The Blue Rock Collection with drawings by Rikki Ducornet, Salt Publishing (United Kingdom)
The author's training as a geologist influences the themes and forms of the poems and the single essay in this book. Often his poetic forms are determined by rock characteristics, even when the concerns of the poem are intensely human. For instance, a poem about a set of perceived relationships at twilight from the "Crystal" section titled "yellow quartz" breaks into six lines and references the passage of light because quartz crystals are pellucid and hexagonal. In another sequence, "Line of Descent," sharply shifting lines of poetry enact the cutbacks and bends of the path into the Grand Canyon by which father and son descend through lines of sediment and lines of story along the bloodline that ties them together. Without calling attention to themselves, such forms underpin the strong emotional terrain upon which all the poems, whether focused on erotic love, fatherhood, the histories of empire, or the dialogue between scientific rationalism and poetic imagination, are situated. With an eye toward what we stand on literally, Gander concentrates our attention toward what we stand on and for in our various relationships with others and with the world.
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“To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” Walter Pater
Gander's Gems by David Koehn
Abstract ideas, esoterica (both cultural and naturalistic), and lyrical poesis inform almost each and every one of the 8 poems that make up THE BLUE ROCK COLLECTION. In the title poem Gander invokes the rebel opera singer “Helen Traubel’s voice” when meditating on a stone called serpentine. In LINE OF DESCENT he casually drops condylarths into a description of the boy, the son, in the moonlight. Gander’s poems provide challenge and insight. Some illuminate, some confuse.
On my first read I was struck by the meandering lineation of many of the poems. Lines are broken in varying lengths and indented across the page—a bit as if all the lines once ran margin to margin and extra words had been excised leaving these striations. I’ve looked for accentual patterns, syllabic patterns, and other versification in the poems and found none that I would feel confident hanging my hat on. That said, the structure of the music in THE BLUE ROCK COLLECTION is in its use of tiers, and shelves, of lines that provide variation in the way they shift and break across the page. This shifting and breaking of this line-based approach is organic…there’s no artifice of math here.
The very first poem in the book, PASTORAL, may be the weakest. Its language school-ish take on trying to imitate the theme in the book is okay. It does allude to the formations of history, time, geology, and poetry that emerge in the book. But that said, as a specimen in and of itself it does not standout as a remarkable instance of the concrete or postmodernist language poem. The poem hinges on the play and replay of the sound of words like “prime,” “ore,” “cast,” and “passed.” On my first read I just breezed through this and hoped the rest of the book wasn’t of the same ilk.
The geology in the book is its superficial organizing principal and as a closet Naturalist I felt charmed by the granular details of the geologist’s trade. There are “scarps,” and “excavations,” whole poems, as in the title poem, that do nothing other than contemplate stone: igneous, metamorphic, etc… And while compelling, the technical aspects of the vocabulary used throughout, are the weakest part of the book. There are far stronger aspects of Gander’s voice than his flourishes of geologist expertise.
To take this even further, the book is not using geology as a functional trope of the natural world. The trope acts as a poesis that unifies what Gander is deeply interested in.
Philoctetes born of Poeas has his story retold in a strangely twisted fashion in Gander’s second poem LINE OF DESCENT. The poem recounts the speaker’s excursion in a desert locale with a boy we presume is his son. The boy is hurt in a similar way to Philoctetes. The father has told the boy the tale of Odysseus tricking Philoctetes off of his island to help win the war back in Greece. Greece needs Philoctetes magic bow. The son despises Odysseus for tricking Philoctetes. All of this plays out as subtext to the poetic voice coming to terms with his own being. “Of How-am-I-this man? / to keep it away. To dig out / the dead part. Tiny red flowers / curl on long lashes beside their boots. / In and out of self-forgetfulness. /A Gila woodpecker eyes them / from its hollow saguaro. / The normative allure of encounter…”
And later at the close of LINE OF DESCENT, the consoling father, “recounts Greek plays to the boy / phosphorescent with dust / while wrens drop / vertically through dwarf pines rooted / in foliate schists /chirping seed, /seed.” Here we see Gander at his finest. The distanced perspective on the self, the esoterica of the Greek play playing out in the natural world of named things: dwarf pines and schists, resulting in poetic epiphany in the bird’s chirping, “seed.”
Not all the poems rise to these peaks. The third poem, the title poem, is primarily contemplative. The quality of the writing never in question, the choices made to evoke the stones are reasonably compelling. Though again, the stones aren’t really the point here. The act of poesis is.
