Pain Management: A Review of John Foy’s No One Leaves the World Unhurt

/ /

No One Leaves the World Unhurt
By John Foy
(Autumn House Press, 2021, 85 pp, $16.95)

John Foy’s highly-praised second collection, Night Vision, was awarded the New Criterion Poetry Prize, and his third book of poems, No One Leaves the World Unhurt—winner of the 2020 Donald Justice Poetry Prize—is no less deserving of praise. Though Autumn House Press mentions that Foy’s collection “[w]ork[s] in the lineage of poets like Billy Collins, Robert Frost, Frank O’Hara, W. H. Auden, and Elizabeth Bishop,” because of the poet’s formal mastery and incisive wit, readers may also find threads of Baudelaire, Dylan Thomas, Robinson Jeffers, and even Richard Wright woven into Foy’s lines, which are capable of expressing life’s profound pain and loss and are equally capable of communicating empathy and humor. In five sections that produce an arc spanning the various phases of the human condition, the collection affords space to the religious, philosophical, personal, and erotic portions of life without attempting the impossible—trying to explain life away.  Rather, Foy’s new book explores our various blessings and curses with honesty, allowing room for the movements of the human being’s contradictory impulses.

Foy’s opening poem, “The Payment Plan,” presents a speaker versed in the jargon of insurance sales, a speaker who knows we must pay for our earthly experiences. This satirical poem reveals how one can read both the collection and life itself through the lens of pain—its distribution and inevitability—without abandoning a sense of humor. The lighthearted metaphor of creating a pain payment plan, paid for with pain, ingeniously articulates the human experience of suffering, of feeling that continued living is paid for through our own physical and emotional woes—no matter how careful we are:

……and while it’s true this isn’t optional, our policyholders will, we think, attest

……………that parity is what we’re aiming for. The plan is quite unique in that you pay ……in the universal currency of pain.

Though the poem is written in blank verse, Foy employs enjambment to mimic the way that an insurance policy’s small print might look on a page, with lines that carry more meaning, more comedy than one might give them at first glance. Notice in the lines quoted above that the speaker of the poem operates as a salesman for a pain payment plan that “isn’t optional,” who then states the Payment Plan’s policies are “unique.” Foy measures the voice of a salesman with such poise that the reader approves the weight of this conceit. The satire sates more fully as the poem progresses, incorporating phrases like “ratio of grief,” “tribulation indices,” and “marketplace of woe.”  Both Foy and his readers are in on, and are the butt of, the joke, which is also a universal truth about the painful reality of living, but the poem so delights us with its presentation of this instructive message that we’re left chuckling.

However, Foy is not merely a comedian’s idea of a poet. The very next poem, “Alan Kurdi,” turns the reader’s mind immediately to the grief-stricken side of pain. Concerning the drowning of a three-year-old Syrian refugee, whose name serves as the poem’s title, this poem accomplishes something few poets can: it brings tears to a reader who was just laughing. A lesser poet’s work would not be able to handle such a transition, but the juxtaposition of these pieces strengthens the power of each poem. “Alan Kurdi,” a powerful elegy of a dead toddler, reminds me of Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” insofar as the child is a symbol for all those lost to war.

Please help me, if you can, to understand. I don’t know what to pray for now that Alan Kurdi lies there on the sand. It looks as though he’s had enough. There’s nothing now that I can say to him

Written in alternating lines of iambic pentameter and tetrameter, perhaps alluding to Latin and Greek elegiac couplets, Foy’s sonnet, which also uses unpatterned rhymes, creates a wave-like effect on the page, reminding the reader of the beach on which the child was found. The “missing” foot in each line serves as a metaphor for the lost life but also refers to the lack of words for tragedies like this, showcasing the poet’s ability to use silence to create meaning when words themselves do not suffice.

The first section of No One Leaves the World Unhurt swells with excellent poems that are focused equally on empathy and pain. The poems identify with Gollum from Lord of the Rings and with soldiers in war, but one of the most touching and memorable poems is “Report Card,” which lists mostly poor grades that the speaker gives himself in “being there,” “taking care of animals,” “doing what [his] mother wanted [him] to do” in her final years, and “faith.” The speaker then lists the A’s he has made in sadness, bitterness, sorrow, and pain:

An F is what I got for faith. My prayers were not that regular, and once a year I went to church, a failing in the eyes of those who like to monitor such things, but if you think of pain as prayer, why, I’ve been at it constantly, and were I graded on that curve, then I would get an A and know that I had earned the grade I got.

