Jake Berry

Assimilating the Impossible: a review of three new books by Jack Foley
Grief Songs
Sagging Meniscus Press
Grief Songs CD $10

Poetry Hotel Press

The Tiger and Other Tales
Sagging Meniscus Press

All three books available from Small Press Distribution, 1341 Seventh Street, Berkeley, CA 94710-1409, 510-524-1668, www.spdbooks.org.

Grief Songs CD available only from the author: Jack Foley, 2569 Maxwell Avenue, Oakland, CA 94601, jandafoley_at_sbcglobal_dot_net.

Our instinct should not be to desire consolation over a loss but rather to develop a deep and painful curiosity to explore this loss completely, to experience the peculiarity, the singularity, and the effects of this loss in our life.

…but death is rooted so deeply in the essence of love (if we only shared in this knowledge of death, without being deterred by the ugliness and suspicions that have been attached to it) that it nowhere contradicts love.

I am sure that the content of “initiations” had never been anything but the communication of a “key” that allowed us to read the word “death” without negation; just like the moon, life surely has a side that is perpetually turned away from us and which is not its opposite but adds to its perfection and completeness, to the truly intact and full sphere of being.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. The Poet's Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke (Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition).

On June 27, 2016 Adelle Foley died from complications related to stomach cancer. She and Jack had been married for more than 50 years. For most of that time they had performed together as poets. Anyone that saw or heard them perform found the experience transformative. The combination of voices, sometimes in unison, sometimes interwoven as call and response, sometimes reading different lines simultaneously made an impression that was impossible to dismiss.

In Adelle’s absence Jack was left alone even more profoundly than the terrible, sudden aloneness from which all suffer who lose a loved one. How was he to continue? “‘Grief,’” he writes, “for me seems to be a sort of nervous breakdown in which the forces of life and death play themselves out in the most intense fashion.”

The books that he has published since Adelle’s death contain some material that was written over the course of many years and some that was written in direct response to her passing. All of it, however, in some way reflects the intensity of an absence whose presence is death. It is the end of one state and a complete insistence upon something other – an undetermined no-thing-ness.

While death is certainly nothing new to poetry, indeed, it is one of its essential components, no other contemporary poet has responded is a manner resembling what Foley has composed and published. It is unflinching in its directness. It includes a wide variety of voices - as we have grown to expect and love in Foley’s poetry - but here many other living voices are included, as they too responded to Adelle’s absence. All of it is masterfully woven into a open field of poetry that directs the reader through the melancholic harrowing of the soul that death demands of the living.

Grief Songs was composed almost entirely after Adelle’s death and the pieces that weren’t relate directly to Adelle’s illness and passing. A CD is also available that includes Foley’s performances of pieces from the book and an interview with Adelle about her poetry.

Like much of Foley’s work, Grief Songs is a kind of collage, a collection of voices that work together to create a whole that defies the very notion of singularity and the convention of a poet finding his or her voice. Poems, letters, memories, journal excepts, photos and even one of the cartoons that Jack and Adelle drew for one another many years ago are combined to create a volume that is unlike any other response to death.

This is not a surprise to anyone who knows Jack Foley’s work. He is a poet of more voices that even he probably knows. One of the differences in this particular volume is that some of the voices included are the voices of friends. The flood of lamentation and consolation demonstrate beautifully the deep and enduring connection Jack and Adelle made over the years. Read as part of this collection they are voices in a great chorus that addresses death as a phenomenon beyond our reckoning. Yet, we must confront it repeatedly assimilate it into life. That assimilation is the process we witness in this book.

There are so many powerful pieces and they are so varied that it is impossible to accurately convey the experience of the book in a few words. But one of the most compelling is a poem Jack wrote shortly before Adelle’s death. It is called “Viriditas” — a concept used most effectively by Hildegard von Bingen. It is translated as “greening power” and is associated with the divine power of life when it overwhelms our human limitations. Here are a few excerpts:

Viriditas —
the dream
of a green

we are
coming to consciousness
men & women
of light

what is mind
but light?
what is body?

