Brett Foster was my best friend at Wheaton College. Brett was roughly my age. Brett died last evening of cancer.
Brett was an accomplished academic of multiple talents: a poet himself, a translator of medieval & Renaissance Italian poetry, and an expert in Shakespeare. Those three points don’t quite cover all that Brett could do. From Italy to England, from the 1300s to the 1600s, he knew it and worked in it.
A graduate of Yale, he was close to a couple legends I esteem: John Hollander and Harold Bloom. I was tickled one evening when the phone rang, and it was the latter on the line. “Harold!” Brett exclaimed. “How are ya!” Brett exclaimed in his slightly raspy, still-Missouri accented voice.
Above all Brett was a prince of a human being, a regular guy who liked drinking beer and watching football, who enjoyed people and brought them joy.
My fondest memory of Brett involves Orvieto, Italy. Brett was there on some monthlong-fellowship, and I was in Rome for the international Society of Biblical Literature meeting. We spent the better part of the day in Orvieto working on academic things at various cafes (as Brett had this habit of working somewhere for an hour or two and then wanting to relocate), always somewhere under the aegis of the glorious cathedral.
Having retreated to his apartment later in the day, we decided around 10:30 that it’d be good to begin preparing dinner. We went to the local grocer (still open) and got the requisite ingredients for whatever we were making, along with a sufficient supply of sagrantino, the local Umbrian wine. A friend of Brett’s was with us too, Chris van den Berg, and he did most of the cooking while we drank and talked. We ate around midnight, and stayed up until about four in the morning, talking about everything friends talk about–work, college politics, family, daydreams, passions. Given the lateness of the hour when we finally retired, about four in the morning, and the quality of the sagrantino, we did not make our planned trip to Siena the next day.
Brett was too humble and normal and Christian to be the “strong poet” Bloom describes, but neither was a he a “weak poet,” composing derivative drivel or doggerel. Bloom’s typology (in my humble opinion, poetry not being my formal field) is too polarized, too binary. Brett was a very good poet, swimming within the best streams of the literary tradition, his poetry informed by his Christian faith.
Here, then, are three of my favorite poems from Brett, so you, dear reader, can get a taste of his work. I like the first the best. The second is perhaps the most poignant and powerful. The third is especially interesting to me, as I’m supposed to be writing a major commentary on Mark’s Gospel…
Poem with a Phrase from George Herbert
Even if the body’s garment has been rent,
it can still become an establishment
for rebuilding spirit, new, tender, and quick.
If there is no market for one’s sickness,
there is at very least an etiquette
for feeling better—felt pain and everything met
in extremity, that is. There exists
the tumor, cyst, or grisly polyp, and Christ
resides, persists amid these hundred hells,
his garment hemmed with pomegranates, golden bells.
I am making all things new! Or am trying to,
being so surprised to be one of those guys
who may be dying early. This is yet one more
earthen declaration, uttered through a better
prophet’s more durable mouth, with heart
astir. It’s not oath-taking that I’m concerned
with here, for what that’s worth— instead just a cry
from the very blood, a good, sound imprecation
to give the sickness and the shivering meaning.
Former things have not been forgotten,
but they have forgotten me. The dear, the sweet,
the blessed past, writes Bassani. Tongue is the pen.
Donning some blanket of decorousness
is not the prophet’s profession, not ever.
Not that I’ve tasted the prophet’s honey or fire:
I’m just a shocked, confounded fellow
who’s standing here, pumping the bellows
of his mellifluous sorrow. Yet sorrow’s the thing
for all prophets. Make a way in the wilderness,
streaming your home-studio-made recordings
from a personal wasteland. These are my thoughts.
I can’t manage the serious beard. My sackcloth
is the flannel shirt I’m wearing. But the short-circuited
months have whitened my hair, and it’s not
for nothing that Jeffrey calls me, with affectionate
mockery, the silver fox. It’s a prerequisite, finally—
being a marginal prophet, but a severe attention
to envisioned tomorrows must be present, too,
must be perceived as possible, audible, or followable.
There’s a hypothetically bright future for everything,
each wounded creature that is bitten, or bites.
And speaking of things overheard, you heard right:
if I have to go out, I am going to go out singing.
Prayer Before Reading St Mark’s Gospel
Please attack my colonialist ego,
o lion-face, o ancient evangelist.
The carcinogenic self, gleeful
but cruel in its unhealthy glow,
needs every means of resistance,
nor do I expect your treatment to be
remotely easygoing, if any freedom
is to be won from tumor, polyp, cyst.
Don’t let my withheld forgiveness
be among the glittering cargo
of my sickly little boat, battered, kissed
by fortune’s surges. Let me bestow
instead regard to every fellow narcissist,
to thief and punk, humbug and arsonist.