As a Friend, Reviewed by Brian Phillips for Poetry Magazine

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"The near-shamanic attraction Les exerts over Clay, his mediocre coworker, and to a lesser extent over Sarah, results in a dark love triangle whose lush gravity dominates the book."

. . . . Forrest Gander’s
As a Friend, for instance, is a gloomy Faulknerian portrait of Les, a poet working as a land surveyor in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Told in a series of brief, first-person monologues, sometimes approaching stream-of-consciousness, by Les’s fellow surveyor Clay, by his girlfriend Sarah after his death, and by Les himself in an interview recorded for a film about his poems, the novel portrays poetry as the source of a radical, dangerous, possibly unreliable ethics.

Les is garrulous, handsome, deceitful, almost monstrously charismatic; he has an effortless power, almost a reflex, for winning the love of everyone he meets. He lives in the blue flame of a brilliant authenticity, is authentically himself even as he lies to everyone who loves him. He drinks with carnies, seduces potters, holds forth about the “stinking rich shit of the real.” He seems to exist in some kind of sweaty harmony with the axial lean of the Earth. As Clay says of him:

He could join the lines of a poem to the flow of talk seamlessly. His face was so weighted down by its brooding handsomeness that he seemed older and more convincing than the rest of us. His gravitas sucked us in. He could lock his eyes on you and draw you toward an alien realm where you were given to suspend your habits of thought. It was as if he’d come from a place where excitement wasn’t taken to be a reverse indicator of intelligence and where it was normal to mention Cocteau and blue channel catfish in the same sentence.

This is explicitly about poetry. The near-shamanic attraction Les exerts over Clay, his mediocre coworker, and to a lesser extent over Sarah, results in a dark love triangle whose lush gravity dominates the book. In the last section, Les articulates a theory of poetry as a form of supercharged awareness that cultivates the same ethical attention as human relationships. Poetry, like friendship, is for Les a matter of taking each thing as only and entirely itself, of meeting experience entirely on its own terms. There is an echo in this of Keats, of the poet as:

the man who with a man
Is an equal, be he King
Or poorest of the beggar-clan.

But Gander emphasizes the potential for pain implicit in such an outlook: The poet, “as a friend,” must approach “each other and the world” with “as much vulnerability as we can possibly sustain.” Of course, Les is himself not capable of sustaining the amount of vulnerability he attempts—he kills himself after his infidelities are exposed—and his approach to living seems to require an intense and unacknowledged submissiveness from others.

The third part of the novel sifts through Sarah’s shattered psyche in the aftermath of his death. So the legacy of poetic power, in this poet’s novel, is ambiguous, if not actually sinister.

. . . . Gander regards poetry with awe, treating it as the formal or visible element of a spirit that can unmake the world; [his] characters are exhilarated by the possibilities of reconciling culture with an unpretentious openness to nature. . . .