Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

Interview with Sharon Osmond for St. Mary's Magazine

What, at the moment, stirs you or grabs your “heart.”  A poem?  A situation?  A work of art?

The last book I was reading was Peter Cole’s astounding anthology of medieval Hebrew poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, The Dream of the Poem.  It covers some 300 years during which Spanish Arabs and Jews and Christians lived in relative harmony while their cultural traditions informed and enriched each other.

I find that many themes and images in your poems --those that appear again and again in both the early and the more recent poems-- have to do with grief that must not heal:  silence, boundary, wounds-- and you explore the erotic inherent in human loss and in death. You also frequently subvert the sacred by placing it contiguously with the banal.  I guess I’d like to dwell on your 1998 collection of poems, Science and Steepleflower, for a minute.  Even the title is subversive. Steepleflower, Spirea tomentosa, has as its common name, Hardhack.  One cannot know that name without thinking of a hard cut, a brutal severing of one thing from another. In the poem, “To Live Without Solace” from this collection, you refer to a god’s claw-tipped brain, and then later, there is this:

The day uprighted,
                           gleaming with wounds.                                           
And then:
                                                                        . . .
god in the glint
                           unmoving stood like a scarecrow in a garden of cucumbers

So god (lower-case-god) is a scarecrow here.  An empty figure in a cucumber garden and probably flapping its tattered clothes.  And I confess I just remembered Yeats: 
unless soul clap its hands and sing and louder sing for every tatter in its mortal dress.

I guess I am sort of all over the place here, but I hope you won’t mind exploring some of the themes and images I have touched on.

The image of the garden of cucumbers is Biblical.  Isaiah says that in a time when “there is no soundness… but wounds and bruises… the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city.”  One of the keys of geology is the so-called principle of original horizontality.  The pitted, faulted, dyked, eroded layers of the past underlie whatever apparently solid surface we survey.  I love George Oppen’s assertion that “The self is no mystery.  The mystery is/ That there is something for us to stand on.”  In poetics and ethics, as in geology, what interests me are the thicknesses underlying appearance, the construct, the interrelations. 

Your poems lead me (beautifully) back into the work of some of my favorite writers:  Walter Benjamin, Immanuel Kant, Paul Celan --and into biblical stories as well.

Walter Benjamin writes in
On Language as Such and on the Language of Man, that nature mourns because she is mute.  This insight, it seems to me, takes us far beyond any possible definition of pathetic fallacy.  It opens another territory altogether:  one of uncertainty and dangerous imagining --a place on the other side of a “border” where one is both alone and lonely (Kant on The Beautiful and The Sublime: “Deep loneliness is sublime, but in a terrifying way.”) 

In your 2005 collection,
Eye Against Eye, you seem to contemplate the ineluctable presence of this terror and to explore the beauty of it as well.  In your poem, “Science and Steepleflower,” a poem that references your previous collection, you say:

                           Because the realm is uncertain, it prompts us.  Not placid,
                  but haunting, this pastoral.

Everyone --every human, every animal and bird, every natural and made “thing” seems sentient and outcast --each seems to
feel the pain of rupture.  In the group of poems, “Burning Towers, Standing Wall,” you make subtle reference to the  tragedy of 9/11.  But beyond the title, it is the reader who must make any connections that are to be made.  In the first poem (I) you give agency to the wall right away.  It is:

                                             . . . a smooth
                  impenetrable force swelling forward to meet the light
                  or the gaze of the visitor. . . .
But wait:  the wall is also victim.  Roots
force cracks in the capstones / to give way. . . and as if flesh, the wall suffers:
                                                . . .
a vibrating, immeasurably
                  thin memorial ache inside the walls
                  and as primordial

There is so much here that feels Keatsian to me, actually.  And so I guess I need to ask whether you allude to other poets as a way of keeping them alive --to show a kind of reverence.  Actually, in your collection of essays,
A Faithful Existence, you touch on this:

Like species, poems are not invented, but develop out of a kind of discourse, each poet tensed against another’s poetics, in conversation.

