By Forrest Gander
Illustrated. 92 pp. New Directions. Paper, $16.95.
This year, the term “political poetry” rightly reverberates with new excitement. In the midst of national turmoil, poets feel charged with speaking to our endangered polis; with urging us to feel, act and empathize; with calling us back to the spaces where words reveal worlds. Yet in other ways, the very term “political poetry” misleads, suggesting a terrain of poetry that could somehow be circumscribed, as if we could ever know where that realm “the political” begins or ends.
Against this landscape, Forrest Gander’s plangent, thrumming recent collection “Be With” — a book that probes, among other things, the sudden death of Gander’s wife, the celebrated poet C. D. Wright — explores a related question: How do we know where we ourselves begin or end? In many ways, the book’s focus is strikingly inward, showing how grief sounds in the body, mapping paths, making previously hidden regions visible. In another sense, Gander’s poems are public howls that trace a luminous borderland where the self dissolves into the world. The book’s epigraph tackles this friction head-on: “The political begins in intimacy.”
The collection also begins in intimacy. It opens with “Son,” a poem about Wright addressed to their son, which includes this acid sentence:
say anything about death, inevitability, how
the body comes to deploy the myriad worm
as if it were a manageable concept not
searing exquisite singularity.
Gander then splits this singularity open: “and through my guts / writhe helminth parasites. Who was ever only themselves?” Suddenly the self is as plural as the many worms that will eventually consume it.
“The outer from the inner derives its magnitude,” Emily Dickinson wrote, but Gander’s poems churn with uncertainty about where our outer and inner spheres begin and end. Loss rockets him into spaces where meanings and boundaries blur. “At which point my grief-sounds ricocheted outside of language,” he writes in “Beckoned,” before the speaker passes out, swarmed by “those bees” of sound itself, as grief now attacks from the outside as well. His poems switch scales at a breakneck pace, at first with the parasites, then in a dreamscape where “I outlived my life, rocking / on my misery like a cypress in the wind.” It is fitting that insofar as the book contains poems that are not directly about so-called personal loss, these are about shorelines, caverns and actual borderlands, in this case our haunted, corpse-strewn border with Mexico.
Read together, Gander’s verses have a shattering, symphonic quality, but he uses poetry to locate and dislocate at once, pushing against the borders of meaning or pitching his camp where language estranges itself from sense. “Poetry is more a threshold than a path,” Seamus Heaney once wrote, also during challenging political times. In this book, Gander’s poems are like rich Möbius strips, entrances and exits at once, tunnels that simultaneously displace us and gather us up, drawing us into a profound human longing. There are dazzling fragments, unraveling syntax, poems that, in their ghostliness, also force us to be alert to our own fragile lives.
Here’s Gander, coming to in a mysterious car, watching a hallucinatory driver conduct him on, “at which point without any lurching commencement, / he began to play a vulture bone flute.” Later in the same poem, Gander says he conceives “a realm more real than life.” He adds: “At which point there was at least some possibility. / Some possibility, in which I didn’t believe, of being with her once more.”
Tess Taylor is the author of the poetry collections “The Forage House” and, most recently, “Work & Days.”
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