In the fourth poem FIELD GUIDE TO SOUTHERN VIRGINIA, we get some un-musical strangenesses such as “You made me to lie down in peri-Gondwanan back-arc basin.” But we also get the gentle music of “One particular day, four hundred / million years ago, the mud stiffened / and held the stroke of waves. Orbital motion. /Raking leaves from the raspberries, you / uncover a nest of spring salamanders.” Even more to the central cast of the book are the lines, “And words / themselves can be compared to stones, /relentless systems of reference.”
In the fifth poem FACING ON ALL DIRECTIONS there are many challenges and rewards. Pieces to be unearthed in a close read and pieces unearthed for us by the poet. The skeletons of the couple and child discovered in the remnants of an ancient earthquake, and ruminations such as that “single bellow / fills the hall of mirrors, as though a huge mouth were coming / to swallow the remaining ripe hours…”
In the sixth poem CODA: ABOUT THE SECOND CIRCLE we are provided a new myth about the invention of a stone. Not unlike a myth about lynx pee later in the next poem in the book. This circle of hell story while unique reeks of strangeness that leaves the reader off-balance. The intention here is to have invited the reader so deep into this strange world that in this foreign territory the strangeness begins to look and sound familiar.
In the seventh poem, A POETIC ESSAY ON CREATION, EVOLUTION, AND IMAGINATION. Gander reveals just how much, THE BLUE ROCK COLLECTION is truly all about poetry and poesis itself. This poem could well have been written in prose and not lost any of its meaning or vitality. That Gander chose to lineate it is fine, no objections here. The essay discusses the poets search for new voices. For Gander being open to anything is the point of it all…it is his aesthetic and moral pinnacle. The poet, the publisher, the reader, the poem…need be a function of openness to all things, as, Gander argues, nature and history, and time itself are open to all things.
In the eighth poem, BURNING TOWERS, STANDING WALL the tragedies of the twin towers are grafted onto an otherwise fine poem. It is a poem contemplating the assembly of a stone wall in Mexico. Through time, through drought, through pestilence, through being pissed on, the wall means and the wall endures. The wall’s referential metaphors allude to the “fragility of presence” that stone seems the master of.
In a book of 96 (78 pages of poetry proper) pages, at least 18 modern poets are mentioned. 1 modern poet in every 5 pages—this has to be some kind of record. They include Christopher Dewdney, Brenda Hillman, Craig Dworkin, CD Wright, Jack Spicer, Derek Walcott, Kamau, Brathwaite, Shake Keane, Louis Zukofsky, Clayton Eshleman, Paul Eluard, Whitman, Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley, John Ashberry, Basil Bunting, George Oppen, Paul Valery, and William Bronk. (I am sure I missed some and I exclude Keats, Coleridge, Aristotle, Socrates, and so forth as more classical references).
In addition, in a book of 96 pages, there are at least 14 more other historical figures, including Vishnu, Philoctetes, Odysseus, Theophrastus, Helen Traubel, Albertus Magnus, Da Vinci, Richard Feynman, Alexander Von Humboldt, Giovanni Battista Vico, Mary Leakey, Wittgenstein, Dr. Cabinas, and Bertrand Russell to name most.
Also, in a book of 96 pages, there are 25 pages of drawings by Rikki Ducornet illuminating the manuscript and serving, at times, as section breaks between poems and sometimes mixed into the poems on the page.
Lastly in a book of 96 pages, there are 30 or so types of rock or stone named, including igneous, sedimentary, sandstone, shale, trilobites, Redwall, schist, granite, gabbro, lava, moon, ophicalcite marble, serpentine, crystal, geode, tourmaline, yellow quartz, garnet, datomacious limestone, pitchblende, pyrite, cephalon, pygidium, glabella, diamond, heliotrope, agate, lyngurium, magnetite, and carbonitite ash. The word stone appears at least 39 times. Rock appears 18 times.
The point of my mini concordance of Gander’s THE BLUE ROCK COLLECTION is that much of the close reader’s time is spent decoding. Not just listening. I think that is part of Gander’s intention here. As an example of what I mean, the beauty of nature, a bird or stone, is not just its surface image. The beauty is in the natural history of that image and the word and the connotations of that natural history. Thusly, the same goes for poets and poetry.
If I sound critical, it is because the book begs for analysis and consideration. It is the work of a hand that has talent and experience with words. The ambition here cannot be slighted. I mean to say, that I judge the work based on the expectations it has of itself. Its “relentless systems of reference” are tangled and complex, sometimes resolving into brief, bright gemlike flames.