Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

A Faithful Existence, reviewed (with Eye Against Eye) by Dustin Simpson for The Chicago Review

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What would it be like to pull the curtains aside and suddenly look out upon the world for the first time?  To be, as Forrest Gander memorably calls it, torn awake?  This is the driving question of Gander’s two new books and of his work as a whole.  As poet, reader, and translator, Gander dreams of “the incipient vision opening to us from the other side of consciousness, the muscular curtain drawn back from the beginning of dream.”  The chief task of the poet is to instantiate such moments.

A Faithful Existence, Gander writers about a rather startling array of allies, including alt-country outsider Vic Chesnutt, Bolivian poète maudit Jaime Saenz (whom Gander also translates), and the imaginary poet Araki Yasusada.  Other stars include Besmilr Brigham, George Scarbrough, Henry Dumas, Laura (Riding) Jackson, George Oppen, and Robert Creeley.  To these and others Gander pays homage and calls communion, constellating the assemblage as a half-buried tradition devoted to the religious potential of perception and consciousness.

Gander’s earliest such ally is Thomas Traherne, whose recently rescued poem “The Desolateness of Absence” provides him with a mystic Christian analogue for his own phenomenological poetics.  In that poem, Traherne sings of a man “Poor and Desolate” who lives in utter isolation and waits miserably for the Advent of God, which will finally make of him “A Bliss to others.”  Traherne’s vision of the Advent suggests that “man will experience a gross bouleversement and his desolate consciousness will be transformed.”  Through that transformation, he will ultimately “become a little child”—achieving a quality of consciousness that is saturated with wonder and bliss; he will inherit what Traherne calls “original simplicity” born of “the primitive and innocent clarity” perceived when the redeemed man looks upon the world with what Traherne elsewhere calls the “infant-eye.”

Gander argues that Traherne’s “visionary imagination surprisingly anticipates contemporary phenomenological urgencies” in two major ways.  First, Traherne’s economy of “absence and advent” resembles that of Levinas: for both, “absence and negation presuppose presence and signification,” and both envision an awakening of consciousness that is forced upon us by the infinite.  Second, Traherne’s “original” or “primitive” mode of perception is what Gander calls “a state akin” to Merleau-Ponty’s “primary consciousness”; both writers posit a “pre-reflective awareness” that “might exist before linguistic and cultural influences.”  In identical terms, Gander discusses Merleau-Ponty alongside George Oppen, asserting that both “were reacting against rationalism and calling for a pre-reflective engagement with alterity,” that both placed their faith in achieving or approximating a “primary” and even “prelinguistic” state of being.

Gander steers his readers away from theory and toward a practice of attentive and receptive reading and being-in-the-world, a practice that does not require an unassailable set of absolutes to yield worthwhile results.  What it requires is a leap of faith, an abiding in the “circling dark” of a Sally Mann landscape or in the “unmoored / no longer defining narrative” of the long poem “Present Tense.”  To be faithful in this context means to believe without knowing and to practice this belief by making oneself vulnerable, which is to say available, to forces that one has no ability to conceptualize in advance.  What Gander says of Oppen on the book’s last page he might well say of himself: “His is very literally a practice of perception.”

The first long sequence in
Eye Against Eye is called “Burning Towers, Standing Wall,” a mediation conducted from within and around some Mayan ruins in Tabasco, Mexico; it also obliquely evokes the events of September 11, 2001.  Readers familiar with Gander’s previous books will be struck by the accessibility of this sequence, which proceeds via regular syntax and diction, and which is further corralled into order by the repetition of the phrase “What came over the walls,” which begins four of the thirteen passages.  Staring relentlessly at the walls, the speaker of the poem comes to perceive flux everywhere:

 So doves come, a spotted turkey, iguana and
lately a pair of trogons to 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, sending up
  stem and aigrette into unkind light and wind
  while the colorless thread-thin roots
  force cracks in the capstones
  to give way, rain and sunbake
  dissolving mafic bonds as the exposure
   vesicles inward