Foy’s mastery of forms allows his reader easy entry into his poems. He does not concern himself with showing formal fireworks if it doesn’t serve the poem. In this stanza, he sneaks modulation into the second and seventh lines. Though the second line may be perfectly regular, the poet emphasizes an irregularity in the possible pronunciations of the word “prayer” itself, which one could pronounce with one syllable to make the meter scan regularly, or with two syllables, which is the way most Americans pronounce the word, making the line itself contain an extra syllable, so that the line scans irregularly, embodying sonically the manner in which his prayers were “not that regular.” Such minute metrical nuances invite the reader to explore the metaphysical depths hidden beneath the ostensibly “plain-style” of Foy’s lines.

By the second section, almost twenty pages in, the reader expects similar poems, but encounters quieter, more meditative poetry instead. “Prayer,” the first poem, describes a soon-to-be discarded church flyer that the poet’s family received through the mail. Written in iambic lines that fluctuate in metrical length throughout, the poem becomes a stand-in for the unrevealed prayer, which itself reflects the poet’s and, by extension, our own prayers, which often seem to go ignored.

“Should you so wish, we will not seek further contact.” They took such care to prevent our feeling ashamed or weak, the prayer mailed in a plain envelope to hide the hopeful, compromising words.

Noteworthy are the slant rhymes that might even escape trained eyes. Rhymes like “mistake”/“indicate” and “contribution”/“position” begin the poem, and the conscientious reader will pick up on them, easily enough; however, the poet then introduces quieter rhymes like “cold”/“end” to signify the prayer’s message getting further away from its fulfillment. Especially captivating is Foy’s inclusion of interior rhymes. Notice that “hopeful” in the quoted part of the poem above rhymes more directly with “envelope.” The poet could have easily ended the poem with that rhyme, but he hides the rhyme within the final verse and points the reader to a greater, hidden scheme. He alters the Shakespearean sonnet to the point of unrecognizability because he wants the reader to realize the ways we can ignore the greater designs in our own lives. Indeed, the poem is an encapsulated religious experience, as are “One Hundred Pounds of Myrrh,” “Contemplative,” and, to some extent, “Coyotes”—all found in the collection’s second section.

In “Coyotes,” we find the second shortest poem in the entire collection. Divided into three haiku stanzas, tercets consisting of five syllables in the first and last lines with seven syllables in the middle, the poem manages to make each stanza a stand-alone haiku while also connecting them to form the larger poem:

Coyotes at night, even here, cannot forget the end of the earth,

Given that English-language haiku in their “traditional” format are notoriously difficult to write well, Foy goes a step beyond that by linking them. The structure and formal mastery are striking, but even more impressive is the poem taking on more than just a haiku moment, an epiphanic experience, which is reminiscent of Richard Wright’s haiku that ground the political within the natural, itself an extension of the spiritual. While the poem refers to the coyote’s shocking howl and interprets it as a kind of death call, “coyote” carries a secondary meaning: The word can also refer to those employed in smuggling people, helping undocumented immigrants cross the border for large sums of money. The last stanza helps to establish that interpretation:

unless that’s the sound of what it’s like to end up never coming back

The poet’s empathy is never too far away from his humor or the severity of the world, and the reader, even in such a seemingly quiet poem will recall the heartbreaking moments found in “Alan Kurdi.”

Foy’s third section assures us that these poems do not fall into a predictable pattern. Instead, he maintains surprise throughout the collection. The poetry turns from the spiritual to the more personal, calling us back to “Report Card.” For example, “Funeral” explores his emotions during the preparations for his father’s funeral through a discussion about words that almost rhyme with the poem’s title. The result is another delightfully, deceptively simple and satirical sonnet:

No word really rhymes with funeral. There are, though, some that almost rhyme, Like useful, futile, irretrievable.

