By Michael Collins
The prose poems of Linda Nemec Foster’s most recent collection, Bone Country, published by Cornerstone Press, follow an itinerary of travels in Europe through imaginative and reflective responses to the images, characters, and history encountered. The surface contents of the pieces range from the lively self-presentations of different areas cultivated to interest and entertain tourists to observations of local life farther from the central attractions, continually refocusing on unique aspects of the different travel destinations. These snapshots are invested with psychological and existential insights that link their recurrent interests in the changeability of life, perception, identity, and relationships. Exploration of these themes, often using syntax to reflect cognitive and affective nuance, forms a compelling and sometimes unsettling shadow travelogue more akin to the journey through life’s instabilities and eventualities than the relaxing or enriching idea of a vacation with its promise of a homeward trajectory.
Awareness of fluid identity is established early in the collection, perhaps an essential feature of setting off on the journey. “Conjuring her face” features a “famous artist from Serbia” who claims he’s seen a woman in Belgrade, although she has never been there: “He’s memorized every nuance of her expression, every outline she exhales on the pages of his sketchbook. ‘Look at these,’ he shows her, ‘I know you.’ Eventually, she starts to believe the evidence. As if she never lived her life, as if the blood of her ancestors never left his country” (2). The imaginative mailability of identity seems, in part, related to the contextual experience of vast numbers of strangers with few familiars to tether one to their understood life. “In the Old Town, Warsaw” is composed of a list of such observed strangers, from which a concluding figure emerges as a sort of spokesperson: “…the effusive expatriate who used to live in Detroit and now owns a fashionable café. ‘Anyone can be anybody in this part of the reinvented world,’ he says to you with your borrowed map and permanent stare. ‘You should try it’” (3). The somewhat mercurial gatekeeper offers an invitation we’re too intrigued to refuse, at least to the extent that “the reinvented world represents the collection we’ve only begun to open.
The café owner is a stranger whose world can only be “reinvented” by the speaker through a combination of observation, imagination, and insight into human psychology. As we have seen, he also presents a partial mirror of the speaker in his invitation to a mysterious world of possibilities. Strangers who reflect shared aspects of human cognition and pathos, while maintaining their own distinct characterizations, recur throughout the collection, opening the speaker – and reader – to aspects of memory and loss we tend to bypass in the flow of our “normal” comprehended dailiness. “In the Perfume Store, Kraków” provides one example in its young vendor:
“…the anonymous cologne her grandmother wore. The fragrance of purple and white – if colors could exude a smell. That was the girl’s first lesson in memory. How certain smells reminded her of certain people. The lesson she remembers every day as she sits in her shop waiting for you and your exposed wrist, the quiet hollow of your neck.” (9)
End stops are inserted for commas in various places, indicating a pausing within the associative flow of her memories and thoughts as she quietly reverences a lost elder linked inextricably with her own youthful discovering of felt connectedness with others. The punctuation pacing the inner monologue evokes the gradual coming into focus of this psychic interconnection and its attendant feeling of ego consciousness being momentarily transcended, the inexplicable nature of which is also deftly presented by the synesthesia in the colorful description of her grandmother’s scent. The ending highlights the way the shopkeeper’s reflections seem to create a corollary need for the temporary connection with her patrons – or give meaning to the interactions that must take place for the business. In addition to lending dignity to the woman’s daily activities, this passage renders an interesting parallel to the ways that poets work with unquantifiable psychic material to offer something to a reader who they meet primarily through the medium of their work.
“The Maid from the Hotel in Bialystok” is another fascinating variation on this constellation of relationships. She lets the beds air out all day because “The Bed needs to breathe…so that it can forget all the dreams left behind from the night before” (50). The maid’s inner monologue also holds up a mirror to the psychological imagination of the poet: “How can the empty bed forget – their hair, their skin, the imprint of their bodies? The maid knows only time holds the answer.” In this poem as well, a routine of awaiting the stranger opens to surprise, in this case in the form of the room’s next occupants:
“Only then is the bed ready for the next dream: the dark rooms of an abandoned house that haunt the quiet bureaucrat from Moscow whose wife is as constant as a blank page.” The more overt evocation of the “blank page” prompts other nuances of the maid’s – and bed’s – poetic mirroring. These include the speaker’s role as the collector of stories, but also the need to “breathe” between them, both to rest in oneself and to detach in order to redirect focus anew. Indeed, this practice, subtly mimed by the ellipsis, seems to be one thing that differentiates the speaker from the spectral wife so omnipresent to the beloved she conceives no expression of her own. More generally, this poem presents an insight most travelers may not know they share with poets: Considered concentration on what is unfamiliar or opaque often necessitates taking a few quiet breaths for oneself.
