After the Ashes: In Memory of Brett Foster (1973–2015)

By Dan Clendenin

This Lenten season I’m remembering my friend, the poet Brett Foster. I was so happy when Brett visited me in my home last May, but also shocked to learn then that he was staring death in the face due to stage IV colon cancer. He joked about his vanity for worrying about the acne that his chemotherapy was causing. After he left that Sunday afternoon, I could barely speak. Brett died six months later, this past November, at the age of forty-two.

After the ashes of Ash Wednesday, and the cross on my forehead has turned to a smudge, I’ll still hope for what Brett called “those hallowed moments / to be followed by sustaining confidence.”

Here’s a Lenten poem by Brett that I hope you will enjoy.

Longing, Lenten

The walk back, more loss. When I open the door
it’s over, so I set to piddling: tidy
end tables, check the mail, draw a bath.
The restless energy finally settles
as I pass the mirror. I peer into it.
My nose touches glass. Not much left,
already effaced, not even a cross
to speak of. A smudge. A few black soot stains
like pin points on the forehead. The rest
of the blessed ash has vanished to a grey
amorphousness, to symbolize… not much.
Except a wish for those hallowed moments
to be followed by sustaining confidence.
Except spirit, which means to shun its listless
weight for yearning, awkward if not more earnest
prayer and fasting in the clear face of dust.

Taken from Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson, editors, Before the Door of God; An Anthology of Devotional Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 425pp.

From the Poetry Foundation:

Poet and Renaissance scholar Brett Foster earned his BA at the University of Missouri, MA at Boston University, and PhD from Yale University. His first collection of poetry, The Garbage Eater (2011), was a finalist for a Drake University Emerging Writer Award and was selected for the Debut Poets feature in Poets & Writers magazine. He also published the chapbook Fall Run Road (2011). In an interview, Foster noted the role of the spiritual or religious in his work: “poetry is for me … a place to work out ideas, sure, but more centrally the heart’s matters, the cries of the heart — those things that the mind would deign to ponder, or might be confounded by. That’s poetry’s forge, and when it’s most exciting and satisfying (on poetry’s own terms, I mean), it’s a place that is free, open, safe, and surprising. Poems aren’t catechisms. They are, in their insights and vulnerabilities, better than that.”

Foster’s creative work frequently includes references to his scholarly pursuits; he has written on Donne, Shakespeare, and Renaissance-period Rome. His editing projects and works of scholarship included Shakespeare’s Life (2012), Shakespeare Through the Ages: The Sonnets (2009), Shakespeare Through the Ages: Hamlet (2008), and Rome (2005). Foster was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and taught at Wheaton College in Illinois. He died in 2015 at the age of 42.

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