With Little Light and Sometimes None at All, by Richard Foerster, Littoral Books, 2023, 81 pages, $20.00, ISBN 9798987805725
Reviewed by Mike Bove
In an interview concluding his new collection, With Little Light and Sometimes None at All, Richard Foerster explains that the title comes from Boccaccio’s Decameron, a book set during the ravages of the Black Plague in 14th century Italy. The situation then had become so desperate and chaotic that funeral ceremonies were often performed at night in the absence of full light and sometimes in complete darkness.
This image— people carrying out basic acts of humanity despite the surrounding dark— is relevant to current times, when the darkness of a lingering pandemic, widespread buffoonery, and increased polarization seems quotidian at best, paralyzing at worst. The speaker in Foerster’s poems is well aware of this reality and often placed within its midst, but instead of being consumed by it, shows readers that even a small bit of light allows enough vision to see our surroundings and manage some way forward.
In Aspens, this drive to push on regardless of chaos results from a late-night windstorm— “A wish, / a whoosh, a clacking like castanets”— which sounds to the groggy speaker like congregants stomping about to wild revival music. The ecstasy is short-lived; in the morning light “three trees lay felled, / the roots exposed like hacked bones / in opened graves.” And what to do when faced with such stark reminders of mortality? For the speaker, the first response is memory:
[. . .] I’ve stood before
in the stillness of afterstorm,
the everywhereness of it, among litter
strewn from far corners of my brain—
the stutter and static of news, brittling
green torn from clichés of hope
and tides of war and brewing storm—
and stared into a wreckage of words
left abandoned on the page
as if I’d never been that god of weather.
This has happened before, will happen again, both in the natural world and the creative world of the speaker’s mind. It might be tempting for readers to want the image resolved in one of those “clichés of hope”, but one of the ways in which his book succeeds is in Foerster’s rejection of an easy out in favor of the harder, far more realistic truth: “And so I wield again the grumbling / bite of a chain saw. I’ll make neat cords / of nuisance.” Sometimes it’s all we can do to simply pick up after ourselves and others. The speaker must “smooth over what’s past, tamp it flat / with my muck boots in a foolish dance.” And maybe the dance is foolish, the desperate attempt to smooth things over. And maybe it isn’t. If our lives get messy, and they always get messy, we clean them up as best we can. We keep going with whatever light we have.
Forward motion, too, is a central theme in the book, as Foerster moves from the darkness of a confusing childhood to the light of maturity and experience. In Bijoux Box, the speaker offers crisp descriptions of collected objects from the past that serve as gateways to ponder the present—a piece of sea glass, an old train ticket—with a question spinning at the poem’s heart: why do we keep what we keep? With tight, unrhymed tercets, Foerster here explores the beauty and shame of the things we hold on to. Often we collect memories not because we want to, but as the speaker says, “I keep it, as I must”. This collecting, like conducting funeral rites in darkness, is a human necessity, a biological attempt to make clear sense of a world that defies order.
In At Uluru, the theme is explored further, as the speaker sits satisfied at the foot of the famed rock until a chance encounter with a bird summons doubt:
I sat in awe, a speck on the brightening plain
and thought I’d gotten all I’d come for,
until I spotted a dot beelining toward me
out of that vastness—no threat; a mere sparrow,
coal-black above, snowy below, it settled
on the tip of my shoe, then cocked its head
and flashed a white eyebrow, questioning,
The feathered visitor hangs around for a time before flying away, but its presence lingers when a local says it must have been an emissary from the other side. The speaker is forever changed: “I sobbed right there. / Why am I writing this, twenty years on? Oh, envoy / of bewilderment, what is it you have to say?” The question hangs in the present tense, unanswered at the poem’s end. Again Foerster leaves his readers to make their own way in partial light. The creative act itself, the making of a poem, is a deep questioning, a search for understanding. Whether it’s found isn’t the point. As this masterful poem makes clear, the point is the questioning. What message does the past have for any of us? In the speaker’s voice, the question is ours.
With Little Light and Sometimes None at All is a beautiful book in both execution and construction. The inclusion of Douglas Taylor’s paintings bolsters the forward movement from dark to light. In the end, Foerster’s poems suggest that one way to reach the light is to interrogate darkness in whatever form it takes: a pandemic, a tragic past, the reality of aging. In order to see, we first must look, and as this book shows us, there’s always light. Even if just a little.