by Tonya M. Foster
With consummate care, skill, and attention, Foster limns the anomie, alienation, and unbelonging of a near-dystopic urban landscape filtered through insomniac wanderings (and wonderings) of her female protagonist. Employing the restrained form of the haiku, Foster puts her material, replete with feminist impulses, under pressure, allowing it to build until it explodes into a poetry that excites even as it destabilizes, leaving the reader on edge as s/he reaches after meaning, finds it, only to lose it again in the rush—the urgency to become Witness to what it means to be.
—M. NourbeSe Philip
A Swarm of Bees in High Court is, among other things, Tonya Foster’s “attempt to create biography of a place,” specifically Harlem in the 21st century, where certain dreams are indefinitely deferred. Foster’s work is a poem of womanhood reminiscent of Gwendolyn Brooks’ unassuming heroines Annie and Maud, Ntozake Shange declaring, “I Usedta Live in the World,” or Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn singing “Rocks in My Bed.” A sleepless woman with plenty of worrying thoughts to keep her up at night, not to mention chronic “street corner noise,” lies at the heart of this work. From bedroom intimacies behind closed blinds to public displays of affection and disaffection, Foster’s poetry contemplates unspoken bonds of culture, geography, and race that bring couples and communities together, along with the terrible strains that can tear them apart: “this poem is the city of faces deserted by the hope of we.” Infused with a weary and wary blues, Foster’s innovative variations on haiku are terse verses, tautly turned and tuned to cycles and rhythms of urban insomniacs.
A Swarm of Bees in High Court is an exquisite mix of voices and shifting signs, what Tonya Foster calls “t’aints.” In this book, sound is an active homing device for the dislocated. Foster’s poems are flickering sonograms of spaces, people, and times: balms for misfortune, charms of possibility. Here is the secret place of poetry: the swarm, the hive (echopoetics); what it means to go home. This is the way Tonya Foster matters.
In this high-flying collection, one could read a single line of poetry and travel thousands of miles. This is owed to Tonya Foster’s attention to echoes and culture and how everything happens in a place all at the same time, but maybe even more so to how we build crucibles of meaning around language that journeys towards the liberated self or the “Grammatical ‘I.’” In a single stanza, for example, you’ll hear Cartesian logic, Gertrude Stein, and Popeye: “says, ‘Am.’ ‘Am.’ ‘Let.’ ‘Am I?’ / ‘I’ma / tell mama.’ ‘I am.’” Foster ushers a new flame into American poetry that will prove long-lasting, new with each reading.
Tonya Foster talks about A Swarm of Bees in High Court at the Kelly Writers House on January 21, 2010 as part of the Emergency Reading Series.
Tonya Foster reads an excerpt from A Swarm of Bees in High Court at The Poetry Project, October 16, 2013.
Born in Bloomington, Illinois, Tonya M. Foster is more accurately a native of a home that no longer is what it was (as always), a home made less familiar by time, by water, by natural calamities and socially orchestrated disasters. Home=New Orleans, or rather N’Awlins—that dike-enclosed fabrication caught among the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, and the Gulf of Mexico, three tongues that should dictate the wills and ways of the city. Now residing in Harlem, she is a co-editor of Third Mind: Creative Writing through Visual Art and a PhD candidate at the Graduate Center, CUNY, where she studies the poetics of place.