SESSHU FOSTER
WORLD BALL NOTEBOOK
CITY LIGHTS PUBLISHERS / 2009
Review by DIANA HAMILTON

 

a shot of the Jesusita fire, from Marina

a shot of the Jesusita fire, from Marina

with this unique experience you should be able to defibrillate the dead
with this fishbone you ought to be able to fix your car
with this terrific amigo you should be able to buy some shoes
with this chilly reception you should be able to get wild

(from “game 53”)

The poem excerpted above from Sesshu Foster’s World Ball
Notebook
implicates the book in hand as the “with this” in question:
with this book of poems, it asks, each one titled “game 1” through
“game 118” (inclusive), what should you be able to do? The list
given sets a pretty high standard for what to accomplish with small
tools, but the utilitarian mantra stands in contrast to the book’s
more looming repeated item: this is all a game. In a game, you
should be able to win, or lose, but not much else. And if the book
itself fails, we’re to get wild with the chilly reception instead.

The use of the word “game” as every poem’s title has many
implications, but after its first allusion (soccer), it highlights
Foster’s decision to use many different forms—including the letter,
the list, fill-in-the-blank, prose, linebreaks, instructions, and
multiple choice—without attaching much meaning to form’s
choice, allowing “game” to remain playful, even when it begins
to reference writing rather than sport. If he’s just playing, it’s
enough to try things out.

WBN

Which gets to the bulk of World Ball Notebook, a book very much
about trying. First, you have one main speaker trying, through
various forms, voices, and poems, to pin down a set of contexts
that make up the larger game implicated in the claim to worldliness
the book’s title makes—trying too to navigate literal roads, less
literal identities, and shifts between time that get in the way of narrowing
scope—trying finally to make room for other characters
within all this—all the while not trying much for resolution. There
is also the constant trying that is parenting, that is wanting to say,
and most of all, wanting to record. At its most serious moments,
World Ball Notebook is trying to witness. In “game 4,” which reads
much like a spell or a prophecy, we learn,

The person without ideas or imagination is to pour one
teaspoon of ashes on the back of a running pronghorn
antelope, or try to; pour one teaspoon on the back of a
buffalo, or try to; pour another teaspoon on the first new
snow anywhere;

The poem details how various people ought to get rid of their
ashes, getting at some need to bury the dead, but it also reassures
the instructions’ target that it’s enough to try these things out.
Throughout, the types specified are referred to as “the one” or “the
person”; Foster uses vagueness as a way to get towards a less confining
specificity. He exploits the ambiguity of pronouns to conflate
the people and experiences of those he occasionally names,
making use of some sort of memory (or ashes) without reducing
the poems to history. Sometimes, this seems to happen to “protect
the innocent,” so to speak, but often, it does just the opposite,
implicating others (especially the narrator himself) in circumstances
in which they would not play a direct role without the
accusation of grammar, of sentences’ proximity. In a poem midway
through the book (game 49), a list of sentences involving a
hesitance to speak produces a pair of lines that gets closest at how
nearness can imply guilt:

I never told her I was standing on the balcony and saw them through the window.
She had not said she’d been raped nor did she ever mention it.

(from “game 49”)

Comparing this to the other lines from the same poem, the accusation
is just a result of the latter sentence taking on so much weight;
these two events are only simultaneous in the experience of reading.
But somehow, throughout World Ball Notebook, the nearness
gets to be too much to claim innocence, and part of the game is
becoming aware of the games happening nearby. That is how a
scene describing helping his daughter’s soccer team set up the nets
in the morning is changed, later in the book, by Foster’s description
of a different game entirely, “game 66,” in which,

The black boys attach a chain to the big chainlink gate of
fence running along a field, the playing field at night; the
chain attached at the other end to the bumper of a car
whose driver cannot hear them scream when the chain,
becoming taut as the car drives off down the street into the
dark, loops around several boys yoking them together…

while back in “game 43,” when “the girls would roll out languid,
cold and sleepy,” a premonition of danger comes: the poem/game
ends abruptly with the sentence, “Something might break.”

 

foto by Arturo Romo-Santillano

foto by Arturo Romo-Santillano

In an interview with Eileen Tabios from Black Lightening: Poetry-in-
Progress
, Foster said, “I have a background that I often have had to
simplify for people…who come from outside that experience.”
World Ball Notebook works through that tendency to oversimplify,
offering explanation of heritage mostly through the contexts and
experiences to which the speaker is or has been submitted, while
at the same time allowing identity to remain in its simplest, most
dangerous form: the implied unity of the persistent, emphatic I/me
that rolls throughout the book, or the ball that many games have
in common. In the middle of all this, the book invites in what
might not belong—a shopping list creeps into one of the poems, or
Che shirts appear across a scene—but also makes some acknowledged
omissions, substituting blanks for words, or beginning lists
with numbers that don’t seem to begin where prior pages left off.
Because so much of the book is based around a single actor’s perspective,
such choices can be seen to mirror the act of perception
itself, where some things simply flicker in and out of view, and
where meetings between previously unconnected characters or
events are forged within one person’s ability to notice. World Ball
Notebook
is at its strongest in those moments where the notebook
itself takes on that role. The ruled lines of a notebook take control
in a book where the logic of the list becomes the backbone of
urban collectivity, and where the game becomes written instruction
as much as an invitation to play.

Diana Hamilton is a co-coordinator of the Friday Night Series at the Poetry Project.

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