Jennifer Elise Foerster’s brand-new poetry collection Bright Raft in the Afterweather is an elegant, lyrical journey across lands near and far and times past, present, and future. A very gifted poet with an NEA Creative Writing Scholarship, a Lannan Foundation Writing Residency Scholarship, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, Foerster, a member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma, writes poems that are teeming with connection to the natural world, yet also aware of the dangers of human greed.
Bright Raft begins with a clever inversion of Hemingway—a poem called “Old Woman and the Sea”—where a young female speaker and a character named Hoktvlwv (meaning “an old, elderly woman” in Mvskoke) walk and talk along a beach. Not only is this poem the collection opener, but it is also a creation myth of sorts where conversational tidbits, sundry objects washing up on shore, and scientific-religious musings converge into a theoretical patchwork of human origins: “Lava, ash / and song began us.” The speaker in this poem is an observer and an assistant to Hoktvlwv, which makes her insights both personal and reflective of the heritage represented in the older woman. And more than just a grandmotherly figure, Hoktvlwv’s intimate association with the natural world throughout these poems seems to make her a sort of symbolic mother-nature figure.
As a collection, Bright Raft is split into four chronological parts: “Before the Hurricane,” “At the Midnight Galleries,” “After I Bury the Nightingale,” and “The Outer Bank.” “Before the Hurricane” celebrates the beautiful natural and cultural artifacts of a more Edenic world, before it was threatened by so many ecological and climate crises. “At the Midnight Galleries” moves into poems where human desires to dominate the natural world become destructive, leading to the string of catastrophes in “Touring the Earth Gallery” or a modern adaptation of the Icarus myth in “Pilot”: “I can almost see forever / you had said / three miles above the earth.” “After I Bury the Nightingale” and “The Outer Bank” then set the present and future scenes where the speaker must find a delicate balance between her traditional values and the predicaments of modern life.
Stylistically, Foerster’s poems tend to be fragmented, understated, and content to convey themselves through a kaleidoscopic range of quick sensory descriptions in a manner reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’s famous poetic dictum from “A Sort of a Song”: “No ideas / but in things.” This is the exact balance Foerster achieves in her vivid and sensuous poems, as she rarely leaves the concrete world for the sake of abstraction.
One of the most representative poems in Bright Raft—in terms of style and content—is the gorgeous and sprawling “Lost Continent” from the “The Outer Bank” section. This lyric is made up of fourteen fragments, all set in different places and times, but unified by the same speaker and theme of a fracturing continent. As usual, the poem dazzles with quick sensory and figurative force, as in lines like “The city is a ship in a bottle” and “Dense fog spills over studded chimneys, flickering rooms, women / smoking cigarettes behind wedding shrouds.” In its vastness, the poem is part elegy for Hoktvlwv, part elegy for the continent, and part exploration of the modern human city.
Like “Old Woman and the Sea,” “Lost Continent” is also a stream-of-consciousness montage of images from coastal life. Exploring the relationship between humanity and the natural world, the poem probes both the helpful and harmful dimensions of their ongoing interactions. Early in the poem, the speaker is troubled that all the city’s refuse is “tilted toward the sea,” but only a little later along, she also celebrates the way:
This continent is a memory
remapped each morning—
seashells washed upon the beach
each breath a naming of you.
Although the speaker never rages about all the waste making its way out to sea, she notes the close relationship between the sea and the land and implies all the problems these human oversights will cause over the course of time.
At the center of the poem is a stinging irony that perfectly encapsulates the elegiac sentiment of the work: “It isn’t possible to disappear / from that which has disappeared.” In other words, it is impossible for humans to escape the deprivations they are creating. If a local human population destroys a nearby rainforest, for example, they, too, will be indelibly affected by that loss and all its unintended consequences. The continent and the sea are vast and benevolent as “Lost Continent” grants them to be, but the city and its ravenous consumptions are slowly effacing both.
This same sense of self-induced loss is present in the bookending poem “Hoktvlwv’s Crow,” which chronicles the world before and after an apocalyptic string of natural disasters. Shifting images and associations quickly, the speaker notes how “the timelines crashed. / California split into an archipelago. / Orchards withered under blooms of ash.” In the center of the poem, there is a quieter anecdote of ornithologists trapping hooded crows for study. The experiment is clearly conducted for the sake of understanding, and perhaps even the right intentions, but it proves tragic when it prevents these birds from ever catching up with “their flock.” More than just a brief example, this story becomes a troubling parable for the way humans usually harm natural processes as they set out to study or harness them. For every progress, there is a regress, and behind every benefit, there are unintended consequences.
At the end of the poem, the speaker describes a slowly and steadily regressing world with “no sound to the forgetting.” Like the image of the old woman at creation in “Old Woman and the Sea,” the world ends in this poem with “snow / an old woman walking alone, / empty birdcage strapped to her back.” This is the mother-nature figure of the book, Hoktvlwv, with an empty cage in place of her lost crow—a quiet merging of all the images of loss throughout the poem.
Jennifer Foerster’s Bright Raft in the Afterweather is an enchanting amalgamation of tradition and modernity, nature and humanity, celebration and loss. From its idyllic gleams to its apocalyptic warnings, this collection identifies sacred aspects of nature and human nature well worth preserving. In these senses, this book is a “bright raft” for the “afterweather”—a lifeline before the coming storms.