Actually, it is Thomas Hardy who comes to my mind here, in relation to your question.  In “At Castle Boterel,” we see his willingness to allow for the agency of the rocks:

Primeval rocks form the road’s steep border,
                        And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth’s long order;
                        But what they record in colour and cast
                                    Is—that we two passed.

And the title of the poem you mention, “Burning Towers, Standing Wall,” alludes to Yeats’ “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower….”  It isn’t reverence—you asked if allusion to other poets was “a kind of reverence”—so much as reverberation.  A layered history of poetic voices serves as the ground for my own voice.  They are in me, part of my poetic DNA.  Cormac McCarthy, the reticent fiction writer who was born here in Providence, notes that “Books are made of books.”  

Each section in Eye Against Eye is followed by a “Ligature” poem (four in all).  It’s as if you have made of this collection a body, and you see that this body needs careful suturing before it tears at its own tissue and leaves itself in shreds.  I would love to know how the “Ligature” poems came into your consciousness.  They seem so perfect --so necessary.

This gets back to the subject of wounds, since the word ligature most commonly refers to the thread used to suture a bleeding artery, etc.  My son had a difficult adolescence—or I should say, really, that we all had a difficult time during my son’s adolescence.  The problems certainly were shared.  And for several tumultuous years, our family was in crisis, each of us torn apart separately and torn from each other as well.  I was thinking about both wounds and binding.  And as Eye Against Eye came together (originally under the title Intimacy & Intervention) as four long poetic sequences, I saw that these small poems, which I thought at first did not fit in the manuscript, might serve formally as the ligatures that bound the sequences together. 

Well, this must be my last question, and I want to ask a question about style:  In collections previous to Eye Against Eye (Torn Awake, Science & Steepleflower, Deeds of Utmost Kindness), your poems are frequently “fragmented” visually on the page.  There is a lot of white space between phrases and /or between lines as if to signify in that white space absence or disjunction or rupture.  In Eye Against Eye, the poems are mostly (except for parts of “Mission Thief”), left-margin justified.  Helen Vendler, in her book, The Breaking of Style, says:

It is still not understood that in lyric writing, style in its largest sense is best understood as a material body.  When a poet puts off an old style (to speak for a moment as though this were a deliberate undertaking), he or she perpetrates an act of violence, so to speak,on the self.

When I first read this book, I was stunned by the radical brilliance of Helen Vendler’s  observation.  How do you feel about it?  And do you think it applies to the way in which your “style” has changed?

In an interesting magazine called Caliban, years ago, I published a fiction called “The Violence of the Egg.”  It was ostensibly about a man I had seen who could fold himself into a tiny, transparent, plastic box, and the insight that it took an act of violence to break from any one world into another.  I guess what interests me most in the paragraph you quote is the parenthetical awareness that writers rarely deliberate their styles.  Thomas Bernhardt wrote like Thomas Bernhardt not because he thought it would be a clever stratagem, but because it was what he was given.  D.H. Lawrence has a solid point to make when he writes:


I feel less deliberate about my style than attentive to the words and rhythms and the material taking shape in front of me, although of course I have my tendencies.  I can’t forget the first time—when I was writing a poem called “Life of Johnson/Upside Your Head” when I saw how a dramatic caesura in the middle of a line might enact a kind of call and response (as well as abrupt my recidivist iambic pentameter).  In a poem from Torn Awake called “Line of Descent,” I was surprised to find how caesura, line movement and breaks suggested the cliffy, off-balance sensation of a descent into the Grand Canyon.  And in a series of poems based on rocks and crystals in Deeds of Utmost Kindness, it was an accident—six short lines on quartz crystals, which happen to be hexagonal—that revealed to me the potential for poetic lines to act as cleavage planes, suggesting offset parallel planes.  Mostly, the poetry in which I’m interested is involved in the disclosure of experience penetrated by the world and by others, entangled with multiple systems of meanings, layers of rhythm and voice and depth.  That sort of involvement may also suggest the telos behind what has come to be called eco-poetics: a desire to connect the human spirit to the significance of the world that harbors it.