CITY LIGHTS BOOKS; 128 pages; $11.95
The cover of Sesshu Foster’s latest title, “World Ball Notebook” – with its leering skeleton partially superimposed on a photograph of children playing soccer on a city street flanked by abandoned buildings – is the first sign that this slim volume is not going to be easy reading.
Foster calls his numbered prose poems “games”: “Game 1” through “Game 118.” These games are anything but straightforward. Rather, they’re multilayered, with unexpected challenges: ancient games, modern games, play the game, join the game, are you game, get your game on, already.
Foster’s strength is twofold: As an observer, he transforms the most mundane events into moments of intense awareness; as a writer, he reduces the chaos of an inexplicable world into tightly cropped snapshots. Foster uses endless juxtapositions to both expose and celebrate the contrapuntal nature of everyday life: “As if things exist in light and darkness both simultaneous … As if things cold and on fire both now … As if things go away and disappear and come back different.”
Foster opens “Notebook” with something small, something personal – an actual ballgame: a father, surrounded by other rain-dampened spectators, watches his daughter silently negotiate a tactical move with “an exchange of glances.” Just that phrase captures not only the daughter’s involvement in the game but also the father’s own active participation from the sidelines.
With one turn of the page, Foster moves quickly from the playing field to a well-heeled city street, marked by an upscale Pinkberry frozen yogurt shop. The unremarkable street becomes the scene of a potential crime or tragedy as an older woman, yelling, is dragged “at maybe 40 mph” as she has somehow “grabbed ahold of the driver or the door.” Just by getting out of his parked car, Foster’s “I” narrator faces a life-and-death situation as vehicles recklessly crisscross the street, endangering innocent lives.
While each game could stand alone, a narrative emerges out of the poems’ nonlinear combination. Foster’s “I” is a child of multicultural but heavily Latino-infused Los Angeles. He was a younger activist, concerned especially with Central American politics, being so close to the border. He’s now a soccer dad. He spends a lot of time on California freeways bemoaning traffic. He has a past in San Francisco.
He fought forest fires 30 years ago in Piceance Basin in western Colorado, where Mexicans have now replaced the cheap labor once provided by “poor white folks like Oakies and Arkies of the past,” where the local restaurant is run by Japanese American survivors of the World War II internment camp in Utah and where the local Motel 6 is operated by a South Asian Indian family. Still, a public voice can get away with comments like, “That cowboy’s about as nervous as a poodle in a Chinese restaurant.”
While Foster beckons you into small details of his narrator’s life – “Game 5,” for example, is a list of large and small details from “my world” to “my sleep” to “my mote,” – he also asks for the reader’s participation with fill-in-the-blank opportunities like “Game 23,” which begins “you have the face of a ___” or ingenious multiple choices like “Game 25,” which opens with “fishing about inside her
(cistern, Dodge Rambler wagon, fishnet sack).” Foster conjures up others’ voices, as in “Game 95,” in which his San Francisco friend from “Game 72,” Lisa Chen, reappears to make her choices for “CHECKLIST FOR EARS,” which include “I hear politicians recalibrating.” Foster seems only too aware that the best games need to be playful.
For those just discovering Foster, “Notebook” stands well on its own. For those familiar with his two previous titles – “City Terrace Field Manual,” a prose poem survival guide of sorts to inner-city Los Angeles, and “Atomik Aztex,” a gritty genre-bending novel about an alternate universe in which the indigenous Azteks rule the world – “World Ball Notebook” feels like the completion of a trilogy. While maintaining Foster’s signature taut, almost abbreviated language, “Notebook” seems more settled, more self-aware than either previous book. By this book’s end, Foster is ready to feed “a bunch of cranky people.”
With a single word, Foster manages to get the last chuckle in “Notebook.” Just in case you had any doubts that his game is on and that you’re expected to play, Foster reminds you with a final page marked “Notes” – a place to add your own.
This article appeared on page E – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle