Letter from the Editor
Brett Foster, who died in November 2015 at the age of forty-two, started teaching in the English Department at Wheaton College in the fall of 2005. During Brett's first year at Wheaton, Alan Jacobs told me he had a new colleague I should get to know. I almost always follow up on Alan's suggestions, but sometimes it takes a while, and it wasn't until the following year that Brett and I met. His first contribution to Books & Culture, a poem entitled "The Little Flowers of Dan Quisenberry," appeared shortly thereafter, in our March/April 2007 issue.
We began to meet regularly, usually on Monday mornings at the Starbucks near my office. Brett worked there a lot (and at other such places, too), grading papers, preparing for classes, working on a paper he was going to give at this or that conference. (He loved to travel, even from one coffee shop to another.) He'd often have a course text on the table (Spenser's Faerie Queene, for instance, or a Shakespeare play) along with a couple of scholarly volumes he'd received via interlibrary loan. I soon discovered that he loved books as much as I did—to excess, some might say—and we took many jaunts together, into Chicago and throughout the suburbs. Brett had in his head a map with all the places where used books were sold, and he also regularly consulted schedules for library sales. (He and I shared a fondness for libraries, too, in their infinite variety.) It was good to hear, at a gathering shortly after Brett's death, that just a couple of days before he died, he made a brief foray to an outlet of Half Price Books with his English Department colleague, lifelong friend, and fellow poet Jeffrey Galbraith.
Brett wasn't interested in everything—fiction, for instance, often failed to stir his blood—but it seemed that he was. And when a particular subject grabbed his attention, he would plunge into it with ferocious intensity, writing thousands of words (and sending me emails after midnight). The pieces he wrote for B&C, both for the print magazine and for the website exclusively, suggest but do not begin to encompass the range of his attention, from the NFL to the drawings of Bronzino. He loved to report from the road (a conference on "The Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination," held in Southern California; a series of "London Letters"; a visit to F. Scott Fitzgerald's birthplace), and he had a genius for collaboration, writing about the great Shakespeare actors with Mark Lewis, the Director of Theater Programs at Wheaton College; about the new Seminary Co-op bookstore with theologian Wesley Hill, a Wheaton alum; about a multimedia tribute to T. S. Eliot with art historian and Wheaton colleague Matthew Milliner; about the pleasures of Laity Lodge in the Hill Country of Texas with the artist David Hooker (also a Wheaton colleague). And for every collaboration that came to fruition, there were three or four more that he proposed.
I learned early on that Brett always had many pots bubbling at the same time. I knew that many of the pieces we talked about—already taking form in his mind as we drank our coffee—would not get written. I couldn't even predict, with any reasonable degree of accuracy, which ones were likely to get into print, with the exception of a few that we both regarded as essential—his brilliant, long-gestating piece on the playwright Conor McPherson, for instance, which appeared in our May/June 2014 issue, which appeared just before Brett got the out-of-the-blue diagnosis of the cancer that eventually killed him.
In this piece ("Stumbling Around in the Light"), Brett notes that one way to think about McPherson's work is to divide it into two phases: the first consisting of "the plays fueled by drink," the second by "those that emerged from sobriety." He elaborates:
Alcohol had long been central in McPherson's plays. One early introduction concludes, "See yas at the bar!" and he attributed some of his early success as a writer to "doomy gloomy hangover energy." The blackout-drinker's tale in Dublin Carol proved to be a dark personal prophecy. On the night of the London premiere of his next play, Port Authority, in 2001, McPherson collapsed and faced a ten-week hospitalization for pancreatitis, so thoroughly had drink wrecked his body. The plays that would follow, and that are now collected in Plays: Three, were experiments of sorts. McPherson said he was not at all sure he would be able to write effectively without alcohol's inspiration … . "I was one of those guys who stumbled around in the dark for a long time," he said of his drunken past in a 2008 Chicago Tribune interview. "Not that I'm stumbling around in the light now."
And yet, as Brett proceeds to show, the evolution of McPherson's work, even since that interview, suggests that he may indeed be "stumbling around in the light."
A couple of months later, Brett surprised and delighted me by asking if I would be interested in a long retrospective on the African American poet Robert Hayden, along the lines of his piece on the poet Jack Gilbert ("The Severe Sensualist"), which was posted on the B&C website in February of that year. Brett's essay "Revisiting Robert Hayden" was published in our Nov/Dec 2014 issue.
Near the end of that essay, Brett discusses the impact of Hayden's Bahá'í faith on his work (regarded as damaging by many critics). Hayden had abandoned the rather harsh Baptist Christianity with which he was raised; when he married, he accepted his wife's commitment to Bahá'í. Brett concludes thus:
This Bahá'í commitment … gave meaning to poetry-writing for Hayden. Writing, he declared in one preface, was a "spiritual act, a form of worship" that required no distinction between "religious" and "secular" art. Efforts to master form and technique "are in themselves a kind of prayer." He hoped his poetry would "serve God and affirm and honor man," and be a "prayer for understanding and perfection." Elsewhere Hayden's definitions of poetry sound less assured and serene. He calls it a "species of Primal Scream," for instance, or a way of "gazing upon the Medusa without being turned to stone, the poem being his mirror shield." Poems are places, in other words, where dangerous nemeses are contested, and where, despite that, survival remains possible. This sense of poetry's purpose or protection surely informs Hayden's habit of intermingling beauty with horror, as in the following image: "A tawny / butterfly drunkenly circled / then lighted on offal." In "Monet's 'Waterlilies,' " news from Selma and Saigon contrasts with "the serene great picture that I love," while "The Night-Blooming Cereus" (the title poem of his 1972 volume) turns that desert plant into a suitable container for these oppositions: "It repelled as much / as it fascinated me // sometimes—snake, / eyeless bird head," but also "imminence / of bloom."
Maybe Hayden arrived at an ideal middle ground, as far as definitions of poetry go, when he dreamed of future poems displaying forms and techniques he had not yet attempted. He hoped to find "something patterned, wild, and free."
A theme that recurred in conversations in the days after Brett's death was his gift for friendship, shared with so many as if poured from a magic cup that never needed refilling, even as he was fully present with Anise, his beloved wife, and Avery and Gus, their dear kids. This gift for friendship rhymed with Brett's profligate gifts as a writer—testimony to the unaccountable and utterly gratuitous generosity of the God he loved, in whose embrace he is now secure.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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