Kora–the seed
above ground–under–
the need
to follow her–down the rabbit hole
following the
of resurrection–

greenness, love:
as you lie in this moment
of danger,
as you sleep
wondering if the next sleep
will be death,
“this greeny flower,”
this green
comes to you
the power of life

The connection that immediately leaps out at us is the reference to William Carlos Williams who wrote “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” late in life as well as a volume of “improvisations” called Kora in Hell dedicated to his wife, Flossie. However, Foley’s greeny flower is “this” flower not “that.” Perhaps Adelle’s illness - “as you lie in this moment/ of danger” - made that greening power more immediate. Death was suddenly, terribly present. Adelle’s entire being was caught in the tension of it and as with so much of their life together, Jack was participating. In Kora in Hell, Williams writes:
Between two contending forces there may at all times arrive that moment
when the stress is equal on both sides so that with a great pushing a great
stability results giving a picture of perfect rest. And so it may be that once
upon the way the end drives back upon the beginning and a stoppage will
occur. At such a time the poet shrinks from the doom that is calling him
forgetting the delicate rhythms of perfect beauty, preferring in his mind the
gross buffetings of good and evil fortune.
The “gross buffetings of good and evil fortune” may well describe what is happening with Foley in this poem and throughout Grief Songs. “we are/ light/ coming to consciousness/ of /itself,” Foley writes, but the consciousness that is arriving in the moment of the poem is the full flowering of life on the brink of extinction. It is an unbearable tension with the end driving back upon the beginning. If mind is light, what is body? Do they work in opposition to one another? Does viriditas, the greening power, drive on through death as the seed planted in the dark ground dies and is resurrected to a new life, a new creature? Here is Williams from the early lines of “Asphodel…”:
I come, my sweet,
to sing to you.
We lived long together
a life filled,
if you will,
with flowers. So that
I was cheered
when I came first to know
that there were flowers also
in hell.
Jack and Adelle lived long together — a life filled with love, joy, and the massive tensions of creativity. As he writes in “For Adelle”:
How do you mourn the absence of someone you’ve seen almost every day of your
life and whose daily presence was always a comfort to you?
What Jack seems to be discovering in the crucial, dark turning of Adelle’s life is the power that lies at the center of that complex phenomenon: Jack was sitting beside Adelle as she slept in a momentary reprieve from the illness that was destroying her body. Poetry was the only possible response. He was writing/singing to Adelle while she slept, bringing life to her, poetry, bringing the dark beauty of the flowers that live in the hell she was suffering. When Adelle woke, he read the poem to her. That experience of viriditas courses through the entirety of Grief Songs regardless of who is speaking. Despite the finality of death the song continues. Grief itself is a song. Mourning is a kind of music. It bridges the chasm and voices the absence, resurrects the life that has departed. It is a celebration in melancholy of an arrival. In Rilke’s words, “life surely has a side that is perpetually turned away from us and which is not its opposite but adds to its perfection and completeness, to the truly intact and full sphere of being.”

How can the brutality of death add to the perfection and completeness of life? Is life so insignificant relative to that other, the life that was, that we are unable to comprehend its appearance? We are thrown into a paradox that, try as we might, we are unable to resolve. Instead, no matter how we might refuse it, we continue to live.

In a letter to his doctor Foley writes:
…writing is in fact my main source of comfort, but it is a powerful and
deeply engaging source of comfort; I can pour my love and my grief into it,
and there is room left over…

I have been experiencing deep grief but I’m not sure I’m exactly “coming out”
of it. It’s possible that you don’t come out of grief: rather, that grief enters
into you, becomes a part of your history
(my emphasis)
and on another page this single line in italics:
You exist now in vivid absence.
We do not overcome death and the sorrow it imposes, we learn it. We integrate its impenetrable darkness and accept it as a companion. It is not the companion we chose, nor does it choose us. It projects its existence into the field of “vivid absence.” As much as we may invent the persona of that absence and sketch out its details it remains as unavailable to us as the living person it replaced. Adelle’s clothes still hang in the closet, her robe remains where she left it the day she went to the hospital. Jack clings to these things even though friends advise him to send them away, to “Good Will.” Death has come and gone, but so many aspects of Adelle’s life remain present. Why should Jack send these things away?

