Whiteout; First Meeting with the Oncologist; Simply Not Knowing, and Having No Control

Brett Foster


by David Baker, Poetry Editor

Brett Foster

My dear friend, the late poet Deborah Digges, used to meet up with me in Jefferson City, Missouri, our hometown, for dinner or drinks and to talk about poetry, our mutual friends, and our little shared town. Once we read our poems together on the local radio. And once, not too long before she died, she called me to say, “You know, David, there’s one more of us.” Our town had a third poet whom I didn’t know. He had been a student of Debbie’s, I think, in Boston, or at least he met her there. I can no longer ask either of them for that detail. His name, she said, was Brett Foster.

I met Brett not long after that, at Wheaton College in Chicago, where he had taken a teaching position in 2005. We became the kinds of friends you might imagine from sharing not only an intimate vocation but also a hometown. His father worked as a foreman, for several years, at the steel plant only a block from my house on West McCarty Street. I remember Brett’s very fast wit—downright metaphysical—but of course he was trained in the Renaissance with an MA from Boston University and PhD from Yale. I remember his encyclopedic knowledge of poetics and, no less intense, his spiritual devotion. His students both loved and revered him, and his many friends cherished his generous attentions and his kindness. We talked about Donne all one day in Wheaton and then compared notes about Jeff. City all that night.

The present poems arrived at our KR submission site this fall, with a long, heart-breaking cover letter from Brett. I knew he had been ill for the past year with an aggressive cancer, but his letter was that mixture of optimism and realism that Brett carried in many ways. He knew he had little time left, and he spent it with his family and with his poems. In fact he wrote and rewrote with energy, and he offered us these poems with characteristic humility. They came from his just-finished manuscript, with a working title of Extravagant Rescues.

I’ve always admired Brett’s poetry. My commentary is one of the blurbs on his 2011 volume The Garbage Eaters (Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press). I’ve been drawn to the elegance, the artful density, the serious play of story and song in his poems. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the transparency of these last works—transparency with artful finesse, autobiography without self-pity. We are pleased—as we are saddened—to present three of Brett Foster’s final poems to our readers. Brett died on November 9, 2015, at the age of 42.


The nurse practitioner who substitutes
for my regular doctor (thanks to a holiday)
amazed us with her free way of speaking.
We marveled at what she so freely revealed,
compared with my circumspect oncologist.

I remember most of all her description
of a CT scan when it’s bad or “dirty,” how spots
of white infiltrate the body’s imagized
inner spaces. “Sometimes there is so much
white that it just lights up the whole scan,”
she said. And so this visualized blizzard
covers the body’s fields and highways,
its needed and contained organic landscape.
A whiteout without an ounce of repose,
“snow-crash,” like a television’s blank face.

Where do we go, or what do we do,
when this is what we know or is thought
through? There’s nowhere to go, I suppose,
and one must wear the leaden heaviness
of that whiteness, must be willing to be led
to that particular nowhere and bearing.

This is just one of one million images
that besiege our lives, along with God-
made imago that frames us, in which we thrive
in our being and growing and going, yet sometimes
allowing our belittling. What do we consist of
finally? And what do we permit to represent
our depths? Eventually everyone must see,

must be, a complicated, compromising image,
all the more esteemed in complication, still glorious
in its gift existence, compromised and glorious.

First Meeting with the Oncologist

I most remember her saying, since it haunts
me practically every moment I’m awake,
that we’re hoping for years and not just months
when it comes to remission. For godssakes,
do you know how much my once self was affronted?
But in that present moment, “Whatever it takes,”
I said, becoming an utterly different person, stunted
by surgery, complicated recovery, and new stakes
now with this sudden diagnosis. And then, more:
she adds that, given my young age, and the aggressive
state of the spread cancer, I probably cannot expect
a natural span of life, although this outlook is born
of statistics, something but not everything when living’s
involved. I resolve to be fiercely alive, defiant object.

Simply Not Knowing, and Having No Control

It is strange how the body
is finally a mystery
even to—: itself? you,
its inhabitant or genie,
or codependent vapor?
It is mine but has a mind
of its own, yes? Or am I
“I am I,” to put it simplistically?

Yet those wished-for powers
of desired, willed response resort
elsewhere, in a dark blue
and reliable harbor, tranquil ideal.
Its raft of corporal agency
may never reach me.
It puzzles me that I cannot know
if and to what degree
this body, my body, will answer
courteously these efforts
to save me, or it. Will the cellular
undifferentiation that makes
it (self?) destructively
gluttonous be a metastatic
appetite overriding all else?

Never having had the good
of intellect to lose, the body’s
answering or refusing to
is not the question, but rather
the vagaries of its hostage situation
is at issue, and how it will fare
in the outlaw cells’ uncaring
hands, gobbling all they can
like a malignant neoplasmic
Pac-Man, incorporating
into itself the blue ghosts
of healthy cells, or like a highly
unfunny Jack Sparrow
sailing the bloodstream
in a molecular pirate’s ship.

But let’s ditch the silliness,
keep the caprice: the body’s
and my utterly unknown fate
will be more like the two journalists
long held hostage in war-torn Syria:
the terrorist captors beheaded
one last week, while just yesterday
the other was freed, suddenly
and without explanation,
without even the demanded
ransom having been paid.

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