Forrest Gander | Be With | New Directions: $16.95

On the back of Forrest Gander’s new collection, the Washington Post is quoted with the comment, ‘A complex reading experience punctuated by intense beauty.’ It clearly takes a certain level of honesty to place such an ambivalent comment as part of a blurb. But there is a heartfelt honesty about Gander’s formal range: from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E oriented approaches where Gander’s attitude to subject matter is cool, to say the least, to the very intimate portrayals of his relationship with his mother, dying of Alzheimers. In between, there is a powerful eco-poetry that is driven by both close observation of things, and visual poetry that Apollinaire would have recognised. This formal restlessness sets Gander apart from other L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets because it is clear that Gander feels an absolute need to ‘say things’, and an absolute need to find the right form for the utterance.

This need to ‘say things’ in Gander’s writing reaches its apogee in ‘Ruth’, Gander’s sequence about his mother in the final throes of Alzheimer’s. Here, Gander’s language is closest to the lyric. Not only is it clear that the ‘I’ in the poem is the empirical Forrest Gander, but the language itself is never afraid to use metaphor and simile. Thus, this lyricism allows the sequence to ‘be’ with Gander’s mother. The poetry is also unafraid to be ‘poetic’ in response to the difficulty Gander’s mother has in her declining ability to communicate. Such poetry supports the reader in the emotion which such a decline evokes in both the writer and the reader; as in this extract, ‘Choose whatever / you will and the disease / still wins. Like a heavy shawl, / the shadow of cloud drags across / mountains on the horizon.’ That Gander puts the disease’s winning on the same line as a metaphor for cloud clearly connects the two; the disease and the heavy shawl reflecting and refracting one upon the other to deepen each. A deepening which is almost the object of lyric poetry. And it is a testament to Gander’s technique that, firstly, he does this with such aplomb, but also, secondly, that it is so achieved.

Part of this achievement, then, is Gander’s sense of how form emerges from content. In the long poem, ‘Evaporación: A Border History’ and the final sequence, ‘Littoral Zone’, Gander’s language becomes both more pared down, and, to some extent, more formal. This, from ‘Evaporación: A Border History’, ‘Paisanos they call / road runners, brothers of the land. A dozen / Mexican corpses marooned under desert sun./ In cottonwoods by the river, / zone-tailed hawks squeal. Visible / desde el aire, the craquelure of / an abandoned runway / overlies / toxic waste and unexploded munitions.’ I have to apologize to Forrest Gander for not laying out the stepped arrangement of the lines on the page. But we can see here how the writing is clipped and abrupt. Sentences have no main verbs and the only two uses of metaphor are in the comment ‘brothers of the land’ and in the word ‘craquelure’. In this poem, Gander accumulates detail and places it in unadorned layers across the page. The result is brutally effective; at one and the same time we have the road runners as a symbol of life, juxtaposed with the corpses ‘marooned under desert sun.’

The final sequence in the book, ‘Littoral Zone’ pays even more attention to the notion of a ‘formal’ language. It begins with a prose paragraph,

         Whether the blackness is interior – pelagic & vegetal there, organic & intestinal there          – or mere background for such shapeliness of globes: spangled with lampyrid glow,          airy with striate foliation, and nowhere stricked-off level.

The British reader is reminded, here, of J. H. Prynne’s writing, the exotic, technical language exactly placed, the sense of a precisely visualized scene, both present and also seen slightly out of the corner of one’s layman’s eye. Gander is perhaps different to Prynne in that the title of the sequence, the fact that its sections are named alternately, ‘Entrance’ and ‘Exit’, and the black and white photographs which accompany the poems, all point towards a closely particularised trajectory for the sequence. The poem describes a particular geological formation and the exploration of it. And an explanation for that exploration might be contained in the second ‘Exit’ section, ‘If a mountain lion could speak, who wouldn’t understand her? On the path, yellow jackets and Painted Ladies alight were a seep darkens loam. A gleam on the slickensides. Sanctified stone.’ The technical language of the earlier section now gives way to the presence of life in the environment. The technical description supplies a formal and an empirical context for the living eco-system. That eco-system and its members – the mountain lion, yellow jackets and Painted Ladies – are described in ways which embed them in the environment. There is a danger, of course, that embedding in the ways that Gander does here, by giving the mountain lion a voice, for example, sentimentalises the animals. But Gander’s version of eco-poetry avoids sentimentality by the sheer precision of the context. The end result of these variations of both content and technique is a book which feels full and robust.

by Ian Pople

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