One often hears following the death of a loved one that what is required is closure. How do you close a life that refuses to die inside you, that is a fundamental aspect of yourself? If death has opened a vast chasm in your life would it not be more realistic to submit to the openness it has created rather than try to close one’s life to it? As Foley says, “grief enters into you, becomes a part of your history.” You carry the open wound and embrace it just as surely as you embraced the loved one whose death created the wound. Death does not demand closure, it profoundly insists that we remain open. Is this Rilke’s “perfection and completeness?” Perhaps. It is certainly something more than being alone, being lone, a singular self. No poet has demonstrated more eloquently in his work and in his life that we are not singular entities than Jack Foley. Grief Songs provides abundant evidence of this truth. He is everywhere accompanied by others – inside by way of memory and imagination and outside by a chorus of friends, family and colleagues and they all are given voice in this book.

The book closes with “Yahrzeit” — a poem written to commemorate the first anniversary of Adelle’s death. Yahrzeit is the ancient Jewish tradition of burning a candle and reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish — a prayer or hymn of praise. It is a fitting way to end a book that can never be entirely closed just as a life can never be entirely sealed away by death. We are made not only by the life we live, but by the life of others we love and that life and love never passes away. Here are the final lines of the poem:
How we formed each other
How we treasured each other’s hearts.
If the stories are true,
You may be in bliss
While I find my way through this quivering wall of sorrow
and tears
And love.
My first love, my dear first love.
It has been a year
(Has it been a year?),

Your ashes
Remain             in the vanishing morning light.

Grief songs is a “quivering wall of sorrow and tears.” But it is also a document of persistence despite terrible anguish, of life in the body of death.


As anyone familiar with James Joyce will recognize, Riverrun takes its title from the first word of Finnegans Wake.
riverrun past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay
And like that extraordinary book, Riverrun is playful, musical and endlessly inventive. Its mood is almost buoyantly creative despite the fact that it culminates in the deep sorrow and the greening power of viriditas, the name of the poem that appears very near the beginning of Grief Songs.

One of the most fascinating sections in Riverrun is a sequence called DITTIES, most of which is written in scriptio continua, a form of writing that does not include spaces, punctuation or any other division in the text. It was the norm for classical Greek and Latin. In both cases the text was usually written entirely in capital letters. Foley has found an excellent use for the form as most of the work appears to be stream of consciousness or something close to it. Here are the opening lines of “DITTIES 5”:
We not only read the words Foley had in mind when he wrote them, but we find other words that we would not discover with contemporary conventional text. It also deceives our eyes into seeing letters that aren’t actually there and new words forming in combination with the actual letters. We find ourselves seduced into collaborating with the poet in secondary and “invisible” poems set to his music. For example, one might discover in “bees distantly humming mice at their work in the attics” additional words like ant, ice, or, and eat. Or we might be “deceived” into seeing or adding words like hide, strum, murmur or pork. Out of one poem three poems develop. This does not suggest that the initial poem isn’t engaging enough as it stands, but the secondary and invisible poems happen as a spontaneous result of reading the original. The process returns us to the kind of enchantment that children experience with language and always lies at the heart of all poetry that retains open content and musicality. The “DITTIES” also remind us of the problems inherent with text passing from one person to the next as we read, copy, interpret and translate. One wonders just how often the earliest texts of Plato, Ovid or the New Testament might have been unintentionally or creatively misread. Though written language provides enormous benefits as opposed to orality alone, it also generates new problems (consider the “creativity” of the auto-correct on your computer or phone).

The use of scripto continua is yet another example of what Foley has been doing with poetry for 50 years. By using text and voice in unconventional modes, and creating a few modes all his own, he reinvigorates what it means to read and hear poetry. Once again it is alive and vital, and frequently risky.

