One of the things most alive in contemporary poetry is a sense that even as the ecological ship goes down, we might record the catastrophe, might leave a record of it, and of our witnessing ourselves witnessing what we’ve done to ourselves. We may be a species, the poet suggests — and though he’s speaking in the first person the voice could be any of us — that seems “to need to turn / everything to tragedy” in order to feel alive and, maybe, in order to speak or act. It reminds me how desolate I suddenly felt years ago when mom and dad would turn the car around, canceling this or that outing, because we wouldn’t stop quarreling in the backseat. The sense of stupid loss. Of the stupidity and pang of feeling the reality of your own lack of foresight, or of the weakness of your foresight against the inertia of your bad behavior. A certain clarity of self-wrought grief. And Forrest Gander, as much as any poet alive, is the poet of our present, environmentally conscious grief.
Which is not to say he is passive or defeatist. Given to loathing cliché — cliché being a way not to see what’s actually happening — Gander is also one of the great poets of Eros. Never in crass ways. But there’s not only a sexiness to his poetry, to the way it moves, to its breathtaking vocabulary and unfailing inventiveness: the poems are, in fact, concerned with both destruction and with the way human intimacy and the inherent sexuality of the human imagination rebuilds us in the midst of ruin, even as they sometimes ruin us in the midst of rebuilding. The fertility of the earth holds a seed of change. Intimacy is one of his major subjects, but he’s never been so head-on as to be confessional — one of his powerful early sequences sprang from accounts of legendary blues musician Robert Johnson, whom we know relatively little about, and who died at twenty-seven somewhere in the south. Writes Gander in those poems, published almost thirty years ago:
In the night he rose
and came out to piss.
The moon smoldered like a burnt tick.
he stepped on something he thought
was a clump of hair, a wolf
spider with her ball of children
whose thousands spilled
over his bare foot.
Since writing these lines, Gander has become an acclaimed translator, always drawn to what’s at the edge of one’s knowing: In his most recent book, maybe his best yet, the poems are framed in terms of — and are sometimes about — lichen, a lifeform made of the marriage of convenience of two other lifeforms changed irrevocably by the bond, and who, in their new state, if given proper nutrients, could theoretically live forever. A figure for the dream of intimacy. Scientists are still baffled by much about lichens. Gander accompanied mycologist Anne Pringle on several expeditions to look closely at rare sites and species. One result of his field work is a series of poems in Twice Alive, a phrase that gestures at the vita nuova of the lichen’s—or, in a way, all—intimate symbiotic union. That possibility. Recognizing how such union is as essential as it is threatened, the book implicitly argues, is going to be pretty important if life on this planet is to survive.
There are other sequences (and they’re all interwoven across the book’s seventy-five or so pages) that I like even more, poems that seem like instant classics, icons of our time: layered and exacting description and anger and a longing articulated in the series of aubades, for instance, or in the series called “Unto Ourselves.” The “Unto Ourselves” poems are in the genre of prophetic diagnosis, something other poets — I think of Ariana Reines’s “A Partial History” — have found appropriate recently, too. A word like prophetic may suggest bombast, but Gander is as allergic to bombast as he is to cliché. Beneath his restlessness and formal disruptions, his art is anchored by description, he’s a descriptive poet, and almost never prescriptive. Description: Twice Alive also gives us Gander’s new California poems. So it’s a kind of homecoming for this native of the Mojave who grew up in Virginia and taught for many years in Rhode Island and now lives in the Bay Area. One poem describes Santa Rosa after wildfire turns it to char. Another finds its way to the ghost of Kenneth Rexroth’s cabin near Lagunitas Creek, Gander’s voice making for a moment on the page a home of his imagination of Rexroth’s imagination, like one hermit crab trying on another’s long-abandoned shell. And then there’s just the sound — and the daring in that sound — that I love: “long soft sarongs of moss,” or “the regrets edge up behind you chattering,” or the startling and plain: “What is missing • is / inside us” …
JN: There’s a propulsive, textured music to your poetry. I’m curious how you arrived at that. And curious also what role technical vocabularies play in your work. And precise details. Why does good writing thrive on vivid detail?
FG: Don’t you think details help you focus? Sometimes it’s only by listening in the falling darkness for the chittering of small invisible sparrows that you’re able to locate the Great Horned Owl. What we call reality appears to be different when perceived from different angles. Also, because there’s an ethical dimension to what we choose to look at and what relation is revealed in that looking, what we describe and how we describe it can tell us as much about ourselves as about what we are ostensibly describing. Wittgenstein tells us “Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.” And Alain Badiou notes, “There can be no ‘ethics in general,’ no general principle of human rights, for the simple reason that what is universally human is always rooted in particular truths, particular configurations of active thought.” Descriptions of the particular — details then — are acts of attentiveness maybe not unrelated to tenderness. They are less worthwhile, I think, as attempts to perfect the representation of a scene or object than they are in manifesting a personal environment of relationship.
Listening is part of that attentiveness. Fledgling birds focus on the songs of their parents, just as infants do. There’s a relationship between making sounds and listening. CD [Wright] told me a story about being seated at some fancy dinner party next to Henry Kissinger’s brother. If I remember it rightly, the brother spoke English without any accent, which surprised her. Why, she asked him, do you speak without an accent while your brother Henry speaks English with such a notable accent. The brother replied, Henry doesn’t listen.
I’m attracted to all kinds of poetry as a reader, not only to the lyric mode. But maybe my own intelligence and means of experiencing the world is primarily physical. And so a quality of my writing, in prose and poetry, develops through counterpointed rhythmical phrasings, a kind of analogue of muscular contractions. I’m interested in the way that rhythm and sound are involved not only with feeling but with making meaning. The linguist Reuven Tsur writes about this relation, but of course we see it in poetry all the time. Reading Robert Creeley’s poetry, you often realize that sound — often a quick rhyme — has jumpstarted a new direction in his thinking (not vice-versa). My mother used to read me Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry when I was a child. I was drawn to Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins. But it was when I began translating the Mexican poet Coral Bracho’s poetry — at first in the early 1980s — that my sensibility became tuned, in a more nuanced way, to how swirling eddies of sound might be as central to poems as semantic meanings.
I like to think of how my language continues to change and of how those changes make possible fresh possibilities for poetry. How Chaucer, his ear charmed by French Alexandrines, began to extend his line from the tetrameter that characterized much of the poetry of his time to pentameter. I like noticing the recent Spanish-language inflections on American English. The breaking down of genre borders which has led to complex new orchestrations of sound patterning. Gozo Yoshimasu, the influential Japanese poet, has created a poetics—impossible in English — based on the play between the visual and sonic features of modern Japanese written in three different scripts. There’s a beautiful book I often think about, Ben Ratliff’s The Story of a Sound, that is less a biography of John Coltrane than a biography of his search for a sound. When Miles Davis said that he had “changed music two or three times,” he didn’t mean just his own music. I think innovative poets, like innovative musicians, are always listening for new sounds. New directions. Because our language, like our music, is either changing or dying. These days computer programs direct our sentencing and spelling, and quotidian language has been diminished to Twitter blurts and Facebook shorthand and emojis. One of the roles of poetry is to expand the language for nuance — even by inventing new language or recovering old language or kneading new trajectories of scientific or technical language into the dough. Often in my poetry, tonal and lexical variations are drawn from different levels of discourse in order to expand the emotional range of lyric beyond the facile allure of ready-made rapport and identity politics.