Again we sense a “convulsive” or “peristaltic” potential born of an intensely bodily experience of the outside, the constituitive interpenetration of subject and object so central to Gander’s poetry.  In the next section, the speaker is hyper-tuned to the sonic elements of the scene, just like a previous persona in Science & Steepleflower who was attuned to the very “stridulations of ants.”  This time he hears with the Maya:

Some of the sounds bouncing from stones are
nearly the same sounds they heard—resonant
human voices and the perwicka perwicka
of a quetzal in flight at a distance—
and give us access to them almost
  through the grinding cicadas and crickets
  thrumming serrated thighs
  though their domestic acoustics, the high
   rubato laugh of children and the basso
   continuo of city commotion
   have precipitated out
   leaving a gravitas around the ruin

Here we see how Gander’s “practice of perception” brings him into greater proximity with those who “at first glance” had fully disappeared.  By poem’s end, the walls of the ruin provide a meditation on not only the complicated ways in which we protect ourselves by excluding others but also how we can intuit shared relations with even the most distant of others: “And what do they frame / if not the intuition of our relation, / a resonance?”  The style of “Burning Towers, Standing Wall” is similar to the style of the long narrative poem “Mission Thief.”  Here too, readers familiar with Gander’s earlier work will be struck by the poem’s regular syntax, its chronology, and its consistent perspective.

If I have mostly emphasized these two books as a continuation of Gander’s phenomenological poetics, it also seems worthwhile to consider why
Eye Against Eye seems to mark a departure from the paratactic, inscrutable, and beguiling elements in many poems from, say, Science & Steepleflower.  There is a more profound ethical impulse here that may have something to do with these poems’ greater accessibility.  In an essay tellingly entitled “The Transparency of a Faithful Existence,” Gander says, “The meaningful dialogue between poem and reader is as much a sacred manifestation as I hope to encounter.”  Is this emphasis on the ethical and the sacred at the root of Gander’s move to a less “innovative” poetry?

A hint comes in the essay on Besmilr Brigham and George Scarbrough.  Gander’s main purpose here is to remind readers (and urban poet-critics like Charles Bernstein) that metropolitan poets have not cornered innovative, “modernist” poetics, and further, that it is possible to write about “nature” without being hopelessly passé.  In fact, Gander argues that only a thoroughly urban poet could find the natural world so alienating.  And Gander is obviously right on both fronts.  More to our purposes, though, is Gander’s discussion of the Brigham poem “Heaved from the Earth,” where she employs the very “radical artifice” so championed by Bernstein, including “peculiar syntax and diction and punctuation” and, holiest of holies, “parataxis.”  Gander praises the poem, asserting, “The grammar seems to realize the chaos of the post-tornado scene.”  Similarly, he notes that the awkward phrasing, unusual hyphenated words, and idiosyncratic punctuation “give the poem a palpable structure,” and contribute to its main accomplishment: “The poem itself becomes event.”  All of which implicitly raises the question whether Gander thinks such tactics realize a scene or become an event that is other than a tornado.  At the end of the essay, Gander clarifies the matter: “Finally, I am not suggesting that more familiar approaches to contemporary poems are outmoded, nor that narrative, traditional forms, and conventional syntax have outlived their usefulness.  I think they have not.  However, I do advocate for the multiplicity of Southern poetries.”

Whether one is a “strong advocate” for radical artifice or not,
Eye Against Eye is a powerful book that enhances Gander’s oeuvre by adding to its range.  Gander is a devout believer in formal pluralism, since “energy constantly flows into new forms.”  Yet we cannot think of Gander as a conventional formalist; he treats form as an open and continually immanent process like evolutionary “exaptation,” in which “a structure arises, but becomes useful only after its development.”  Similarly, while Gander likes the idea of starting, like the Oulipo, with a “structural penchant,” he quickly reminds us that “my architecture deforms according to what it comes to contain.”  For some readers, these comments will seem evasive; however, for a poetics of receptivity such as Gander’s, it may be that leaving one’s motivation in half-light is just what enables poems to come into being.