In recent years Foley has also employed a technique called “writing between the lines” which began when he wrote his own lines into lines written by other poets. The technique asks us to read two poems simultaneously or at least to read one poem then return and read the second poem and then think and feel what they mean together. In the following except from “Damascus” Foley is the author of all the lines, but it is quite obvious that at least two poems are happening in the same space:

               Last year at Damascus the sun
                              The man
               Shone for part of a day
                              Raised the gun to his
               And then moodily disappeared
               Clouds gathered
                              But couldn’t pull—

               People moved
               And shopped
                              Died of fright they said

The two interwoven poems are made all the more interesting because at times they seem to complete or at least enhance one another. The sun shone for part of a day last year in Damascus, but it is also possible that the incident with the man happened last year in Damascus. It is difficult not to read it that way. Also of interest in this space of double tongued poetry is the word that is absent - trigger - the part of the gun that could not be used is not used in the poem. Yet, without its presence the man would not have died of fright nor would the poem contain the menace it has for us; a menace that is amplified by the gathering clouds. And yet, people moved and shopped. Life went on as normal. And why shouldn’t it? The people in the poem may have nothing to do with the man with the gun in the poem interposed between the lines. Considering what has happened in Damascus in recent years the poem also takes on the contexts of metaphor and social realism and forces us to ask the question, how much of reality do we miss as we go about our daily business? And how suddenly can that ignored reality be imposed upon us as the lines that we assume divide prove to be nonexistent - like that non-existent trigger that must have been there?

Riverrun represents the latest version of the kind of book that Foley has published for decades. Enormously intelligent, musical, playful, profound and abundant in the multiplicity of the selves that appear and disappear. We recognize many of those selves, but we have never witnessed them in these contexts. Like the whole of Foley’s work, it is accessible even though it is experimental and utterly authentic even at its most familiar. In an endnote he writes:
These poems have the pull of the other—Spicer’s spooks or Martians—drawing
me into them. They derive, like a river, and change like a river, and insist on their

While The Tiger and Other Tales is very recognizable as the work of Jack Foley it is his first book composed primarily of stories. Some of the stories are written as dialog and as plays, and some of the stories incorporate poetry, but they are stories all the same. Anyone that has attended a Jack Foley performance, or is at all familiar with his books, knows that he is fond of telling stories, but here we experience more completely his art within the form of prose narrative. To be sure, it is frequently a very unconventional narrative, the work of a poet writing not what he knows, but writing to discover, to bring the unknown to light. That mode of discovery is an essential element of the book’s magic. As readers we are carried along into those unexpected turns where things happen that we “know” are impossible. This is not fantasy writing, or speculative fiction, it is inspired narrative from sources that lie outside the author’s own devising. We get the sense that what we read was not written so much as allowed to happen. These tales are not the result of careful workshop methodology, but works of wonder and mystery where certain truths occur, but are never entirely revealed. If they have an intention it is to unsettle us from the familiar and cast us into open spaces where boundaries are blurred and exposed as mere convention.

It is also a “collected stories” in the sense that they were not written in a single period. The earliest of these was written in the 80s and the latest as recently as the mid 2010s. Can we perceive a development of style across the years, a maturing? Perhaps, but not in the way one might read developments in the average short story collection. This may be in part because the pieces do not appear in chronological order; they are assembled to create something like a whole, albeit a whole that is never attributable to any single approach to the written word. But more than that, Foley’s work always refuses to be contained or categorized. The stories are too diverse to be adequately described in a review, but here are a few examples:

“Broughton Fountain” captures all the delight and magic of the great poet, filmmaker and visionary James Broughton. Foley doesn’t imitate Broughton’s style so much as he captures his spirit in a fable that is wildly playful, as joyous as Broughton himself, yet it is profound, even redemptive. A master who happens to be named James Broughton is surprised by a disciple who willingly tosses himself off a cliff, even before the master can find a pencil to record his name to make sure he is not forgotten. No matter, the disciple soon returns. What follows is an “avalanche” that changes everything for the master and his students.

