Brett Foster is the author of two poetry collections, The Garbage Eater (Northwestern University Press, 2011) and Fall Run Road, which was awarded Finishing Line Press’s Open Chapbook Prize. A new collection, Extravagant Rescues is forthcoming. His writing has appeared in various journals, including Books & Culture, Boston Review, Hudson Review, IMAGE, Kenyon Review, Poetry Daily, Raritan, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, and Yale Review. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and recipient of a PEN American grant and the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, he is an associate professor of creative writing and Renaissance literature at Wheaton College in Illinois.
Brett Foster talks about first impressions, memory, and details in “The Breaking.”
By Brett Foster
Do you remember Menaggio
the same way I do? How our fear
kept sharpening everything beautiful
around us, roses and cypress,
camellias and the citrus trees.
Parents of a one-and-a-half-
year-old daughter, we wondered
why our parents had not advised
against this summer trip to Italy,
suddenly perilous, regretted,
so vastly different from our days
of Eurorail passes, prosciutto
purchased at markets to keep
our costs low. When the plane
landed in Milan, her fever
was soaring. Worriers, we caught
the bus to Como, continued
the eighteen miles to Menaggio
with our daughter most like a doll,
still and stiff in our arms. Her heat
we felt as a condemnation,
throbbing outward from her body.
We skirted the lake’s wishbone shape,
wished for the fever to break.
How far away the anticipated
ferry to Varenna felt then!
Varenna’s winding cobblestone lanes
mirrored our minds’ accumulated shrouds.
As long as she were suffering,
hot to the touch with limbs reddened,
those enjoyable things became
for us bereft of enjoyment:
lakeside promenades and dockside
vendors sublimating olives,
the civilizing Campari,
spritz and prosecco later sipped,
Villa Carlotta, Canova’s
sculptures within, and all the rest
of the waterfront villas, spaced
along the shore like a herd
of marble cattle, which were not
ours to enjoy or encounter,
regardless of circumstance.
The only other thing that felt
consistent were the cuttlefish
we shrank from, being inlanders
far from our home. Everything else
brightened when at last her fever
broke— as if she had carried these
things with her when she left the cave
of her spiked temperature. Wake up,
wake up!, we kept gently coaxing,
after the kind proprietors
of the family-friendly hostel
called a doctor who was kind, too,
kind enough to make a house call
and fill our burning little girl
with a ridiculous amount
of medicine. It flattened her
as a horse tranquilizer would.
We said for hours, Good girl, good girl,
with heavy hearts till the fever
departed, and she rejoined us
from sweat and sleep’s holding cell.
I like to think of that moment
as when the eye finally opened
on that lighthouse above Como,
Volta’s town. Its green-domed cathedral
signaled us southward as was planned,
eventually to Verona.
First we shared a restored family’s
golden hours, never forgotten,
right? That night we drank Vernaccia
and watched her, healthy between us.
We whisked away fear, made a wish
that her life’s tether not stretch so far.
We adored her under the hostel’s
leaf-laced pergola. Felt relief,
felt wealthy like those counts down shore,
so graceful on their terrazzas.
[Originally published in Memoryhouse.]
Writing Prompt: Brett Fosters asks you to ask yourself,
Do you remember _______ in the same way I do?
Fill in the blank with a memory you know well and then tell a reader about it. Think about the significance of this memory and why you want to tell your audience about it.
Definition of Terms
Ambiguity happens when we are uncertain about (or doubtful of) someone’s meaning or intent. Brett Foster points to the title “The Breaking” when he talks about ambiguity, hoping readers will start the poem uncertain if this has to do with an object breaking, a fever breaking, some sort of danger, etc.