Brian Foley, The Constitution
Black Ocean, 2013

Reviewed by JoAnna Novak

[Review Guidelines]

Article 1: Paying Dues to the Fatherland and Mothership: a Rough Erasure from the O.E.D.'s Constitution Entry

See the verb, which is constitutionalize or, more familiarly, constitute. See Hobbes' Leviathan: "Before constitution of Soveraign Power...all men had right to all things."

See the act of decreeing, decrying, ordaining, organizing; enacted by a raw emperor.


Article 2: A summing

Carrie Olivia Adams, Black Ocean's poetry editor, interviewed by Dana Jennings in The New York Times: "In these attention-starved times, when we are communicating significant global events in under 140 characters, what better medium could there be than one that believes in concision, compression and the power of the small to convey the great? Poetry may be the world's best sound bites—certainly some of the most human and necessary."


United States Constitution: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."


Foley's sound bites put voice to the struggle for basic human needs, which may be broadly umbrella'd beneath domestic Tranquility. The poems in The Constitution fight for food, shelter, the beatitude of moral or ethical higher powers.


Article 3: Anatomy

Prefaced by the downright Preambley, "Self Assessment," The Constitution is divided into four sections, each longer than the last, each lamplit with more "Amendments," totemic poems that loosely recapitulate the thematic material they follow.

The book is small and handsome, orange and black and snow-touched-by-tire-white, with a cover that, to this reviewer, bears a resemblance to a barcode or a neurotic's stack of kindling.


Article 4: Names

The Constitution rides the momentum of its title, so rife with connotations and denotations, national and personal, concrete and ephemeral. What constitutes a government, a body, a governing body, a governed body, or, as Foley writes in "Self Assessment," "the body/which moves/in habit" (7-9)? What constitutes a home, the speaker's poems seem to ask? Or, in other words, can the heart and its lofty ideals be constituted soley by the body—vile, viced, base?


Article 5: Body Composition

"I was once/an accident/a car come off/the road," Foley writes in "Beauty Holds Onto a Finger," a poem in the collection's second section that finds the speaker reminiscing on a stint in a hospital. An accident, an incident, an amendment, an advent, an inception, a birth: if these poems are bodies, they are stiltish legs, stork and tottering, slim poem with uneven stanzas. A quatrain followed by a tercet interrupted by a couplet; a collection of tercets capped off with a couplet: formless forms that allow the primal diction to shape these lyrics. They take their form from their content—or that which constitutes them.


Article 6: Disembodiment

When I finished reading The Constitution, I felt as though I had been wandering around a leafless woods, where lean-tos and thatched huts appeared, Blair Witch-y. Upon rereading, the poems' spareness revealed itself to be a facet—perhaps, a strength—of the speaker's tone, which is reserved and rationally irrational, as in "Object Lesson":

"too bad/my story will arrive/on the scene/with my corpse//all my strength/popped out"

Still, examining the poems' concrete guts reveals the tension between what is consumed—liquor, onion, chicken heart—and what consumes—poison, sky, rot, home.

Hay, chimney, house, tree, gargoyles, buildings, deer tick, sky, sun, horses, grass, grenade helmet, battlefields, cemetery, angel, boats, throats, cicada, cathedral, moon, fog, dollar, cloud, truck, sea shells, knife, car, liquor, orphan, money, light, food, body, wedge, door, hands, sun, calluses, eye, black lines, poison, teeth, pet, seaweed, bone, sea, waves, cricket, forest, stars, soap bubble, winter fur, bones, snow, splinter, lip, belly, tool, wood, sink, hood, father, sea, clothes, bread, mouse, heart of a palm, crumbs, cellar, rook, box, string, onion, buildings, street, woods, photo albums, hinges, doors, wall, trees, fingeroil, scales, fish, ant, vein, parachute, scissors, flag, bull, dahlia, rot, rubble, leaves, lightbulbs, nail, toothpick, stocks, stump, woods, parasites, ear, chicken heart, home...

The book, then, is a landscape like the body might wander through, a world barren with objects.


Article 7: Tithes

What a reader might owe Foley after reading The Constitution is revolt; a dismantling of civic observance, or at least a revision of that which we let ourselves be lorded by. Let them be houses or fathers, women or mothers or laws, liquor or hunger or touch—what leaves us "pinched in exposed space," as Foley writes in "Rising," slaves to shelters that keep us from running wild.