Online Edition: Spring 1999

Science &  Steepleflower

Science & Steepleflower

Forrest Gander

New Directions Press ($12.95)

by Peter Gurnis

Take a look at Sally's Mann's haunting photograph on the cover: the surface of water full of light, dark tree-lined banks, branches etched in somber clarity. If we look intently, we lose ourselves, as if staring at something forbidden. The surface has a kind of luminous depth--not just tilting back the light from the sky, but welling up out of the dark. The surface of the water as if a body--ravishing and intense. Sally Mann's photograph gives us a glimpse into what Gander's poems do.

At the dog end of the century, when the lyric and the poet's persona seem whittled down impossibly thin, along comes Forrest Gander. His poems are heroic, working on a big canvas with the drive and intensity that I associate with Rothko or Pollock. He has an alert eye that sees more than most of us do, capturing in precise detail the splendor of the world, knowing that only with clarity comes beauty. Each element is momentarily at rest. The intensity, "the rawness of the looking," is not some false stasis, but the vertigo of being in the world. Gander has about him the intensity of the hunter, the savage combination of patience and readiness: alert before the unexpected.

The best poems in the collection have rigor, economy, passion, and a fierce eroticism. Look at the end of his "Landscape With a Man Being Killed By a Snake":

        Vaguely, wetting the dildo in her mouth
A quel remir contral lums de la lampa
        They went on sleeping in the same bed
And in the luminous runnels of her dream
        He hunted for orange and fly agaric
Her arm bending from the pillow toward the west
        A shaft of bituminous despair
So nine books of Herodotus' dire History
        Begin with a lover commending
Recklessly the beloved's body

Allen Grossman and Mark Halliday, in their book of conversations Against Our Vanishing, discuss the striking absence of the heroic in contemporary poetry; they claim we never see an elevated, grandly figurative language that is not undercut by irony. But in Gander's "Landscape with a Man" we hear an unmistakably heroic tone. What I admire most is his unrelenting desire stripped bare of the extraneous. Many poems seem grounded in the inexorable failure of everyday life, or possess a generous sympathy for the suffering of others, but here he sounds like a New Romantic. Gander understands Pound's warning that "nothing counts save the quality of the affection."

Gander has an infectious curiosity about science and history, and I think that he has a sincere desire to integrate human experience. With the willful opacity of the Language Poets on one side, and on the other, tired practitioners of the Suburban Elegy, few poets try for such a sweep, and even fewer succeed. Donald Revell cites Olson on the book's cover. Yes, Gander is a geographer, having the clarity that a mapmaker requires to get us to where we need to go, out of necessity, to travel light in a new world. Compare him to whom you please; like the best, he doesn't sleep in anyone's shadow.

The lyric intensity is almost prophetic, by turns elliptical or a dizzy headlong rush of syllables falling, but all of a sudden he stops dead and talks straight, saying, "I / Wouldn't piss in your ear if your brain were on fire." And it is on fire, reading this collection. With Science & Steepleflower, Forrest Gander comes into his own as a poet "whose signature and measure [are] unmistakable." My only criticism is that the book would better work without the sequence "Eggplant and Lotus Root"; first published as a chapbook in 1991, the sequence predates the clarity of the recent work. But usually Gander knows just how far to go, "for the sheer ass of it." Here's the second half of the opening poem, "Time and the Hour":

So the light came   to contain numbers
and the first   was intoxication
and Giotto was intoxicated painting Scrovegni
1306.         Out of the fields--wheat
cockleburs, jimson-- a farmer stood up his hoe
and when that hoe was standing on its own shadow
he knew, and he was certain that he knew.

The trick is to make a poem that stands up straight "on its shadow." But it isn't a trick, not with such clarity. Gander's onto something big, having discovered a language that unites intelligence and compassion to move us deeply.

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Spring 1999 Table of Contents