The sonnet, which does not carry a patterned rhyme scheme, relies on the almost-rhymed words to convey the speaker’s feelings, suggesting the impossibility of articulating perfectly the grief one experiences after such a loss. Within the first three lines of the poem, those who have had to arrange the funeral of a loved one will recognize the adjectives Foy lists as indicative of the experience. The poet even refers, later in the poem, to the unsuitable thoughts we have during the process, when he mentions the word “urinal” as an inappropriate rhyme, and he also alludes to the process of grief when the speaker asks, “And what’s wrong with denial?” Again, the reader, reminded of “Prayer,” finds a poet in full command of language and structure. The grieving speaker can’t quite make rhyme or reason of the experience, and so, he must approximate meaning as best he can, even if it is not “useful” and might be “futile.”

Variety of subject matter defines the third section. Foy introduces us to poems that explore our humanity through the quotidian experiences, such as going to the bathroom and striking a pose like Rodin’s The Thinker in “The Stinker,” or the constant lies that society sells us when we are young in “The Partridge Family.” One such poem that adds to this assortment, one that Foy almost made the eponymous poem of the collection, “It Is What It Is,” plays with the language of the clichéd expression. Altering tense and mood, the phrase takes on themes such as regret, loss, and acceptance with an understated humor. The “it” of the poem can be anything one likes, but whatever “it” is to the reader, the metaphor extends to life outside of the poem.

It ought never to have been what it had been. It was what it was. It’s not what it was. It is what it is.

The end-stopped lines contrast with the collection’s other poems, but they add, with their absence of imagery and overwhelming anaphora, to the collection’s variety. Moreover, this poem, despite its divergence from other poems in the book, contains Foy’s characteristic wit, charm, and honesty. Its voice satirizes the tautology while expanding it before Foy ends his meditation where it began, making the banal expression take on new and layered meanings with a metaphor that convinces us to dust-off the clichés in our own lives and examine what we mean when we use them.

Other brilliant poems in this section include an imperfect pantoum, “The Haunted Mansion,” and a Shakespearean sonnet, “Boxer Shorts.” Offering variety in theme as well as in form, the first poem explores the nostalgia and longing for a moment and person that will never return to him. Foy’s choice to use an imperfect pantoum reflects the speaker’s thoughts returning to, presumably often, spending a night with his friend at a haunted mansion while exploring the theme of authenticity and trying to arrive at an answer to the question of what is real experience? Within a few pages, “Boxer Shorts” explores the consumer’s complicity in the complicated sins of globalization, including child labor. Again, the variety of theme and the poet’s formal skill make the section and collection surprising and rewarding, even upon multiple readings.

Foy juxtaposes seemingly disparate emotions—like grief and joy, fear and courage— and stitches them together with intricate seams, creating a complex tapestry representative of lived experience throughout No One Leaves the World Unhurt. The arrangement of poems and sections may sometimes appear to be at odds thematically—especially when comedy follows tragedy or when a poem like “Boxer Shorts” shines light on human suffering and exploitation in a way that makes the reader laugh at themselves; nevertheless, Foy’s poems weave a tapestry possessing the subtlety and sophistication that the human condition demands, and never once does Foy’s humor “punch down.” Rather, this book offers a family history of sorts. There’s a wisdom which the poet imparts in the collection’s points and counterpoints, as if he is telling his reader to wait, to consider that whatever is going on in life right now will change, to consider how pain and happiness are both fleeting and interconnected. In short, the book says to any thoughtful reader, “You are not alone.”

And yet, after so much variety, Foy’s book takes yet another turn, and we travel to 233 Fifth Street in New York to The Museum of Sex. In a book of poetry spanning the pains and pleasures of living, how can a poet avoid the erotic? A sequence of fourteen Shakespearean sonnets carries us along with Foy and his wife as they check out exhibits at this very real and very kinky museum. The poems exude humor, awkwardness, and imagination. In typical Foy fashion, this sonnet sequence inevitably turns philosophical and spiritual. In the twelfth sonnet, the speaker imagines that Socrates would frown upon the John Boy blow up doll:

He would have disapproved. He’d surely note that in this place the hapless charioteer would see his one good horse come down with bloat, leaving the other horse—the bad—to veer toward the copulating bonobos.

