Forrest Gander

Pulitzer Prize Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Finalist

Reviewed by Thomas Fink for Talisman

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Eye Against Eye is dominated by long poems, including "Burning Towers, Standing Wall," "Present Tense," "Late Summer Entry," and "Mission Thief." Between each of these poems and after the last one, Forrest Gander has interlaced individual sections of a four-part sequence, "Ligature."

Each of the thirteen pages of "Burning Towers, Standing Wall" consists of one strophe, ranging from five to twenty lines. Gander's flexible free-verse includes a fair share of quasi-iambic (even pentameter) lines. Meditating upon a visit to Tabasco Province, Mexico, the poet communicates a strong awareness of what stands between the contemporary tourist and a direct appreciation of what the Mayans experienced in daily life and in the tragic destruction of their civilization by the invading Spaniards: "night/ disperses everyone but insects crawling into fissures/ in the crumble, field stones and mortar and flat/ stacking stones, which divide what from what once." Captivated by a "thin memorial ache inside the walls," he pursues vivid traces to locate opportunities for partial re-presentation and, happily, finds them, as when "the crisp imprint of a fir needle/ from a thousand years ago" becomes "visible/ in the desiccated mortar."

Gander's knowledge of biological and geological processes, as evidenced also in "Present Tense" and in such earlier volumes as
Science & Steepleflower, stands behind his gift for imagistic exactitude. He is able to infuse the representation of decay and natural growth with articulate energy in strophe-long sentences gradually unwinding through many enjambments: "lately a pair of trogons. . . sit like lords on the ruin/ where rocks flake away in rain and birdshit,/ in which seeds set, shell-stripped in the bellies of the birds or wind-sown. . . / while colorless thread-thin roots/ force cracks in the capstones. . . ." The poet's intricate uses of assonance, alliteration, and other acoustic effects contribute richly to the aura of presence-ing; seeing, which includes striking, economically configured metaphors, is also singing: "cumulonimbus/ pompadoured over the far mountains. . . ."

"Late Summer Entry" is subtitled "The Landscapes of Sally Mann." Mann's sublimely evocative photographs face each poem or prose-poem in the sequence, enabling the reader to perceive that Gander does the work of ekphrasis with sensitivity and energy. I cannot be sure whether ecocritics would label this text "ecopoetry," but the marvelous attention to natural elements, quasi-narrative reconfiguring of natural processes, and reflection on perceptual instruments' properties may further a call for environmental responsibility in ways that direct political exhortation in poetic form does not. The first "Entry," the prose-poem "River and Trees," begins with an accurate warning: "The passage may be so swollen, limpid, and inviting that it requires considerable effort, a convulsion in seeing's habit, to encounter the drama." Mann's "depicted instant," a "galvanic pre-storm eclipse" which she snapped (the poet tells us) at personal risk, requires unusually rigorous "seeing," not only because its aura of "calm is contradictory" and agitation has been hypostasized, but because the reader/viewer must surrender belief to become involved in something more than wind-effects: "the respiration of the forest. . . . We detect in the blurred trees a peristaltic contraction."

In "Ghost Sonata," another prose-poem, an instance of life growing out of and on top of death seems a hopeful omen that human-made ecological damage, with great human effort, might eventually be reversed. Gander combines highly pertinent abstraction with fine description; here are the first and last sentences: "The fulcrum of the composition is the sheared off, gnarly trunk. In contradiction of death's irreversibility, it has burst into leaf. . . . So at the border between a tangible and an intangible world, life climbs onto death's shoulders." The jagged double columns of "Road and Tree" and "Collodion" subtly mimic the vertical divisions in Mann's horizontal compositions. In the latter poem, Gander praises the emotional force of the photographer's deployment of her medium:

Incarnate and carbonized, _____the photograph gives evidence

of an arousal to be had______in no other form

Much the same can be said for the poetry of
Eye Against Eye.