a cloth, just as the hand
Begins to ease down toward the tray,

How grief can shimmer up
Through such idle motion-
How the weight of a left arm
Draped over another, as a finger
Seeks to feather a nipple
Into flame, can seem six-
Feet’s worth of dirt atop

A ravaged cage, while lungs
Struggle beneath to find enough
Breath to say No, I can’t
Breathe like this
– then as quick
All slips into place, rattling
An instant before that silence
After the drawer’s slid shut.

Foerster successfully comes to these realizations of grief as much through his ability to navigate the quick-changing tide of human emotions as through images of the familiar. The collection’s journey to the moment unearthed in “spoons” unfolds over an acutely complex trail that begins with ominous clues, embracing the brutality of which humans are capable, while also exploring the natural human affinity for earnest sentiment. Foerster reiterates this brutality in the poem “artichoke,” discussing the powerful infliction of human suffering: “…it’s the peeling away we savored, the slow striptease / toward a tender heart–” Here he illustrates the pleasing nature of our cruelest indulgences.

Cruelty, however, is not the only emotion explored by Foerster. In “pot of crocuses,” he contrasts the capacity to cause pain with the ability to offer protection. The speaker in this poem secretly watches a young boy fall from his skateboard and considers giving him a pot of budding crocus plants, hoping that the boy might present them to his mother to garner forgiveness for “the scarring a woman has to endure / to see a boy safely to manhood.” Here, the poet deftly achieves a lifelike portrayal of how mankind can be both warm and monstrous, while never advocating for one over the other. Foerster does not preach, but honestly and openly asserts the truth regarding humanity’s capabilities.   

Foerster’s assertions, rather than being laid out, manifest in various ways. He is a poet that revitalizes antiquary forms seldom seen in modern poetry. Among those forms are an aubade and a canticle, which represent forbidden love and spirituality, respectively. In terms of Foerster’s stylistic repertoire, his synthesis of formalism and play exercise a careful attention to the themes of loss, love, and malice that occupy The Burning of Troy. Foerster reads as a fairly conservative crafter of poetics, with couplets, tercets, and cinquains throughout the collection. However, he also employs unique forms in the poems “Tithonus” and “smoke,” both of which forgo verbiage by connecting images with colons. The effect of these poems is a miasma of imagery complete in its discord.

In “Tithonus,” alluding to the Greek myth of a human endowed with immortality but not eternal youth, Foerster sheds light on fragility and grief with an innovative style:

Sarcophagus of mourning : marbleized air :
apples studding the abandoned orchard : same
torch song year after year : reds & greens : stop : go:
the hillside’s spill to shadow : quick rill & sick
stones’ slow erosion : an equation for yield :
goldenrod : hawkweed : touch-me-not : prods toward sense-
less defiance : crizzling frost on the seedpots :
the wind’s tiny detonations : & always
this aurora : the infinite gradations :
a closed set : the stunning thought : the barb I scrape
repeat repeat : sarcophagus of mourning :

Such innovations best summarize Foerster’s interest in the human ability to hurt others as easily as heal them, emphasizing the importance of the distinction between what we feel and what we should feel.

While Foerster’s collection comes to stark realizations about hurtfulness, the Burning of Troy is about acceptance and reconciling the best and worst sides of humanity. As he coins in the book’s final poem, “Moon Jellyfish,” the pure We Are, and everything that We Are encompasses, reiterates the value of our own complex humanity and how it should never go ignored, but applied to who we are and who we’ll become.

-Aaron Deutsch