Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

Reviewed (with The Night by Jaime Saenz) by Jay Bonner for The Asheville Poetry Review

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With Feeling

Those who do and say things without feeling them, I condemn them a million times. --Jaime Saenz

The "Boom" of Latin American literature in the 1960s brought a renewed interest In the literature south of the Rio Grande: the fiction of Borges, Fuentes, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Rulfo, Donoso, and Cortázar, as well as the poetry of Neruda. The aftermath of this "Boom" has expanded the universe of writers available in English translation. Forrest Gander, a remarkable poet, with the assistance of Kent Johnson on Saenz, has brought into English for the first time a significant long poem by the Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz and a selection of poems from the Mexican poet Coral Bracho. Idiosyncratic and philosophical, these poets nonetheless conjure powerful visions.

The Night is the second work of Saenz to be translated by Gander and Johnson. An earlier collection, Immanent Visitor, was a selection of Saenz's oeuvre from the 1950s to 1970s. The themes of these poems--"self and other, mind and world, . . . the living and the dead"--are also present in The Night, Saenz's last major poem before his death in 1986. The Night is composed of four sections or movements, and themes of alcoholic addiction (Saenz, based on the biographical matter provided by Gander and Johnson, was an addictive personality, abusing cocaine and alcohol at various times in his life.), death, identity, and otherness are at play. In addition, the Bolivian capital of La Paz serves a central role in the poem (as in other poems by Saenz), in a manner, as Luis H. Antezana states in his insightful Afterword, akin to Joyce's creative use of Dublin.

The poem opens with night depicted as an insect or creature with "feelers"--of the shadows and damp places, scuttling from light. Then, night is locked in a box that has been swallowed by night (as Cronos swallows his children), which is located in a dresser (more darkness) "in the nook" (shadowed area) of a room. Thus, the poem begins with night to the fourth or fifth degree of darkness: a night whose darkness is magnified or deepened exponentially. (This stylistic extension of darkness is not unlike Twain's description of Pap's sickly white skin in Huck Finn.) Saenz pushes the image of darkness beyond easy convention; the image unsettles or uproots norms of description to take the reader into a world where everything is heightened.

Alcohol comes into play early in the poem. The night's source is "the dead who have died for / the sake of alcohol." This source, couple with the opening image, suggests that the alcoholic is only allowed the "nooks" of society; the alcoholic is kept in a dresser, out of sight of society's room--marginalized, outcast. Yet, Saenz extols these outcasts, those given to excess, those members of the night.

Whereas the day life is for conventional routines--"for hellos, . . . // the day of offices, of tell-me's and tell you's . . . // . . . and full-tilt races to see who / arrives first"--at night "things go back to being what they are" (genuine being), and alcohol provides "an authentic path to knowledge, perhaps the most / human of all" (at the price, of course, of society's rejection). Thus, to be fully human is to be fully outside society--an Emersonian notion.

Saenz condemns the technological world in
The Night (as well as in poems in Immanent Visitor); technology and "human progress" seek to eradicate night, to banish "myth and the imaginary." Technological progress wishes to devise methods "so that people work harder and sleep less." Night is the time of mystery, of creativity and imagination, of art.
The theme of knowledge threads through the poem, a refrain. Drink provides knowledge and serves as a conduit to another (night) world. Drink takes one to the abyss, to the edge of life and death, though as Saenz writes, "learning to die is learning to live." Night, as Antezana suggests in his commentary on the poem, is the space for which death provides the knowledge.

Antezana compares
The Night to Crane's The Bridge or Eliot's Waste Land: long, "serial [poems], organized around a dominant spiritual or philosophical theme." Sections of Rimbaud's Illuminations also come to mind, at least in terms of tone. Saenz's poetic "search for something concealed and beyond" is surely universal.

Bracho's poetry is both more sensuous and abstract than Saenz's. A generation younger than Saenz, she shares, nonetheless, similar surrealistic elements, especially how she, as does Saenz, plays with elements of space and time. Though death does figure in Bracho's work as well (in one poem, a "blink" separates death and sleep), there is an overflowing abundance of nature--gardens, waters--and the tactile eruptions of human desire. The magical realism of the "Boom" finds an extension in Bracho's poems' imagery.

Much of Barcho's early work, from the collection
Being Toward Death, is filled with parenthetical asides. (Although a parenthesis seems to suggest to a reader that one need only read if one so wishes, Bracho's parenthetical asides mandate special notice.) These poems avoid closure; many lack ending punctuation. Images of moisture, mosses, algae, mud, and "ooze" abound; this liquid or tidal power suggests urges, longings, movements toward and away: the intimate personal abstracted into something more cosmic, some state larger or more universal than the individual. Perhaps these images are the primeval ooze for life's fecundity (fecund is a talismanic word Bracho uses as D. H. Lawrence invokes lambent in his early novels).

A poem like "In Time's Core" exemplifies Bracho's tendency to marry the concrete and abstract. There are several concrete images of time: an "autumn / of logs and leaf piles," colors of gold and fire, ending with "and a delicate moss, incandescent"--the decay or composting work of moss to fertilize the soil for the next round of life and decay. Time's core holds both (in a poem from a later collection titled That Space, That Garden, death and life are "rooted" in each other).

The poems from the collection titled
The Disposition of Amber are filled with images of light and sun, stone and water. The section's opening poem, "The Room's Penumbra," begins with language itself: "Language enters." Into what space? What consciousness? Does this opening suggest the beginning of things, as in some kind of Eden? The poem continues, "The two approach the same objects." Shadow and light? Adam and Eve? God and Adam? Lovers? Understanding and mystery? Word and thing? Language and object? The meaning itself is "elusive."

The next poem, "From this Light," has imagery that echoes off penumbra. There are some marvelous images in this poem: "their very orchard / of sensation. Like discrete stones in a garden. Like pauses parsed / inside a temple." Hence, silences themselves (and perhaps the parenthetical pauses in Bracho's poems) need parsing. Things dominate this poem, yet an attraction tugs at them: "the things of the world / are magnetized." This notion of a magnetic quality repeats in many other poems: objects, humans--the pull (or repulsion) of things and desire, unwilled.

As cosmic as these poems may be, Bracho also grounds them: a butterfly's flight is depicted as "a spinning coin / threaded to the sun." The very form of the poem "Stone in the Pellucid Water" sends out ripples--long lines in each centered stanza. The formal, logical, objective language shifts suddenly at the poem's conclusion: "and find yourself reeling"--reeling from a sudden motion or emotion, a result of certainties shattered, pledges betrayed, balance lost by the gush of feeling.

The poems from the most recent collection included in this volume, titled
Hotel Room, play again with space and time, labyrinths and plots. Hotel rooms are transient spaces: for lovers, travelers. The poem "It Was Merely a Sound" suggests any number of possible causes for the poem's "sound": pain, childbirth, orgasm. The image at the poem's end, of sound as something that "writhed inside" the poem's speaker, implies possession, an inhabitation, something outside (or inside) the (willed) self. "The Rooms Aren't What They Appear to Be" suggests the impermanence or constant alteration of rooms (space): a "drafting" that implies revision, tenuousness. (Hence, Bracho's use of water imagery: fluidity, liquid and permeable contours.)

Saenz and Bracho explore essential mysteries in their poems. Their poetry disdains convention, easy understandings. Whether the mysteries are inherent in drink or gardens or skin, these poets examine the shadowy margins and less defined boundaries in search for wisdom or beauty--and to evoke feeling.