This imaginative moment encapsulates the fourth section. Foy sets up a hilarious moment when his reason, represented by Socrates and the famous figure of the charioteer, is decidedly overwhelmed and heading in the wrong direction—thanks to his rational side, his “good horse,” succumbing to the temptation of the irrational body. The poet’s bad horse, his carnal side, is left to lust. Foy uses a reversed foot, “leaving,” to signal his rationality’s steady decline in that moment, leading the reader to the next line’s “bonobos” and its alternate pronunciation to fit the meter and emphasize the poet’s state of mind. Furthermore, the poem speaks to our society’s misunderstandings of both temptation and salvation, urging the reader to consider moderation: “If this is where we’re destined, let’s at least / explore a fitting way to feed the beast.”

Though filled with authentic humor and honesty about life’s disappointments and losses in poems like “The Television Set,” “Long Live Rock,” and “The Bank,” the fifth and final section of Foy’s book contains two poems that emerge as essential to the collection because they indicate the potential for healing and reveal the cause of some of life’s pain: “Cross and Sphere” and “Bile.”  Foy sets the former in midtown Manhattan at St. Patrick’s Cathedral across the street from Rockefeller Center, where Lee Lawrie’s and Rene Paul Chambellan’s Art Deco sculpture, Atlas, stands.

The poet informs us, “and when the giant front doors open up, / you can see the Son of Man above the throng” and that if we look, “[r]ight across the street in a perfect line / is almighty Atlas, lost in his own world.” Foy describes Atlas as “shouldering the heavens like a man / with a second mortgage and child support to pay. / He cannot fail,” and he depicts Jesus as “dwarfed a bit by all the opulence.” The juxtaposition is stark and eerie, and as the speaker imagines what the other deity thinks, the tension of the poem culminates: “Each of them is far too occupied / with his own travails to care too much about / the one who suffers in proximity.” The poet draws a parallel not only between the crucified Christ and the overburdened Atlas but also society and the reader. Recall that in “The Payment Plan” Foy describes life itself as being paid for “in the universal currency of pain,” a pain which must be endured individually. In “Cross and Sphere,” the poet shows us with symbols of the old world and the new, with icons of religion and myth, that the painful truth of suffering persists—sometimes because we are in too much pain to help each other, but mostly because our own burdens and imperfections prevent us from realizing such an ideal.

Composed of a sonnet sequence in iambic pentameter, “Bile” builds from the first sonnet by using each of its lines to create the subsequent sonnets, as if each poem that follows is an envoi to a sonnet crown. This creates a claustrophobic response in us and stresses the inescapable, soul-crushing tedium and repetition in the world of business. The cycling of lines also reflects the lies that the speaker must shuffle through to survive. He begins and ends the sequence stating, “My thing is kind of like, you know, the lie,” which takes on more dimensions as the poem continues—deceiving himself, friends, and family for the sake of productivity to the point that he becomes imaginary in some sense. The repetition never makes the lines feel forced, though, yet it reveals the level of formal control that defines the collection and Foy as a poet.

The collection closes on “I Entertained a Thought,” a poem in which Foy contemplates giving up poetry, like I and every poet I know have done hundreds of times before. He lists the symptoms attached to the poetic illness: the “self-abusive need to write,” “hollowed eyes” that accompany insufficient sleep, the lack of pay, and all the unrecognized work that goes into the art, but the poet realizes that he would not survive without poetry: “[A]ll my demons nightly come round / to sit with me because I’m here, alive, / with so much unresolved.” As we all are haunted by our past and present selves, the burdens that accompany them, the poet, like us, needs an outlet. He continues, “It is the sound / they make that I must render to survive,” and this sentiment, this sort of pain management is what Foy’s collection boils down to: We survive the sorrow that living brings by creating and communicating with a community.

Though Foy examines life through the lens of pain, the hurt we inflict on each other and the world, he allows all the humor, love, faith, and knowledge that come with that pain to permeate his poetry. That nuance creates an honest account of living and opens his poems to wisdom that at times seems contradictory, but only in the way that we are all contradictions of our past selves. The book’s title is an undeniable truth. No one leaves the world unhurt, but Foy’s poetry also shows us that we and the world can and often do heal together.