Here’s a book review of Gabe Foreman’s A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People that appeared in issue #4.
On GABE FOREMAN’S A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People. Coach House Books, 2011.
As its title suggests, A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People, Gabe Foreman’s debut poetry collection, is populated with personalities. In it, you’ll find adulterers and amateurs, zombies and zookeepers, and all manner of sundries in between. The book manages to stay a factual compendium, alphabetical, rife with referential conventions, while acknowledging the absurdity of such a comprehensive undertaking.
And that’s where the fun begins. A Complete Encyclopedia is a veritable smorgasbord – rich with puns, illustrations, and formal play ranging from experimental screenplay to traditional villanelle, with a recipe for cookies thrown in for good measure. Foreman restores your faith in the absolutely strangeness of the English language, with its capacity to surprise and delight.
Foreman’s diction is descriptive and specific, without getting snagged in minutiae or reverting to cliché. He puts pressure on sonic resonance, breaking open rules of sensemaking in order to accommodate verbal patterning. In “Late Bloomers,” Foreman observes:
I watch enthralled
as she chucks a whole whack of carrots
into a damp case of loam
Overabundant sonic density and rhythmic ghostie patterns reminds one of Stevens, another sonorous writer, who occasionally privileges sound over content. After all, the content in A Complete Encyclopedia is already established – everyone and everything that language can touch.
From tonal shifts to musical riffs, Foreman’s poetry is – dare I say? – decidedly fun. The poem “Bad Apples,” begins with a pie chart, delineating “average dudes” and “jerks.” It goes on to observe:
the soul is, like, super ripe
on the twisted branch of life.
You can core it or score the peel.
That mist? Chefs call it zest.
Structurally, the book illustrates the breadth and depth of quirkiness available within a pre-set form, whether poetry collection or encyclopedia. For instance, the poem “Queue Jumpers” appears between “Bargain Hunters” and “Bookies,” its out-of-orderness imbuing a little naughtiness. The beginning of “Identical Twins” is so vivid, so delicate:
If humans were more like plants,
a bee might make a pitstop at your crotch
to sprout a family tree you never planned for.
It takes a moment to realize it is a genetic “match” or an exact duplication of the poem “Accident,” which opens the book. Foreman also makes great use of the standard reroutements founds in encyclopedias. For “Blind Dates,” the reader is directed to “Optimists;” to “Working Stiffs” for “Zombies,” and to “Underdogs” for “Werewolves.”
To further illuminate its serious play, A Complete Encyclopedia has three false endings. One, the alphabetically appropriate “Zygotes,” redirects the reader to “Little Bundles of Joy.” Without making too grand of a gesture, this maneuver intuits an alpha-and-omega circuit between the end of the book and the origins of life. “Appendix,” also sends the reader to a different poem, this time “Organ Donors.” The final ending is “Last Lines,” a literal concordance of last lines throughout the book, often quite affecting. A sample juxtaposition resounds: “It isn’t even funny,” one ends; “It most certainly is,” the next answers.
Foreman’s puns can be reminiscent of Loki-like tricks or pranks. After all, there’s something melancholic about continually having one’s expectations subverted. But, the mythological trickster is a catalyst for action, a character that relies on cleverness and wit to shake up rigid preconceptions. This whimsical upset is essential to the narrative, resilience, and innovation of contemporary poetry.
The content and stories within the entries of A Complete Encyclopedia are both generous and sui generis. While his poetry is self-deprecating, it also catches light like a prism, reflecting more accurately levity and loneliness, melancholy and mania. “Queue Jumpers” is full of simple beauty and emotional resonance:
If the ocean drains to a puddle
of briny disappointment,
we will swim.
In its play, its humor, and its elegantly wrought language, A Complete Encyclopedia forges a unique empathy between author and reader. The poems bolster optimism and offer fresh rewards in the wake of anxiety and change.
The most challenging part of reviewing A Complete Encyclopedia is that each page is an uncracked kernel of imagination. So, in the spirit of experimentation, I leave you with two quotes to stitch together that reflect the experience of reading this fine book. “It can never be satisfied, the mind, / not really” (Dish Bitches) and “By the way, Roy, thanks for the pears.” (Bargain Hunters).
-Erika Jo Brown