“The Ern Malley Story” recalls how two young soldiers in Australia during WW2 conspired to challenge modernism. The results were unexpected and hilarious. Even in the written text the story has an informality that reads as if it were dictated rather than a carefully composed piece. Yet that is precisely what it is — and it mirrors the conspiracy and the poetry it generated. The story raises questions as well, about the nature of modernism, what it is or was, and how even now it unsettles its audience. Is it sometimes intentionally a charade at its own expense? Even more now than when the story was written modernism is being challenged. The story suggests that this is not necessarily a bad thing, but those who offer the challenge frequently come away with reputations diminished while modernism remains.

“‘The Monst’” is something of a child’s story that develops into an examination of the slippery nature of identity and how identity works in the social context of family and community. How much of what believe about the personalities that interact in these contexts is fictional? Does it have any ground in reality at all? Reality itself is a bit slippery in this story as well. Utilizing the childlike narrative Foley poses broad existential questions. This in turn invites inquiries about the assumptions we make about childhood and maturity. Yet, the “The Monst” never ceases to be light and humorous.

In “An E-mail to George” the protagonist, Jack, is suffering from the sudden death of his brother. In an attempt to console him a friend tells Jack of a website where people can send emails to the dead. Dubious, Jack sends his brother an email. To his astonishment he receives a reply. The drama that follows not only calls our traditional assumptions of an afterlife into question, it strikes at the assumptions we bring with us into any “real” circumstance. How real is identity, the ego? How real is the person, any person with whom we communicate electronically? What kind of reality is it? Certainly not physical. We see, and sometimes hear, traces of that person, but he or she is never entirely present for us in the way that humans have always experienced presence. Even handwritten correspondence summons most of our senses. It is a trace only once removed from the actual person. But electronic communication would have seemed ghostly to our ancestors. Yet we “know” that it is real. It is as real as consciousness. But how real is that? The last word of the story lands like a hammer in the brain.

These are only four examples chosen almost at random. And yet they do what Foley’s work always does, they drive us toward transformation. They place us in various kinds of tensions between extremes, between inclinations, prejudices, cultural and personal assumptions. Foley frequently quotes Rilke’s “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” the closing sentence of which is “You must change your life.” And like the deity summoned for Rilke in the broken statue, Jack Foley’s work makes demands upon us that we do not frequently experience in art — even great art. Although it frequently entertains and enlightens it takes a further step. It insists that we do not remain where we were before we encountered the work. It insists that we do not remain who we were. It requires transformation. The Latin is transformer — across or beyond + to form. It requires that we move beyond our present form or at least into another version of the same form. It strikes at the very impulse toward form and pattern that is fundamental to human experience. This is cognitive dissonance as high (and low) art and something more — it is motion, a powerful shift beneath the foundations of experience.

Foley’s father was a vaudevillian — a song and dance man. He made his living on the stage and was quite successful. His son takes that occupation several steps beyond itself. He is still a singer and a dancer, but his stage is consciousness itself. And though his audience frequently and enthusiastically applaud, it also ceases to be what it was before the performance began. Each member of the audience moves into an other space where imagination alone determines who and what they are and will become. What more can art do than summon and transform being itself? That is precisely what Foley’s work does. That is the shifting terrain he has mastered with extraordinary success.
we are
coming to consciousness


Jake Berry is a poet, musician and visual artist. The author of Brambu Drezi, Species of Abandoned Light, Drafts of the Sorcery, Genesis Suicide and numerous other books. He has been an active member of the global arts and literary community for more than 30 years. His poems, fiction, essays, reviews and other writings have been published widely in both print and electronic mediums. In 2010, Lavender Ink released a collaborative book, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes, with poet Jeffrey Side and drawings by Rich Curtis; and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jeffrey Side) was released by Otoliths also in that year. Phaneagrams, a collection of short poems, was published by Luna Bisonte in 2017. He regularly records and performs his compositions solo and with the groups Bare Knuckles, The Ascension Brothers and The Strindbergs. Mystery Songs, his tenth solo album, was released in 2016. Ongoing projects include books four and five of Brambu Drezi, a new book of collaborative poems with Jeffrey Side, and a wide range of musical projects.
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