In “Café de Paris, Switzerland,” the speaker’s imagination of others’ plays an even more detailed role, presenting the introjected voice of a diner’s deceased wife at an establishment that serves only steak as a strategy for catering to all: “No need for menus, no need to read French or Italian or German, no need to stutter with an American accent” (51). The lack of linguistic interaction seems to open the floor to some patrons’ inner voices:
“His wife hated meat but approved of the ancient world’s ritual of gazing at slaughtered animals’ entrails to predict the future. He envisions her frown appearing in the reflection of the red juices pooling on the plate. Her mouth opens in disbelief: What do you think you’re doing, eating in a place like this that doesn’t even know what tofu is? Think of your heart. Your congested, breaking heart.”
In a context where language itself is eschewed as a primary mode of connection, the introjected voice gravitates toward the psychic presence of mortality, as if, ironically, it presented the only grounding commonality between a couple separated by death.
A similar development occurs in “At the Zeitgeist Hotel, Vienna,” which catalogues one of the wider ranges of scenes in the collection, ranging from “’[t]he waiter as teapot…. One hand on his hip, one hand cupped to his ear, waiting to hear you decide on the fate of your lunch” to “Sexworld in a tiny museum on the other side of the train station: a permanent collection of anatomically correct dildos from all over the world” to “[t]he nearby cathedral with its wooden Christ that pilgrims lick.” Interspersed are impressions from other states of consciousness: “Dreaming of your dead mother and her large dresses printed with unknown blossoms, unknown colors that haven’t been invented yet.” The longest piece of the collection concludes with, “The silent statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, alone in the choir loft of a gray stone church, somewhere east of the city. Heat from the votive candles in the forgotten side chapel. Prayers for the living and dead: you among them” (46-7). In contrast to the focused imaginative attention in the previous poem, we leap here between exterior eccentricities and surreal atemporal interior images. Yet, again, in this far more sensational poem, we arrive at death as a common touchstone. Notably, all of these sections are sentence fragments, further evoking their shared quality of being juxtaposed impressions of the speaker’s wanderings. The turn to second person projects this displacement through the text, towards both the reader and the writer, who has already been implicitly connected with the “you” in the passage regarding the deceased mother. This disquieting common ground, such as it is, also lends a darker wordplay to the title, “Zeitgeist” punning to mean both the collage of the spirit of the times in the odd collection of attractions – as well as the spirit of time itself and its mortal certainty.
These more existential pieces provide their own context for some of the lighter ones, such as “Lipstick in Geneva,” which examines the difficult choices faced by women comparison shopping overpriced lipstick: “So what’s the foreign wife to do? Pucker up and pay or risk having her lips disappear amidst Geneva’s well-heeled, well-dressed women? As she contemplates her face in the mirror, the sunset glows coral and crimson just behind her” (49). In addition to the tonal variety and the clever shift to rhetorical questions when discussing social masking, the poem provides a subtle nudge to the traveler not to focus on their own aesthetics at the expense of those quietly hiding in plain sight. However, we might also note the role that the cultivation of our facades can play as a healthy distraction from life’s more menacing aspects, even those of the social variety. The creativity of painting one’s lips to keep them from disappearing in a social context may share at least one existential root with the motivation for the speaker’s painting of the concluding, fleeting landscape.
Creativity as a practice of finding equilibrium without stable ground is one element that brings these travel pieces home to the reader as an uncommon mirror of our daily lives. “Stadtpark, Graz” offers a fitting character to guide us through sitting with these improbable translations:
“Maybe the monk asks the quiet sycamore, ‘Where am I going? Its branches filled with no clouds and a pale blue. He spends an hour waiting for an answer. Anybody’s guess, he guesses. And the answer would be totally right and totally wrong, depending on where you are at any given moment. Meanwhile, the shadows of the dogs and the drunks collide.” (62)
The monk’s seamless movements between meditation and observation of bodies both apparently real and manifestly illusory are a fitting microcosmic reflection of the speakers’ studies throughout the collection. Here again, homing begins in a practice of locating the self in the other, the relatable in the superficially foreign, the acutely real in the fictionalized character compellingly aware of their own deeper fictionality. The speakers’ awareness of shifting subject-object relations is cultivated in the counterbalancing of compassionate imagination with more detached existential contemplation, opening again and again to an ephemeral creative space in which psychological connections between lives and their worlds flicker into moments of resonance, a compelling practice of “reading” that we who open these pages are implicitly invited to emulate in our own travels far reaching and close to home.
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Michael Collins’ poems have received Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in more than 70 journals and magazines. He is also the author of the chapbooks How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water and Harbor Mandala, the full-length collections Psalmandala and Appearances , which was named one of the best indie poetry collections of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews . He teaches creative and expository writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and is the Poet Laureate of Mamaroneck, NY.