Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

Reviewed by Emily Carr for Calyx

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The expirations of these marble fish, Mexican poet Coral Bracho writes in “Of their Ornate Eyes of Crystalline Sand,” touch and tenderized the shale, speaking of tactile/ sparkling/ of tranquil games played to the end,/ of the languid edge of sunsets…. The delicate marble of the fish’s silence drowns the light/ at the shore; on the sand. It is the prized tattoo, the pristine outlines/ …/ over the limpid image. This opening poem introduces the word hoard—edge, outline, image, silence, drown, limpid, light, fish—to which Bracho will return throughout Firefly under the Tongue: Selected Poems, her first English collection translated by American poet Forrest Gander. Bracho’s poems appear in this text in the original Spanish alongside Gander’s English translations. With an insatiable curiosity, generosity and openness to the undiscovered life of things, they explore a world at once dazzling, complex, provisional, and incandescent. Bracho’s is a poetics of relation that insists on my turn, your turn in turn the word the world.

Spanning a career of over three decades, the poems in
Firefly under the Tongue negotiate the turn and return between the space of our human life—cities of sweetened sunlight and temples sipping from the ocean (“Distant Cities”)—the space of the garden—coursing with living luminous sap/ . . . buds thick with grit (“In the Roused Valleys”)—the space of language—image and model, what’s useful/ and what the other permits to be seen (“The Room’s Penumbra”)—and the space of the trees—strumming the wind, like the sensitive fingers of the blind feeling out and deciphering its edges,/ its surging outlines (“The Breeze”). Relentlessly, sensually, Bracho transparentizes the edges between humans and world, illuminating our interrelations with earth’s elemental forces: light, water, fire, earth, night, and day. Everything—I, you, the fish, the butterflies, the grass, the water from a sprinkler, light spilling across an alabaster pond, death tangled between pieces of lawn furniture—participates in the merge.

From an underwater dreamworld to a deathly garden to the ruins of an old school, Bracho’s poems explore the human and the natural in a kaleidoscope of images. They delicately probe what Marcella Durand has called the prepositional mystery: whether we humans are in or of nature. Bracho’s answer is defiantly both. Human thought is not a standard but a middle state—a negotiation amongst the child’s wonder at the newborn firefly’s ecstatic petal (“Firefly under the Tongue”), death’s undisguised tenderness and singsong voice like a young mother’s whisper, and our adult arrogance and oblique mistake (“That Space, that Garden”). Don’t forget the importance of being astonished, Bracho’s poems remind us. Don’t overemphasize the importance of human reason. It is slippery like a fish, and blind.

The kinetic choreography of Bracho’s poems is fiercely attentive to appearance and disappearance, genetic recombination, and the unstable bio-anatomy of the world. Her early poems are all liquid—there’s no closure, the sentence never stops. Language revels in the uncertainties at the heart of syntax, displacing and replacing meaning so that sense multiplies. The book-length poem That Space, that Garden, and the shorter poems that follow it experiment with shorter sentence and syntactical structures that appear tighter and follow conventions of subject-verb-object. Despite their tidiness, however, these later poems bear the trace of Bracho’s insatiable curiosity and generosity. Nothing is given; everything is fluid, in process, capable of being transformed under the poem’s silky impetuous gaze.

In “When Someone Enters a Room,” Bracho writes,

time and plot shift
in their web of occasion . . . .
. . . . Countless possible concretions
shake loose—All of it runs together
and fills with feeling:

The rock
about to fall
alters the well
and the water
that inexorably, as it drops,
alters it.

Everyone enters the room,
Everyone takes it in.

Everywhere in
Firefly under the Tongue, everyone and everything decomposes everyone, and everything is compost: cooled, reheated, the fertile ground in which a future is possible. Bracho’s poetry reminds us that we humans and the world in which we live are both contingent on subtle gesture and expansive threshold (“Its Dark Force Curving”), bewildered and sustained by the irrupting wind (“Its Fluid Calm, Turbulent”). Now, more than ever, when poetry is accused of being out of touch, cloistered, a luxury, and when we are just beginning to recognize and understand our role in destroying the environments of which are are a part, we need poems like Bracho’s to document a more ethical stance toward the living planet. Bracho demonstrates that the poet can—and should—think beyond the purely eco- or anthropo- centric and reach out, beyond our assumed species of being (the human, the natural, the manmade), for juxtapositions that might, if we allow ourselves to listen, help us to resolve our humanness as both in and of nature.